Hitman: Absolution

Absolution was my first Hitman game, and I went into it hoping for what I saw in this video: a fun, janky stealth killing game. I started out with pretty high hopes, since the first few missions seemed to have a lot of polish, although I did have to load an autosave a troubling number of times, so maybe the difficulty curve could have been a little smarter. Further into the game, I became more irritated by sudden detections without warning and the repetition of dialogue, and how enemies would be reset after a load even if incapacitated before the checkpoint was originally activated. Toward the end, I became more impatient and beat the game just running and gunning, because it didn’t seem worth the effort to trigger some of the signature assassinations, admittedly clever as they were, given the awkward stealth mechanics. The final missions seemed right of of the bargain bin, like “shoot three women standing around in an open field”, ultimately ending in “shoot three hired guns standing around in a graveyard”, so it was obvious that the budget was blown early. The “act cool and avoid the cops” missions were also a chore, apart from the first time doing it in the subway.

Absolution often reminded me of the Tomb Raider reboot, which had the same problem of foolish budgeting for a mediocre story that would create ludonarrative dissonance at every opportunity. Just as the unstoppable-in-player-control Lara would carelessly walk into a room and get captured in a cutscene, or stare like an idiot from a great sniping position while a bunch of enemies were shown crossing a bridge, Hitman’s Agent 47 would also go into a cutscene and foolishly try to garrote some genetically enhanced supersoldier, or get himself electrocuted, or kick down a door when there was a subtler option, and so on. It’s as if there’s a whole school of game designers out there preaching that the primary purpose of cutscenes is to force the protagonists to do stupid things the player would never let them do, solely to contrive narrative obstacles.

Some of the mechanics show real promise, and for all I know may have delivered on that promise in earlier games of the series. The disguise system, where guards will only recognize fake guards and janitors will only recognize fake janitors, is incredibly interesting and has real potential for tightly designed stealth missions, so I can only assume it wasn’t something the Absolution design team came up with. The mechanic seems to expect an environment that is more about avoiding suspicion in the first place, rather than crouching in shadows and assessing some AI guard’s cone of vision, but the game never really delves into any clever game theory puzzles about which costume to wear and when. Usually it just puts a bunch of guards and janitors, scientists etc. in the same room, so the costumes mostly just exist to slightly delay suspicion while the player holds down the “act cool” button, draining 47’s pool of magic “act cool” energy. There’s never any thought to just put one janitor in the guard room to avoid while wearing the janitor’s outfit, so the player doesn’t have to spastically maneuver around to hide from the greater population of guards.

The game instead forces Agent 47 to find higher-tier costumes that are above suspicion, like the judge or VIP in a suit, despite how little sense it makes, intuitively speaking, that the cops would sooner believe that the bald guy in the suit must be allowed in a restricted area, but not another cop they don’t know. This might make more sense if there would be certain cops who were supposed to meet the VIP and know his face, but the point is really that these top-tier outfits just break the game’s potential to do interesting puzzles.

If I had designed it, I would have played up the puzzle angle, probably seeing how it would work to have the player carry around multiple costumes. Certain outfits would only be wearable over others, and some could go either way, so Agent 47 could put a cop uniform over his plumber outfit or wear the blue as his bottom layer, but something like a hazmat suit could only go on top. The player would be able to strip off an outer disguise if given about three seconds of privacy, but switching 47’s base outfit, or putting something new on over it, might take upwards of ten seconds. Just to make that less tedious, it might happen instantaneously if he’s already in hiding and no guards are searching for him. He also could be able to slip out of some coveralls while hiding inside of a locker, but need a bigger hiding spot in order to put something on, and the player would have to plan what clothes to drop with the right timing. He could carry a set of clothes he wasn’t wearing, maybe dropping them out a window to switch into later, or arousing suspicion if seen carrying another uniform–no smuggling them up his ass like he does with his lead pipes (sorry, “up his hammerspace”).

I probably would have allowed quicksaving, because stealth is a game of patience, and if the player can be given certain optional freedoms that encourage them to experiment, like choosing where to reload from, they are much more likely to look for creative answers. You could still have a mission score bonus for no quickloading, but never make it essential that they don’t. Sometimes quicksaves aren’t the best idea in games, particularly when you want players to roll with the punches, as the game isn’t over just because they messed something up. I said as much in the Alpha Protocol review. But I don’t see how that’s the case here. Frequent checkpoint reloads and dodges of the same few guards get tedious, unless the player gives up and run-and-guns the mission, in which case the whole game becomes tedious.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.
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