Hitman’s past has been as cold and calculated as its murderous anti-hero, each game cloned from the last to create a technically better sequel with technically better mechanics. Absolution defies this tradition. It’s a sexy, stylish Hitman game, where groups of leather-clad nun assassins sport cool crew names like “The Saints,” and southern tycoons speak in soundbites and say things like “Yeehaw” before slapping their knee and spitting out chewing tobacco. It’s as if Quentin Tarantino made a Hitman game--so thick with pulp that you’ll struggle to swallow, but so sweet and delicious that you’ll have a hard time giving it up.
Agent 47 began his previous missions in a finely-pressed suit and tie, sleuthing down hallways and splattering brain matter in every direction before dusting off his suit (or whatever outfit he had acquired) and continuing his hit. In Absolution, he’s taken the tie off and undone the top button, assuming a more casual appearance that better fits the attitude of the entire game. Bloody bandage over his signature barcode tattoo, he finds himself in a different sort of experience than fans are used to, with varied missions that dance between traditional assassinations and stealth action segments. This mix works together to tell a more complete story, one that sees Agent 47 unraveling a conspiracy involving a slew of interesting, memorable characters--and a bunch of walking dead men.
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Though the cartoonish personas Agent 47 comes into contact with are unanimously interesting, the story struggles at times, often failing to make cohesive connections between missions. Some make sense, weaving into the narrative well, but others seemingly come out of nowhere, feeling like side jobs as opposed to actual plot progression. This being the case, the plot can be confusing and muddled if taken one segment at a time. On the whole, though, once the credits roll you'll likely have no problems connecting the blood-soaked dots.
Not that you’ll mind when you’re actually in the act of hunting a target. When it comes to proving why Agent 47 is the best in the business, the missions in Absolution are as varied and strong as they’ve ever been. Whether you’re marching through the crowded streets of Chinatown or sneaking through a millionaire's well-guarded penthouse, you’re frequently given a large number of options when it comes to approaching a target. Absolution continues Hitman’s tradition of open-ended gameplay, accommodating the silent assassins and blatant sociopaths among you.
Many levels present multiple targets that you’re able to take on and take out in any order. How you execute the mission affects the small sandbox worlds they inhabit, creating multiple paths with each assassination. Do you use explosives to blow up a car and kill a dozen bystanders, or do you meticulously plan out every move to make sure your only bullet is spent between the eyes of your target? Or do you just murder everyone? Absolution rewards you with points based on your execution, and though earning points unlocks passive upgrades, they’re never important enough as to deter you from playing the way you want.
Other missions are more akin to what you’d expect to find in other stealth series, giving you multi-staged arenas with a focus on infiltration as opposed to outright assassination. This was a risky move, threatening to provide a disjointed feel, but instead the varied mission types expand Absolution’s scope, allowing it to be more than your typical murder simulation. Sure, killing a strip club owner is fun and all, but so is sneaking through a crowded train station, or running across police-covered rooftops. That said, you’ll likely wish for more assassination missions and less stealth segments by the time the game’s over.
Both types of levels are upgraded by a suite of changes and improvements to the basic fabric of Hitman, enhancing the gameplay in almost every way. Being able to feign surrender, crawl through vents, and take cover behind nearly every object adds more tools to the Hitman’s arsenal, but the largest change comes with the addition of Instinct Mode. Agent 47 can use his enhanced senses to survey the surrounding area, showing silhouettes of obscured guards and nearby objects of interest.
It’s a large shift away from how Hitman games have played in the past, but should allow those who haven’t been able to get into the series before to slide in unencumbered. Also folding into Instinct Mode is Point Shooting, an element that allows Agent 47 to freeze time and tag enemies for quick execution. It’s remarkably useful, and extremely satisfying when you’re able to clear an area of foes in a quick ballet of death--there’s nothing more badass than seeing Agent 47 standing in a room full of fresh corpses.
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These tools are even more useful when playing the asynchronous multiplayer mode, Contracts. You’re tasked with killing anyone you want in any of the game’s missions to set a bar, and then others are invited to attempt to replicate--or best--your attempt. It’s a dark, murderous game of H.O.R.S.E., scoring you on your actions and ability to be the best possible Hitman. One-upping friends or strangers on leaderboards and creating challenges is extremely fulfilling, and should give you plenty to do once you’ve finished the campaign.
Hitman’s temporary hiatus did worlds of good for the franchise, and Absolution is one of the strongest entries in the series to date. It shows true evolution, moving Agent 47 forward and playing up his enhanced abilities well, both when it comes to hitting a well-placed shot to the head of a scummy target or stealthily moving through a building full of police. The changes to the formula could have spelled disaster if they were executed poorly, but that’s not an issue--execution has never been an issue for Agent 47, has it?