Hitman: Absolution is the best argument ever made for video games to avoid storytelling altogether.
As a game, it’s often amazing, worth every minute of the six year wait and balancing the demands of modern gaming against the series’ traditional gameplay in often very clever ways.
As a story, it makes the movie look like Citizen Kane.
Let’s start with the game. There are twenty missions (!) in this game, all of them pretty meaty in their own way, although some are shorter and simpler than others. In some ways, there’s more variety here than there has ever been in the franchise, both in your mission objectives and how you can complete them. The level design is at once more sensible and less obvious: Just figuring out a kill, forget pulling Silent Assassin, in later missions will drive you pleasurably crazy.
That’s not even getting into the challenges, most of which consist of a photo and a cryptic hint about what to do and… that’s it. Even on Normal difficulty, it can be maddening.
It’s interesting to compare this to Blood Money in that way because the intervening six years have been kind and made IO Interactive bitter at the same time. Remember the standard load out in the last game? Gone here. You don’t have any syringes, any remote mines, just a fiber wire, perhaps your Silverballer, and what’s lying around. You’re going to have to get the lay of the land and improvise much more.
Of course, “what’s lying around” is pretty much anything that’s not nailed down, ranging from sniper rifles and remote explosives to pretty much anything that can be used to murder somebody. 47 is practically the Miles Davis of butchering mooks. And it’s gloriously fun.
Speaking of mooks, the AI has improved in some ways: You will no longer get shot for the crime of walking into a nightclub without a chicken costume on. It is a bit dumb in others; wait long enough and NPCs will settle back into their routines, even with a coworker dead in front of them. It’s still challenging, but it reinforces that you are playing a game, that you’re outwitting a computer, not a person.
Much of the game has been tweaked for the better: Disguises are much more crucial now, for example. If you’re dressed as an officer, police officers are more likely to spot you and blow your cover, so finding the right disguise, especially a rare disguise, can be crucial to some missions. Shooting is much improved, but not the best option. The cover system actually makes sense and is very, very useful for sneaking.
The Instinct system is also a nice touch. First of all, it’s not entirely necessary: You can get through most levels without it. Secondly, it’s a meter that depletes, and is also tied to, for example, the slow-mo system you can also use. It forces you to use that asset strategically and carefully.
In short, everything that the game could improve, as a game, IO Interactive went in and did. As a game, it is great.
Unfortunately, as a story it’s terrible. I don’t want to offer spoilers, since they’ll give away missions, but really, the only thing that saves the game story-wise is the incredibly dry sense of humor on display, which often manifests itself in the details and the NPC chatter. Sit on the edge of crowds: It’s a hoot to overhear cell phone conversations and snatches of what people are muttering about.
The main plot, however, is… well, it’s just so stupid that it turns into self-parody. This game is supposed to humanize Agent 47, but he’s a mass murderer who perpetually scowls and enjoys killing people. The only thing you think when faced with the girl the game centers around is “This guy is about the last person who should be a father figure”. The plot returns to the ridiculous cloning nonsense the games have never quite summarily dumped as the bad idea it is. It’s especially frustrating because they’ve got a great voice cast cleaning up some awful cut scenes: Powers Boothe and Keith Carradine stand out in particular.
Is this a dealbreaker? Not particularly. It just means you’ll be jamming the “skip cutscene” button a lot. The simple fact of the matter is that while the story is irrelevant, with the franchise, it has always been irrelevant. It’s the game we show up for, not the story it tells.
In the end, this is Hitman to its bones. If you like solving puzzles and shooting people, and sometimes solving puzzles BY shooting people, this is worth every penny.