What kind of Hitman are you? Are you the slow, stealthy type? The kind that likes to spend a lot of time gathering intel and studying your environment before springing your ultimate Mouse Trap? Or do you prefer the quick, efficient method, looking for the cleanest kill you can pull before anyone suspects something might be up? The good news for those interested in Hitman: Absolution, the fifth game in Io Interactive's contract killer franchise, is that this latest sequel still caters to your interests, no matter what they might be. Be it elaborate or unassuming, stealthy or confrontational, your play style is represented in Absolution.
It's in the remaining details that Absolution differs from its predecessors. Io makes some attempts to invest you more in Absolution's plot and the greater Hitman mythology this time around, some of which are successful, some less so. That said, whatever missteps the story might take largely pale in comparison to the wealth of replay value contained within Absolution. If your favored thing is coming up with increasingly creative ways to kill just about anybody, then Absolution is absolutely your huckleberry. Also, maybe seek professional help.
In Absolution, the series inviolable bar-coded protagonist, Agent 47, is back for another round of contract murderin', though this time the target is more personal. The game opens with 47 assigned to extinguish his longtime Agency handler Diana. She's reportedly turned rogue, simultaneously exposing the Agency's misdeeds to the public and kidnapping a teenage girl who is extremely important to the Agency's new head, a bloated, loathsome man who looks a little bit like Nick Offerman after a few decades on the bottle.
47 dutifully does his task, but upon reaching Diana in her highly secured, out-of-the-way mansion (I guess she stole a bunch of money, too?), he suddenly has a change of heart. This is, of course, weird. 47 even having a heart is rather out of character, given his generally machine-like personality. He goes through with the assassination, but suddenly he's willing to toss aside his duties to the Agency when he learns that the girl Diana had absconded with is some kind of genetically engineered Indigo Child.
Suddenly, everyone's out for 47's head, and he's on the run. It's an interesting change of pace for the series, which has largely kept you focused on individual jobs as part of a larger plot, as opposed to one continuous flight without breaks in-between. Here, there are no mission load-outs, no preparations to speak of ahead of your next mission. You're going from place to place, sometimes absent any weapons (including your patented Silver Ballers, which get taken away in multiple scenes), just looking for whatever's useful to you in order to get to your target.
It's a neat approach only somewhat kneecapped by the general stupidity of the plot. In order to get 47 into some of those situations, he has to do some remarkably dumb things that seem wildly out of character for him. Granted, it's probably not easy trying to conceptualize ways to put a man so incredibly rooted in routine and precision out of his element, but Io mostly skips the hard parts of that process by just making him fall for brazenly obvious traps or attack guys he has absolutely no business attacking.
Io plays with a lot of different concepts throughout the story, mixing sci-fi, action movie, and grindhouse tropes into a kind of over-flavored slurry. It introduces too many characters, many of which are largely incidental in the grander scheme of things, and sometimes are just plain distracting. You've undoubtedly seen or heard about the trailer featuring 47 smoking a bunch of sexy nuns with automatic weaponry. Those nuns are in the game, yet only for a couple of scenes and never do much of consequence, save but to act as more highly trained bad people for you to dispatch. Why Square Enix even bothered to pay Vivica A. Fox the money to voice the lead nun is bizarre, but then, this is the company that also paid Emma Stone to voice a barely-remembered girlfriend character in Sleeping Dogs, so who knows?
Fortunately, there are also multiple memorable villains to work against that don't require sexy nun costumes to be interesting. Travis, the slovenly, perpetually angry Agency head, is voiced with snarling, slurring aplomb by Powers Boothe. And then there's Blake Dexter, a rootin', tootin' South Dakota arms dealer who actor Keith Carradine plays a bit like a mix of Christoper Walken in The Rundown and the Texas oilman from The Simpsons. Dexter is an amazing combination of sociopathic disregard and narcissistic opulence. He's basically a hilarious Bond villain, complete with his own freakishly huge bodyguard, who appears to have been genetically engineered into a cross between Danny Trejo and Giant Gonzalez.
These villains largely take the place of your usual contract kills. The in-game targeting system still works largely as you'd expect, plopping you down in the middle of an environment, and tasking you with finding a way to dispatch your targets with as little collateral damage as possible. These levels are still the playgrounds of death you may remember from the earlier games, though in several instances they do feel a bit more confined. More interestingly, some aren't really even about assassination. In several instances, you'll find yourself simply trying to escape an area without being detected. In those cases, discretion is the better part of valor, though incidental kills can be made without failing the mission. Instead, your end-of-level score diminishes with each non-target kill.
This is the crux of the Hitman: Absolution experience. You kill, you're scored for it, and you move on. In most cases, getting a high score isn't exceptionally difficult, as the AI has a tendency toward the dumber side of the spectrum, and will often let you get away with little foibles that would probably get you immediately arrested or murdered in real life. That never quite goes away, even on the higher difficulty levels, though it does improve.
47 is also aided by instinct, a new, drainable meter that takes effect at the press of a button. Enacting instinct lets 47 see the enemies around him, even through walls and on other floors. It also acts as a way to help blend into the crowd. Pressing the instinct button allows you to walk past those who might see through your disguise, while simultaneously draining the meter. Instinct also fuels your "point shooting" mechanic, which is essentially just the sort of "point, tag, shoot" mechanic that's been showing up with increasing frequency in modern shooters. It's handy, though, albeit sometimes a bit too effective.
For those who come to Hitman games simply looking for creatively elaborate ways to kill, Absolution offers myriad delights. Every mission has a collection of solutions to sift through, many of which won't seem terribly obvious on your first play-through. Fortunately, Absolution is a game that invites replays, even while you're in mission. Checkpoints are set up in such a way that I rarely found myself having to replay too many sections when I died, or was simply unsatisfied with the result of my actions. Yes, it's trial and error, but it's Hitman's brand of trial and error that's always been there. If anything, I found Absolution easier to get into than many of its predecessors.
Playing through the campaign will likely take you between 10 and 20 hours, depending on play style and difficulty. Each mission is generally bite-sized enough to warrant multiple plays for higher scores and discovering more unlockable disguises and weapons. You'll want those too, since they can be used in the new Contracts mode.
Contracts is Absolution's multiplayer, and it is a minor gem. Asynchronously, players can compete against one another in missions effectively designed by the players. Sure, you're using the already included missions as templates, but you're picking the target. It can be anyone in a given mission, and the ways you can customize how players must proceed is quite cool. You can determine what disguise a player must wear, and even exactly how the target must be killed. Completing Contracts missions gives you more in-game money to spend, as well as leaderboard scores.
Though you don't need to get into Contracts to enjoy Hitman: Absolution, it helps. The campaign can be a lot of fun, but not every mission is a winner, and Io's hokey plotting does it no favors. Still, Absolution is a distinctive game, both visually and mechanically. It feels like its own thing, while still hewing toward many of the concepts people grew to like about this series over the years. And now those concepts have been put in a competitive arena that's as fun as anything the series has done in single-player since the series' inception. Longtime Hitman fans will undoubtedly be put off by some of the changes Io has made here, but if you're willing to dig a little deeper, you'll find a game that's as rewarding as any Hitman prior.