I think I like Hitman: Absolution. There’s no doubt in my mind that I like Blood Money, the previous game in the series. It was a clockwork murder puzzle that relied on a player’s wits, patience, and problem-solving skills. It depended upon a balance of blending within plain sight and hiding your presence as you stalked and killed your targets with a minimum of collateral damage. Its rewards outnumbered the certainly numerous mechanical and presentation flaws. It was a game I revisited over and over.
Absolution? I think I like Absolution. I guess.
Whereas previous Hitman games relied heavily on varying levels of suspicion to limit lead character 47’s freedom of movement, that system was abstruse and finicky, leaving a lot of guesswork regarding how the games’ non-playable characters would react to disguises and behavior. Absolution seeks to clarify and simplify 47’s chameleon-like blending skills through the Instinct system. Sadly, the game is hobbled by the system it relies upon so heavily. It’s a dis-empowering empowerment tool, an emergency resource deployed manually to trick others into forgetting you’re a suspicious-looking, bald, Danish killer. A button press slows time and reveals key people, even through walls and floors. If 47 is in danger of being spotted and isn't seen as trespassing, that same button will slowly burn a resource to let you walk by without raising an alarm. But, if you’re not quick in pressing said button or if you run low on Instinct, you’re spotted and people start dying needlessly. The main flaw here is how unreliable the whole thing is. Instinct can be replenished through some actions like killing or subduing people and hiding their bodies, but every violent or suspicious action you take increases the likelihood of you being spotted. And that increased likelihood requires you burn Instinct to fool people, which means you’ll need to replenish your Instinct. I’m sure you can see the problem.
As much as Absolution continues the series’ incremental refinement of its controls and the availability of useful info, it stumbles at a crucial point. Past games limited progress saving by reducing the number of possible saves depending on the selected difficulty level. With Absolution, you are restricted by a check-pointing system that requires the player discovers save points that put you back where you saved, but don’t save the state of the world; when a checkpoint is reloaded NPCs are dropped approximately where they were located at the mission’s start. So you’ll find yourself sandwiched between enemies you thought you took care of and enemies you need to handle to proceed further.
These manual, in-world checkpoints are so few and far-in-between that death or mishap can cause a player to replay huge portions of a mission. If you plan and act for a tense thirty minutes without finding a place to save, only to run into an unavoidable complication, you’re either going to lose patience and sloppily improvise, or you’ll hit the restart option and try to recreate those previous thirty minutes. And it’s near impossible to recapture that flow once it’s lost. Playing becomes a hassle. The result is a game that insists you wait, observe, and plan, but punishes experimentation. Thankfully, each mission is broken into subsections where you are typically trapped until an objective is completed. This mitigates the frustration of replaying large chunks of a mission because of a single miscalculation or disrupted character behavior.
The Hitman series is plagued by barely coherent narratives and poorly presented plots. These could be ignored, however, and past games could be treated as little more than collections of missions with little story framework. You are a man bred and trained to kill for money, for some damn reason. Now go kill, because... because.
This time, Absolution leans pretty heavily on it’s narrative. And it’s a dingy, ugly little yarn that pretends to be less straightforward and more dramatically sound than it ends up being. It’s a road trip, of sorts, through an exploitation movie version of middle America. This tale is populated by grotesque, cartoonishly profane and perverted caricatures of humanity. The only likable character central to the plot is Victoria, a teenage girl who is essentially the briefcase from “Pulp Fiction”; everybody wants her even if they don’t know why they want her. The cast includes a fistful of actors not known for voice work, and they feel disused. There’s just not enough narrative rope to hang themselves with, so we get a lot of bizarre, irrelevant shouting matches that feel unearned.
That ugliness I mentioned extends into the visuals. But in this area, it’s kind of a good thing. There is, again, an exploitation film aesthetic right down to a prominent film grain washing over the world. The high contrast color palette seems biased toward green and yellow, resulting in a consistently sickening patina. And everything is so very moist. With the settings you visit (strip clubs, backwater jails, and low-rent wrestling arenas) you can almost feel the sweat and mold gathering in your lungs. The look is unpleasant, but skillfully unpleasant.
Having said all that, I can only conclude that I think I liked Hitman Absolution. The core of what makes the series work holds strong. This is still a game of clockwork murder puzzles. You’re still rewarded for being thoughtful and observant. But, Absolution feels unsatisfying in how it can rob you of time with its new mechanics. The addition of a challenge system tied to performing various acts in various ways encourages replay to unlock upgrades. Honestly though, without that enforced incentive, there are few missions I’d revisit. What those few missions excel at, I can get from the previous game without the new hassles.