Here's something funny: "Hitman: Absolution" really snuck up on me in terms of how much I enjoyed it. I like stealth games to a point, particularly the kinds of tightly-scripted, super conditional stealth games requiring almost a neurotic level of observation of enemy behavior and a constant sense of panic that you will mess up and have to restart. But developer IO Interactive has used the time since 2006's "Blood Money" to create hooks that reward the obsessive gamer, while making systemic changes that give your stealthy assassin Agent 47 more tools in dealing with his targets and NPCs.
In spite of some minor quirks, and a pretty slim story that starts to lose its tone along the way, IO's return to the bald assassin is still a pretty terrific game.
The game opens with Agent 47 pursuing an unexpected target: his former handler, Diana, who's accused of making off with a bunch of the shadowy ICA's money in order to hide herself in a well-guarded villa. The opening tutorial level sees you locating and dispatching her but not before she gives Agent 47 one last mission: to protect a little girl that the agency would very much like to get their hands on. This will put 47 on a collision course with the ICA, a flamboyant hillbilly arms manufacturer, and all manner of sleazebags and killers in between in a plot that veers between "The Transporter," "Crank," and "Walking Tall" with abandon. It gets over-the-top in a way that's gritty and cool in a low-budget action movie kind of way at first, but then throws in these jarring stylistic changes like small-town greasers and the leather nun lady assassins of The Saints (whose storyline got truncated in the wake of the initial trailer controversial trailer, making the visually striking killers feel even more out of place).
What the story really does is allow IO Interactive to drop Agent 47 into varied environments to execute his hits as he works his way up the chain of the well-staffed and shady as all get out Patriot Arms in order to discover what's so important about the girl now in his care. What's great is how cohesive the first few chapters are, framed as one long escape through the streets of Chicago, later taking 47 to the dusty main street of a small Nevada town, and later still to a bustling arms manufacture facility. To escape detection and kill targets, Agent 47 can subdue (or kill) NPCs, don costumes, use cover, hide in closets and boxes, and create the conditions for accidents in order to remain a "Silent Assassin," and complete score-modifying Challenges in each level.
Agent 47's most valuable asset is his Instinct: with a tap of the right bumper which slows down time and allows him to identify enemy and target locations, enemy movement paths, and if you're wearing a disguise, the ability to remain concealed if someone wearing the same uniform gets too close. A circular indicator in the center of the screen details enemy awareness of Agent 47, getting larger and louder as they notice the killer in the crowd of hiding behind cover. The ability to hide in plain site requires that your Instinct meter be filled, which can be accomplished by making stealthy kills or simply quietly knocking out an enemy and concealing their body. Of course, if you're the type with an Iron Man play style, you can crank up the difficulty and limit the ability for Instinct to refill or do away with all of the game's UI.
Which brings us to the enemies and some of the quirks of "Hitman: Absolution": it's really, really scripted, with enemies often repeating walking path and behaviors (although thankfully, not dialog) in order to put them on a collision path with one of your kills. I spent most of my first couple playthroughs in a level trying to identify locations where I could follow my targets and take them out silently, either with my trusty garrotte or with some kind of accident (i.e. luring a character under a car on a hydraulic lift and then dropping it on them). That means listening to their dialog for clues about what they're going to do next, occasionally making "Absolution" a waiting game.
I actually preferred setting up the elaborate the accident kills, not only because they increased my end of level score, but because guns just aren't that fun to use--they attract attention for one, but aim often felt off. IO added something like "Splinter Cell: Conviction"'s Mark and Execute mechanic, where you can slow down time using Instinct to pick out enemies and then shoot them rapidly, but even with silenced weapons, you'll end up getting detected as one enemy slowly turns around and sees Agent 47, ruining your bonus for remaining undetected. Detection as a whole can be a little busted, with enemies walking right by a crouching 47 and not seeing him, sometimes allowing you to exploit the occasional blind spot to gain entry to places it would otherwise be tough to get into.
Still, "Hitman: Absolution" is a case where nearly every system fits together to make the overall stealth puzzle challenging, but a challenge worth doing. The heavily scripted nature of the game should be to its detriment, but instead, I found that it made me want to test its constraints even more, to find new ways to create variability (and to obsessively complete all of those challenges). Both a gorgeous technological feat (seriously, this game looks great on the 360 and I can only imagine how good it looks on a PC) with systems that will hook you in, "Absolution" is one of the year's best surprises.
"Hitman: Absolution" is available on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC from Square Enix and IO Interactive.
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