Hitman: Absolution review (Xbox 360)

The game’s been out for more than a month and all the reviews are in – so why now for this article? What more is there to say? I’ve been a Hitman fan since the first game – although the mechanics of the engine left a lot to be desired. At the time, it was one of the most unusual and exciting games to be released. Amid a sea of Delta Force clones and other RTS identikits, Hitman: Codename 47 offered the players a unique perspective – and the freedom to choose how to approach the objective at hand.

Then came the second game which improved things – if we’re to be totally honest, it’s still my favourite game of the series. I’ve never uninstalled it from my pc , copying it across hard drive to hard drive whenever I upgrade. And to be honest, I don’t think I’ll stop playing, not until I manage to get a Silent Assassin rating on all the levels. Hitman: Contracts represented a slowdown for the series – it felt like the programmers were trying to find new ways to make the series grow but failing at nailing on this attempt. Ditto Blood Money which received praise from quite a few reviewers but left me feeling cold.

Enter Hitman: Absolution – I’ll be honest, I was apprehensive about the playing the game after reviews started appearing which were less than enthusiastic. I kept my knowledge of the game to a minimum as much as possible and hoped for the best.
And I’m glad I did because Hitman: Absolution, while less than perfect, nails the feel and the mood of the series perfectly. It feels like a culmination of everything that makes Hitman great blended into a game which is not afraid to try out new ideas.

Visually, Hitman: Absolution is a treat – developers are now wringing out maximum performance out of the Xbox 360 and it clearly shows. The rain-swept Chicago streets are a particular highlight as the neon reflects of the water and the atmosphere is thick with noir tinges – however the rest of the game is equally impressive: there’s craft and care gone into creating the world here. However without gameplay to match, visual accomplishments would amount to nothing and it’s safe to say that it’s here that the game excels.

A Hitman game is first and foremost about stealth and planning. Although the game does not punish you in any way for going in guns blazing, the reality of the matter is that you’ll not last long with this approach. Although 47 is no slouch with his guns, his enemies are well-armed and trained, too and the inevitable death will occur sooner rather than later. However, plan and execute carefully and no-one will ever know you’ve even been at the scene of the crime. Discovering the unique methods with which 47 can create havoc is terrific fun: the game presents numerous opportunities for your targets to have unfortunate "accidents" and each one is more outrageous than the last.

The disguise system is another highlight of the game; while Blood Money had a system which seemed way too sensitive, Absolution, seems to get the balance right. While blending in is never an easy task, it never becomes a chore either – with a little careful planning, I’ve managed to avoid getting spotted dozens of times in very trick situations. The variety of weapons –  be it improvised or intended – is staggering and it’s very hard to get bored of discovering how each one can be used to inflict maximum damage. 47 is adept at handling whatever is thrown at him as a weapon and the gun-battles can be incredibly fun, too.

One of the most admirable parts of Absolution is how it distils the main characters key skills into situations which the player is not expecting or used to. For example the fact that 47 is great at blending into crowds is used to great effect in a level which sees him on the run from the Chicago police department whilst in another his shooting skills are used to win an impromptu competition on a gun range. These unusual situations require the player to think and react differently – and whilst a number of reviewers have complained that it goes against the very spirit of the game, it definitely breaks the mould. It’s nice to see 47 on the run , or trying to hunt down informants rather than doing mission after mission with the only visible difference being the locations.

The other game mode on offer,  Contracts, is a nice addition, too – albeit not being as in-depth as we’d hoped. Essentially, this gives the players the chance to create their own contracts – by picking a level and playing through it, they create a challenge for any other player out there to complete the level under the same circumstances with a higher score.  Although for the first few times the contracts offer additional entertainment value, most of them end up boiling down to chores – trying to find a screwdriver in Chinatown level gets tedious very quickly and after a few tries, it’s hard to think of anything who will play through rather than pull out their guns and start blasting every single person onscreen.

The sound design and the voice-acting are major contributors to the rich atmosphere on offer – while some seasoned voice artists give the characters human qualities, the rich score coupled with the base-heavy and rather delightful sound effects create an experience to revel in.

However, Hitman: Absolution is not without its faults – some of the level design is questionable and infuriating – it can be very difficult to determine how each method for murder is supposed to work. The disguise system can go spectacularly haywire at times with characters reacting in frankly superhuman ways whilst 47 is prone to doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, ruining a perfect plan due to the inaccuracies of the intuitive button system.  The short length of some the levels may raise some eyebrows too as well as the over-reliance on QTE for some of the set-pieces will definitely put off some of the  more advanced players.

But these are minor quibbles in a game that is dripping with atmosphere and lets the player explore a world at their own pace creating and planning perfect executions in the most devilish ways. We need more games like Hitman: Absolution if only to revel in the sheer joy of such great gameplay mechanics.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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