During Hitman Absolution we shot, stabbed, poisoned, crushed, electrocuted, defenestrated, strangled, immolated, impaled, bludgeoned, exploded, drilled, chopped and sniped the comically evil characters that populate the game. The 'tragic accidents' that killed some of them? Yeah, that was us too.
We did most of it as a consummate professional in a sharp suit or a cunning disguise, but on occasion we pulled off our kills dressed as a chipmunk or in a Hawaiian dressing gown barely long enough to cover our dignity. And for most of the game, we did it with a big smile on our face.
The finest moments come when you're looking for smarter ways to kill your main targets...
In large part, this is classic Hitman pressed from the same mould as Hitman: Blood Money. The finest moments come when you're exploring hub areas (admittedly smaller than those of previous games, but more densely packed) looking for smarter ways to kill your main targets. Creative kills are mostly well signposted, especially if you check your in-game menu to see which level-specific challenges you have or haven't completed. Pulling off an 'accidental' murder adds a bonus modifier to your end-of-level score, so you constantly feel as if the game is pushing you towards brain-power over firepower. Sometimes, the level design feels smothering - like you're being shoved towards the best kills - but most areas offer hits that are harder to work out.
To our mind that's a good thing. While we don't want our hands held throughout the game, we'd rather see a decent slice of IO's smarts in a single playthrough than arrive at the end feeling we've missed out. And the kills themselves include several scenes that will live in your memory alongside the best of the series to date. No spoilers here, obviously, but the hits you've seen in previews (like 'King of Chinatown') are child's play compared to later assassinations.
FROM SLAY TO B
However, Absolution's 10-12 hours of game (which could be more or less, depending on which of the five difficulty settings you choose to tackle and how many times you replay) aren't all hub areas and creative kills. As demonstrated by early snippets like the 'Chicago Library' level, some stages are more concerned with getting from A to B unseen. These linking levels offer some choice, and reaching your goal often means distraction rather than assassination, but they're only ever filler between more interesting arenas. Cruicially, though, most are still fun.
The link levels push the narrative forwards. In previous games, Hitman felt like a series of micro-stories held together by a wafer-thin plot. Now, while the game itself remains open, the story is more tightly focused, with a single tale underpinning every kill. Absolution does tell a more human story about Agent 47, but although it changes your perception of the man himself (for the better, we think) as he assumes a more fatherly role, it never takes itself too seriously. Each of the bad guys are still despicable caricatures, not evil characters. Main villain Blake Dexter is wonderfully unhinged, and is definitely the star of the show, even if the stage where 47 eventually executes him is relatively disappointing. He deserves a better death.
In fact, the game really runs out of steam at the end, and finishes incredibly abruptly. Sure, most will replay every stage at least once to check out alternative outcomes and try to complete the myriad challenges and item hunts, but we expected the first properly story-driven Hitman to end with a bigger bang (or at the very least an elaborate 'accident').
Another element of the game that irritates is the checkpoint system. Hardcore players will tackle higher difficulties, where mid-level checkpoints are turned off completely, but regular players will undoubtedly get frustrated by the strange saving system.