Hitman Needs Absolution (But Not This One)
I know the last ten days have been hard without Space-Biff! updates to brighten the gloominess and despair of December, so rest assured that we here at the Space-Shanty have been filling all our spare time brainstorming radical new journalistic styles for your perusing pleasure. We know you’ll appreciate the result — a series of rapid-fire, low-quality articles to catch us up on all the stuff we were planning to talk about but didn’t have time to! Huzzah! And first on the list is Hitman: Absolution! Short version: it’s not only nothing special, it’s actively bad. Kidding! It’s incredible!
Okay, I was double-kidding. It’s quite bad. I’d love to say that it’s only bad as a sequel to the phenomenal Hitman: Blood Money from 2006, but it’s awful by any standard. Well, maybe you’d be able to pay someone to like it (I’d be happy to be your hack for a hot meal), or find some doofus who likes anything, or perhaps a masochist would love it. But we’re talking about actual standards here, including coming into Hitman expecting a relatively open experience, one that encourages exploration, observation, experimentation, and fun. While Hitman: Absolution does contain a few levels that bring those to the table, they’re marred by a few horrendous missteps. And when I say “missteps,” I mean like missteps into the acid lakes of Yellowstone Park — the kind that really ruin the whole trip.
Anyway, let’s take a look at five such missteps.
Misstep #1: Checkpoints
The Hitman series has always had a strange relationship with game saves. Past iterations have allowed the player to save their progress at any point, but have only granted a limited number of saves. This was a flawed system, and I’ve complained about it before (not in print, just around the office water cooler. You’ll have to take my word for it). Even so, Absolution’s system is worse.
Above I listed what I consider the “pillars” of the gameplay of the Hitman series, which has always been at its best when it’s allowed you to observe your targets’ routines and then experiment with ways to reach and eliminate them. Many previous Hitman games were filled with magic moments where you’d be watching your quarry and some great way to rub them out would arise seemingly organically. For instance, there was a mission in Blood Money that saw Agent 47 targeting an actor. Of course, rather than just bump the guy off at home, it seemed most dramatic (and thus cool) for Agent 47 to kill him at the crowded theater where he was rehearsing a play or opera or something. During the course of this play, one of the actors would aim a fake pistol at my target and pull the trigger, cuing a tragic death scene. Pop went my thought-bubble, maybe I can replace that prop gun with a real one. So I saved my game at a relatively safe point and went to the task of sneaking into the other actor’s dressing room to replace the prop. Other than the fact that the limited save system forced me to redo a fairly lengthy segment a couple of times, my experiment paid off in grand fashion when one actor accidentally murdered the other. I escaped the theater without anyone knowing I was ever there. I felt like a genius, and it was memorable and satisfying, and all of that made it fun.
This never really happens in Absolution because the game doesn’t let you make your own save files. It doesn’t want you to ask what-if, or play around with its systems to figure out the best method of assassination. Instead, it gives you the occasional checkpoint. Which, by the way, are rare in most levels, and aren’t even activated on harder difficulty settings. You’ll painstakingly sneak past a dozen guards, waiting for them to finish inane conversations before separating and letting you past, only to be spotted and gunned down because you were standing too close to a corner or something, and then you’ll find yourself whisked back to a point perhaps fifteen minutes earlier.
Now maybe this was an intentional choice. I “get” checkpoints, and I even appreciate them in certain games. They can make players soldier on even when they make mistakes, accept consequences, whatever. But here, in a game that should be about experimentation — about toying with your environment, with your tools, with your prey — it’s the wasting poison right at the heart of Absolution. It reduces the gameplay to tedium, devalues elegant solutions, and makes the blunt approach the easiest way to progress through the game. If Blood Money had used such a restrictive save system, I probably would have ended up shooting the actor from a balcony with my silenced pistol or something. It would have worked, but it wouldn’t have been the same brilliant approach that that game’s more permissive system allowed.
Misstep #2: Checkpoints
Now now, I know you’re sighing audibly and thinking, “Silly Dan, doing a list in which every entry is the same thing. How passé!” But no, that’s not what I’m doing — this is an entirely different point. See, my first complaint was that the game uses checkpoints at all. My second is that even when it uses them, it doesn’t use them correctly.
Early in the game, after the first real mission had been a pretty good experience and I was thinking that Absolution might be better than I’d heard, Agent 47 was given the task to infiltrate a highrise apartment. In order to do this, I needed to power up the building’s elevator. Unfortunately, the basement was crawling with both goons and repair guys (even though repairing the elevator meant flipping a switch, I think. I can’t remember. It wasn’t memorable). This meant that once I’d knocked out a repair guy and donned his uniform, the goons wouldn’t recognize me, but other repair men would — which kind of makes sense, in a gamey way. Even so, there were three repair guys in this basement. So I carefully knocked them out and dumped their bodies into garbage bins. Then I found a checkpoint and used it to save my game so that even if I messed up I would still retain my progress — namely, dumping a whole bunch of repairmen into waste bins.
Then I made a mistake. I got shot, died, and reloaded the checkpoint.
And every single repairman was back. My progress hadn’t really been saved — only my location in the level’s geography. Other than that, everything had been reset.
Now, the checkpoints will remember if you’ve killed one of your main targets, so they aren’t entirely useless, but that’s not enough. They’re effectively non-saves in their current form unless you’re in a mission with more than one target, and I can only think of two segments where that was actually the case.
Misstep #3: Axe Murderer / Cop Evader
As in, the game should have been called Cop Evader: Absolution, because that’s what you do. Absolution has twenty levels, most of them broken into multiple segments, and only a scant handful see you taking part in any actual hitman-related activities, like hitting targets. Most of the time you’ll be evading the incredibly-staffed Chicago Police Department or sneaking past the incredibly-staffed mercenaries of a South Dakotan arms company. Now and then you’ll be instructed to kill someone, and most of the time those targets will be incidental sideshows on your way to somewhere else rather than actual mission objectives. And in the few instances that Absolution decides it’s about being a hitman, it will go and be linear.
Misstep #4: It’s Linear
As I said, Hitman is supposed to be about exploration as much as anything, about looking for ways to get at well-defended targets. Absolution is basically a corridor shooter, except there are often air vents you can crawl through so you can have the satisfaction of not getting the satisfaction of shooting somebody. There are even a lot of literal corridors Agent 47 finds himself walking down, with not a single option other than the main hallway and the thugs that populate it.
Even when Absolution decides to get back to its roots and gives you a target and an open space to play in, it still manages to be more linear than any previous Hitman game. The best level, which sees you taking down a six-member gang in a crummy small town in South Dakota, is still pretty darn small compared to the sprawling environs of its predecessors. You get a choice of what order to kill three punks, and then — and only then — you can continue to an even smaller area (a backyard barbecue, basically) where you get to choose how to get rid of the last three.
Misstep #5: Stealth
The stealth system in Absolution isn’t broken in concept. The idea is that a level would be populated with multiple resident “types” — such as the above mentioned mercenary grunts and repairmen, and hopefully a couple more like cleaning ladies and bellhops. You can take someone’s clothes once you’ve incapacitated them, and once you have a disguise you’re invisible to people of other types while your same type would recognize you pretty quickly; so a guard wouldn’t know one repairman from another, but he knows which of his buddies he’s been working with for the last fifteen years.
The first problem comes along when the entire level takes place in a location with only one type of resident. If that happens (and it does, with depressing regularity), the entire system is worthless — at that point, you’re just trying on everyone’s clothes. I suppose the system doesn’t completely break down, since you can use your “instinct” powers to briefly cover your face when you walk by other guards, but that’s a deeply idiotic system in its own right. And as much as Absolution loves to set up absurd moments where you walk through an entire police station dressed as a police officer with your hands over your face, it never becomes smarter.
“Who is that?” asks one cop of another when he sees your huge bald frame in Smith’s uniform, looming in the doorway. “I don’t think I know him…” You cover your face. “Oh, I guess he’s nobody.”
Even worse, many missions are filled with enemies who wear face protection of some kind — riot gear, balaclavas, surgical masks — but when Agent 47 puts on their clothes, taking the time to snap every snap and button every button, he doesn’t put on whatever they were wearing over their faces. Which makes him the stupidest disguise-wearer of all time. And given how out of place his Easter Island face is, just about anything would make for a better disguise at this point. This would do:
I guess I could talk about how Absolution shows you attacking people in cutscenes and then has entire levels that consist of you buying a suit or walking into a bar. Or about how the game dwells on the most grating antagonists in recent memory in minutes-long cutscenes. Or how the only female character who even approaches well-rounded not only stretches the definition of “well-rounded,” but is also introduced as a hot bod in a shower and pretty much stays that way. Or how the main representation of competent females is bondage-gear-wearing murderer nuns. Or how…
I could. But I won’t. I’m already prepared to give Hitman: Absolution a score.
Out of ninety.