If you think Hitman: Absolution is a stealth-’em-up game, you’d be…not quite right. At its heart, Hitman: Absolution is a puzzle game, one that involves setting up multiple sequences of events with perfect timing. Like any puzzle, get one piece wrong, and your hard work falls into disarray. Get it right, and you’re a master of assassination, a puppeteer pulling multiple strings at once. At times I felt I had become death, destroyer of worlds (or at least South Dakota).
Armed with a weapon, my gamer instinct is to use it to the extent of its killing abilities. But going in guns blazing will get you spanked; after all, our protagonist, 47, is a hitman, not a spree killer. While every level has multiple different ways to accomplish your task–including spree killing–the game does an excellent job of tempting you into examining the routes and routines of your targets for the optimal sequence of events, trying to find that one perfect assassination. It takes a level or two to slowly ease into this game, but it’s worth the time. There’s rarely been a game that rewards players for patience as much as Hitman: Absolution.
Hitman: Absolution has twenty levels, made up of a variable number of individual segments, which should give you twenty hours of gameplay. The levels in come in two basic flavors: assassination missions, where you must eliminate one or more targets, and entry/escape missions. (In either case, reaching an exit serves as a persistent checkpoint.) How you complete your mission is up to you.
Although it’s your prerogative to shoot it out with anyone who stands in your way, that’s not where the fun is in Hitman: Absolution. You’ll more often find yourself studying the routes of guards, determining that while one guard has turned away, you can silently take out the other guard and hide his body before the first guard has turned around. The movements of characters in the game are predictable (until you disrupt them), which is part of the puzzle. Hitman: Absolution encourages you to play a level multiple times to experiment with different approaches. You don’t have to, but you’ll want to.
The AI isn’t just good, it’s extraordinary, especially in crowds. I wasn’t weaving my way through a faceless mass of bodies, I was walking through a chaotic group of individuals, whose snippets of dialog bring them to life. At times, I found myself distracted from the actual game by watching little vignettes play out in front of me. The AI wasn’t completely flawless, but 99.9% of the time, it worked brilliantly. For example, approach guards or your targets too closely, and they’ll sense you—and tell you in no uncertain terms to get out of their way.
Even though Hitman: Absolution is a closed world, it has an open feel. That’s because there’s a great deal of freedom in the way you accomplish tasks. 47’s silenced silverballers are removed from your arsenal for almost all of the first part of the game, so you have to use whatever weapons there are on hand (say, a brick, a bottle, a mail spike.) This also forces you to improvise, explore, and tap into your homicidal creativity. My favorite kills: Hooking up electricity up to a cable…and watching my enemy electrocute himself while he urinates on it. Then there’s the thing with the pigs, which I won’t spoil for you.
Hitman: Absolution is ruthless about score keeping, and for every mistake you make, you lose points. (Your score gets compared to an average, which subtly lets you know whether or not you’ve maintained your gamer pride or should hang your head in gamer shame.) Because of this, I frequently reloaded the game and restarted from checkpoint to avoid a prior failure…more so than any other game I’ve ever played. Each piece of ground I took was hard-earned, but when my plans came together, it was positively balletic.
You score points for carrying out kills in “trademark” style, that is, any time you arrange a murder to look like an accident. You also score points for achieving objectives. But you lose points every time you’re spotted and when you kill a non-target henchmen. However, if you kill without being spotted, and you successfully hide the body, you’ll score points that bring you back to a net score of zero. In other words, you can kill as many enemies as you like without affecting your score, so long as you do it professionally.
If you kill a civilian, however, your points will take a nose dive. I guess this means 47 has (wait for it) an assassin’s creed.
Hitman: Absolution has a terrific game mechanic, instinct. As with Assassin’s Creed’s eagle vision, you can use it to know the location of your enemies, sense potential hiding places, and even see through walls. And as with AC’s eagle sense, instinct lets you know where your enemies are going to be, here presented as an eye-catching trail of flame. Nifty.
Best of all, instinct helps you hide in plain sight: With it, you can walk through a crowd of potentially hostile people and go unnoticed. Of course, instinct burns up when you use it, and how quickly depends on the difficulty of the level you’re playing at and if you’re being actively watched.
Instinct could be tightened up a little. Although it let me know the radius of proximity mines, it wouldn’t tell me exactly how close I could walk past a policeman before provoking his suspicion, which seemed like an obvious application. (Sadly, I was all-too-frequently spotted. Time to reload. Again). It would have been great, if only in Easy mode, to know where I could walk without drawing NPC ire.
Difficulty and challenges
There are five difficulty levels in Hitman: Absolution: Easy, Medium, Hard, Expert, and the mind-melting Purist. That fabulous instinct mode becomes more limited with each ascending difficulty level and is completely absent when you go Purist. In fact, in Purist, you only get a crosshair and your gonads to help you on your assassin-y way. Without meticulous, painstaking research, it ends in tears.
Players who aren’t in Easy mode have the option of taking up Hitman: Absolution‘s multiple challenges, some of which aren’t obvious. (I didn’t think to use a rookie cop as a human shield until I saw a “Picking on the New Guy” challenge.) And some of the challenges conflict with each other. (For example, you can complete one challenge by donning multiple disguises…and another for playing a level without ever removing your suit.) But they massively add to the replayability of the game. To completely master a level, you’ll have to take on all the challenges, some simple, some complex. Fortunately, you can win multiple challenges in one go, even without completing the level.
But you’ll want to complete as many as you can, because this earns you score multiplier bonuses, which boosts your final score. Killing stylishly and silently also gets you multipliers. I can actually see players becoming so wrapped up in earning the highest possible score that they might forget to progress through the rest of the game. It’s that engrossing.
For players just playing to experience the plot and indulge in a more causal murder spree, you can simply ignore the challenges. But bear in mind that 47′s abilities improve slightly as your overall game score increases: slightly faster sprinting, for example, or clips with one or two more rounds. (Note: If you preordered Hitman: Absolution, you can also boost your score playing Sniper Challenge, the tie-in minigame.)