The latest entry into the Hitman franchise is ostensibly a really long “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Except it’s R18, packed with dark humour, and every single choice you make ends in murder.
And boy, is it a real page-turner. Combining traditional measured stealth with Splinter Cell-style action and even some Uncharted-esque set pieces, this orgy of assassination shines as an addictive and massively replayable adventure, and the addition of several new features alongside a familiar core experience makes Hitman: Absolution a welcome and long overdue return for Agent 47.
Things haven’t changed too much since we last strangled unfortunate enemies with our trusty fibre wire in Blood Money, but developer IO Interactive have really embraced the idea of choice and multiple paths so prevalent in today’s gaming zeitgeist.
Absolution’s first level, after a short tutorial prologue, asks you to dispose of an evil underworld kingpin in a small, seemingly straightforward mission in Chinatown, but even this tiny level set in an enclosed courtyard market offers almost a dozen different ways to exterminate the target. Whether you snipe him from an overlooking apartment window, drop a pallet of crates while he relieves himself in an alleyway, push him down a manhole, disguise yourself as his drug dealer to get closer to him, sabotage his car, run ‘n gun both him and his bodyguards, or poison him one of three different ways, you always feel like a clever and well-trained killer thanks to a remarkably open-ended game world.
If the impressive number of varied levels isn’t enough, obsessive players will revel in the new Challenges aspect of Absolution, a series of over 250 optional tasks that affect your score multiplier for each stage. While most levels offer rewards for finding collectibles stashed around or completing an area without using disguises, there are numerous extra points to be found through sneaky environment kills and player cunning. Death by electrocution, falling chandeliers, exploding safes and flaming barbeques are all as gruesome as they are darkly hilarious, and the ever elusive Silent Assassin rank, a series trademark, can only be obtained by those willing to constantly explore more exciting ways to exterminate.
The main change to the game’s mechanics comes in the form of Instinct, a kind of “assassin vision” that highlights enemies, patrol paths and items of interest thanks to (as the game explains to you) 47’s naturally superior instincts and training. This mode effectively replaces a larger overhead mini-map, and has to be recharged by completing objectives or colourful kills so that it doesn’t make things too easy, an especially important point considering that 47 can also use it to line up a series of slow-mo executions called Point Shooting when things go pear-shaped.
Veteran murderers will be glad to know that Instinct can be crippled or disable completely in the range of five difficulty modes, but fair warning: Normal mode itself can be challenging enough for new players, especially if you’re aiming for the higher rankings, and the brutal Purist mode is strictly for the absolute perfectionists and those who like to reload a whole lot.
Picking up the story where Blood Money left off, Absolution weaves its narrative closely around each hit, always providing motivation for your actions and a drive to find out what happens next. Although not particularly original, the plot still shines thanks to an extensive cast of Hollywood talent that bring it to life.
Marsha Thomason, Keith Carradine, Shannyn Sossamon, Traci Lords, Vivica Fox and more recognisable voices deliver great performances, a crucial but often overlooked part of a quality game that contributes significantly to the title’s cinematic feel and AAA branding. And, because no star-studded cast is complete without its extras, there are over 2000 pages worth of NPC dialogue to further increase the game’s polish and immersion; for a welcome change, a lot of this seemingly pointless background banter can actually be rather useful to the observant player.
Multiplayer is also no stranger to the game’s dedication to open-ended slaughter thanks to the addition of Contracts, an online mode that allows you to create and share your own custom hit challenges. You choose a level, targets, weapons and rules for the hit, and it’s all done without clunky editors or complicated mechanics: all you need to do is play through your setup (asynchronously, so your friends don’t have to be online at the time), and once you’re done, you can challenge your friends to do the same.
Contracts injects a strong social and competitive element that gels perfectly with the creative nature of killing in Absolution, and even if you’re not keen to play online, there’s still a bunch of pre-set Contracts for you to enjoy offline.
No matter which mode you play in, what difficulty you pick, which Challenges you attempt or which path you decide to take in this “Choose Your Own Murderous Adventure”, you’re always offered a smorgasbord of death that’s well paced and consistently fun to play through. It’s just enough of a move forward to feel current while still retaining everything that has made the series a hit, and whether you’re an seasoned slayer or a kindergarten killer, Hitman: Absolution comes highly recommended.