Monday, December 3, 2012

REVIEW - Hitman: Absolution.


If you love Hitman games, Absolution doesn't disappoint.  Yes, it's different - but it's Hitman. You're still Agent 47, and Agent 47 still has his very particular, slightly-lopsided walk.

His chin stays up, his back is straight and his arms sway comfortably as he slips behind two guards bristling with full-autos.  His gait is so easy-going, so rehearsed and so perfectly innocuous that no one notices the loop of fiber wire wrapped around his right hand.  He is - on the surface - casual indifference personified.

Inside, your heart is pounding.  If they turn at the wrong moment... if you can just get to that corner...

That's Hitman.

Elite, ultra-stylish calm on the surface, a roaring fire of edgy stress beneath as you stroll through a beautiful house of cards that's ready to shatter into chaos at any moment.

Just a janitor doing janitor stuff - nothin' to see here.

"Uncompromising" may be the best word to describe the first four Hitman titles.  You really got the sense that Io Interactive - rather like American McGee or Double Fine or Firaxis or Kojima - were making games that, first and foremost, satisfied their own sensibilities and to Hell with anyone else's.  That is, for the record, a beautiful thing that begot some beautiful, unforgettable experiences.

Their vision for Hitman was so pure and undiluted, and was so clear to see during the in-between moments.  In the moments where nothing, really, was happening.  In the calm.

When a man in a pristine black suit and red tie casually strolls towards a huge, gorgeous building of ultra-modern design, a massive long-distance rifle slung nonchalantly at his side.  When a pair of maids gossip about their employer as they walk through a beautiful, peaceful garden, unaware of the interested ear turned their way.  When a man in a doctor's smock lifts a dainty, innocent surgical tool from a table as an unconcerned guard looks on.

These nothing moments mean so much in Hitman, where the innocence of the mundane is heavily pregnant with the knowledge of what's to come.

Because there will be blood - but it will be on our terms.  Because everyone could die in service to our contract, but no one else need be harmed.  Because Agent 47 sells perfection.

In a fit of wonderful fan service, we finally discover where he gets those fabulous suits.

47 has never been - to Io, to the players - merely a man, or merely a hitman.

He is the hitman.  Not just an awesome or really-great-at-his-job hitman, but a singular professional killer of such ridiculous skill that he not only achieves what would be impossible for all others, but executes his contracts with a flawless, pristine artistry that borders on the paranormal.  He is immaculate in all things, and his violent, discreet occupation shuttles him through some of the grandest, most opulent and beautiful environments one could imagine - from the towers of Malaysia to the estates of Europe to the mountains of Japan.  He's the boogeyman.  He's a legend.  He's a folk hero in a fantasy world.

The entire franchise is bent first and foremost to presenting that concept - the romanticized, idealized, almost supernatural popular definition of a perfect hit man - and anything beyond that is icing on the cake, or not worth caring about (which is why the controls always sucked - they're an afterthought).

One should note, it's a bit different in Hitman: Absolution.  Here, Agent 47 is often shuttled through a Dead Space 2-esque series of thrills and chills. He is battered and bruised.  He pops the collar on his iconic, perfect suit to guard against the rain and often leaves the top of his shirt open, his tie casually askew.  He starts having touchy-feely feelings about his occupation.

In short, with Hitman: Absolution, Io Interactive have compromised.  47 is more sentimental in Absolution than he was in the Timothy Olyphant movie (albeit with better writing) - but perhaps that's simply what happens when you're purchased by Square Enix.

The term is "collateral damage" or "a distraction" (context dependent.)

The differences are glaring, at first.  The wide-open levels of yore are almost entirely absent, here.

That's not to suggest it's an entirely linear enterprise, either - you still have multiple paths and multiple solutions for (nearly) every area in the game, but these areas are smaller. The game's chapters are made up of these smaller chunks - single starting points that stretch out into a web of possibilities before contracting back in to a choke point that grants you access to the next area - which is totally acceptable and perfectly representative of classic Hitman in the medium-to-large areas, and really annoying in the small ones which take up, for example, the back alley of an apartment block and severely limit your options.

It's possible that Io's smokin-hot new Glacier 2 engine - excellent at dynamic shadows, light sourcing, lens flare and populating scenes with hundreds of NPCs - may not be able to handle the massive stages of the PS2 era.  It could also be that Absolution's Contracts mode is to blame for the change in structure, but more on that later.

It's off-putting, to the Hitman veteran.  One level, one load, and one contract was ever the name of the game, and that is eschewed, here - in the name of narrative and dramatic tension and Contracts mode - as you sneak your way through a tiny chunk of real estate to get to the door which loads the next area.

Once you get past the weirdness of that, however, Absolution settles in to classic Hitman sensibilities, and classic Hitman gameplay.

Which is, for the record, delicious.

Sorry, Chef - your outfit is way too handy.

You still become better at each level with more time invested, you still learn new secrets the more you explore, and discover new options for executing your mission.  You can still stab or shoot or choke or poison your targets, and execute those lovely "accidental" assassinations by exercising a bit of patience before finding the perfect moment to fiddle with machinery or electricity or the mounted skeleton of a whale.

It's very satisfying to hook a generator up to a water source and walk away, knowing your target's pattern will lead them to their doom in ohhh about ninety seconds.

You still scour levels for precious weapons and still dispose of NPCs with vicious, brutal animations for the game's dizzying variety of potentially lethal objects.  The true professional leaves everyone but his mark alive, of course - but a delivery man's clothing still allows access to areas that a stylish silk-lined suit does not, so we'd better take him out.

At its core - in the moment-to-moment play, in all the little things - Absolution retains the classic gameplay formula I fell in love with ten years ago, but a lot of the ancillary stuff has changed - and not always for the best.

Whatever that hammer is for, it won't be pretty.

A change has been made to the disguise mechanic.  Now, when dressed as a gardener, no one but another gardener can see through your disguise - and they'll see through it from thirty yards.  A very handy addition to the HUD provides the player with an excellent system of locating and so avoiding suspicious NPCs by breaking line of sight, but the severe increase to enemies' reaction times and the absence of said HUD on the harder difficulty levels makes this new addition to the formula a total hassle.  Basically, it renders all disguises useless unless no one else in the level is wearing the same one.

On Easy, Normal and thankfully Hard difficulty (in which you still have the HUD), it works great - and dovetails well with the new cover system as you tumble from one safe bit of real estate to the next.  Once you're at Purist, however, you need to have a real appetite for punishment.

A change has been made to 47's inventory.  You no longer choose a collection of wicked-cool tools from your safehouse to carry in to the next mission, instead starting with whatever the game decides is appropriate for that point in the story.  This is profoundly frustrating when you ended the last mission with a kickass sniper rifle, a tanto knife and a pair of silenced pistols, but begin the next with nothing a loud snub-nosed revolver.

Accessing your inventory during play is the best it's ever been for the series - all tools mapped easily to the d-pad, but here too there has been compromise.

Classically, the Hitman series has been very conscious of adhering to physical realism while guiding you through fantastic scenarios.  47 could not conceal a gigantic silenced shotgun beneath his stylish single-breasted blazer, for example, and the best sniper rifle came in a discreet suitcase that could be toted through the levels without arousing suspicion.

In Absolution, a four-foot sniper rifle disappears from your hands when you de-select it.  It just - poof - vanishes.  Handy for getting a heavy killing machine into tight spaces, but not so great at maintaining a suspension of disbelief and a real slap in the face to the strict realism of classic Hitman sensibilities.

Additionally, 47 can only ever carry a single melee weapon (which, again, you can't collect and choose to bring into missions).  If you want a battle axe, you must drop the folding knife you're currently carrying (don't worry, the axe fits under your jacket too).  Melee weapons double as (very handy) noise makers you can toss to distract enemies - a welcome addition to the formula - but some levels are so stingy with the found items that the player is often unable to leverage this new mechanic.

A shame - 'cause it presents a welcome new tool for manipulating the game's AI, and bending it to your will.

I also hate that there's no map.  The maps have always been wonderful in Hitman (a strength all too rare in gaming), and it's sad to see them go.

Finally, touring the United States in Hitman: Blood Money was an acceptable novelty after the globe-trotting, profoundly exotic locales of the first three games, but now I really want to go back to grand old European manors and Asian towers.  I'm getting a bit bored of DirtyTown, USA.

Now that we've covered the crap and arguable crap, let's talk about the wonderful.

Seriously one of the best levels in the game.

Hitman: Absolution is one of the more graphically impressive games of 2012.  In cutscenes and close-ups, characters' faces aren't as remarkable as those in Max Payne 3 or Mass Effect 3, but during gameplay it's in confident running for best presentation of the year.

Io Interactive's ability to bend technology into art is on full display, here, from grand old hotels to a bustling Chinatown New Year's celebration to an absolutely gorgeous jaunt through a corn field at dusk.  The Glacier 2 engine is very impressive when it comes to light sourcing and dynamic shadows, and Io do a great job of leveraging this with clever light placement - often using shadows to communicate what's happening around a corner before 47 can see it, or using it to paint a scene just so.

Very nice.

"Well, that screenshot must be from the PC version," you might say.  A reasonable suspicion - but unjustified, with Absolution.  It's one of the best-presented PS3 games of the year, with excellent art direction and particularly world design - regularly offering gorgeous scenes to gape at.

Character close-ups aren't as impressive, though.

While composer Jesper Kyd's absence from the game is clearly apparent and sorely lamented, new composer Thomas Bärtschi - who lacks the elegant, subtle sensibilities of Kyd - at least understands the romance and power of the legend at the heart of Hitman. 

Additionally, Absolution does wonderful things with dynamic music.  Each area of the game has its own score, which is layered to adapt to the onscreen action at any time.  A chirpy, poppy tune plays from the overhead system as you weave your way through a Chinese grocery, for example, that vibrates and stings when enemies grow suspicious, and swells into a bombastic soundtrack for a vicious shootout when things go bad.

And then there's Contracts mode...

...which makes a compelling argument for the game's dramatic change in structure.  The above penthouse, for example, is the second zone of a two-part level - the first of which sees you breaching the main floor of a grand old apartment building in lockdown, and gaining access to the penthouse elevator.  It can take around twenty minutes to get through the first area, and about another ten to complete your mission in the penthouse.

Why were they split up like that?

Because if it was one big level, Contracts mode wouldn't work nearly as well.  And Contracts mode works really, really well.

It casts the player as developer, and asks you to create a custom contract for each of Absolution's approximately 40 zones - so bite-sized that they make for appetizing, easily-digestible challenges.  This could be, for example, the little back alley I described earlier.

The player enters the level - in which all the characters from the campaign are present, and the AI behaves exactly as it did before - and chooses one or two or three targets.  These targets don't need to be the VIP characters you assassinated in the game proper, of course - it could be one of the cops in that back alley.

The player then kills their chosen target in just such a way... by accident, by poison, by pistol shot, by blade, by tomahawk - and then lays down the gauntlet to other players.  Can you sneak through Chinatown - never changing out of 47's signature suit, hiding all bodies, never being spotted, with no collateral damage? On Hard mode?

Don't tell me it's impossible.  It's not impossible - if it were, I would not have been able to create the contract that asks you to do it (which was subsequently rated down by its first player).

Little challenges like this - the Doctor in the study with the meat cleaver - is exactly how my brother and I used to compete at Hitman back on the PS2, and gives Hitman: Absolution infinitely more replay value than any of its predecessors.

It brings Hitman to the modern, social age with grace and aplomb.  Well done, Io.

And a Hitman for the modern age is very much what Absolution offers, for weal and woe.  Io have made some distressing concessions to the current-gen triple-A formula with its rollercoaster narrative, its slightly more linear structure, its disappointing explorations of its hero and occasionally its limitations on the freedom of players - but Absolution retains the romantic spark that has always been at heart of Hitman.

I may be the most compromised entry in an uncompromising series, but that's okay.

It's okay in the same way it's always been okay that the franchise's controls were rather counter-intuitive - it's all worth it because man oh man... that concept.

The vision of the man in the perfectly-tailored suit with the blood-red tie, strolling calmly into a lion's den.  The calm before the storm in the house of cards.  The line of dominoes just waiting to be tapped.

It's okay because it retains that vision, filtered though it may be through the bullet-point feature list publishers so desire.  It retains its grandeur and romance.  An intricate, beautiful puzzle to solve again and again.

It's a very unique game, and thankfully one that gets what it needs to get right so right. It's okay because Hitman: Absolution - just as flawed and ambitious and glorious and stumbling-on-the-details now as Codename 47 was twelve years ago - continues to be like nothing else.

Like a long-term relationship, there are kinks yet to be ironed out and decisions that could have been better made - but that doesn't make me love it any less.  And that's the operative word.


I love the way 47 holds his pistol at a slightly odd angle so its profile shows beautifully, offering a perfect silhouette of the weapon from the player's perspective. 

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