Monday, December 17, 2012

Hitman: Absolution

I’m pretty new to Hitman.  A long time ago, I saw a lengthy gameplay walkthrough for Absolution, which honestly made the game look pretty damn rad.  So, partially out of interest in the series and partly out of interest in Absolution, I picked up Blood Money during Steam’s Summer Sale.  It’s a great game, though flawed in minor ways.  There’s something really satisfying about the open nature of Blood Money, where you’re spawned in a level and asked to seek out and kill one or more NPCs however you see fit and make it out alive.  Hitman games challenge you to be more than a simple mercenary though, gunning your way to your query.  They encourage subtlety, making your kills discreet or even look like complete accidents.  As they describe the game’s highest score ranking, Silent Assassin, the best Hitman is one who leaves no effect on the world around him.

Hitman: Absolution is not like Blood Money.  And from what I’ve seen of previous Hitman games, it’s not like Hitman in general.

Just as in all previous games, in Absolution you play as Agent 47, a top tier hitman employed with The Agency, some sort of paramilitary organization that contracts hits on the scum of the world.  47’s been tasked with killing Diana Burnwood, who has betrayed the Agency by making off with one of the organization’s vital assets: a young girl.  The problem is that Diana was 47’s former handler, and the closest thing to a friend he’s ever had.  As someone who was also raised in a lab, the normally all-business hitman takes pity on the girl.  Swayed by Diana’s attempt to save the girl from a similar upbringing, 47 goes rogue, taking her with him to safeguard her from the Agency.  Seeking to find out precisely what it is that makes the girl so important, he soon finds himself in trouble with the law and chased by a sinister industry magnate who also wants her.  What results is essentially an international manhunt, where everybody wants both the girl and 47’s head.

But let’s face it: the plot of Absolution isn’t really that good or interesting.  It does a great job stringing together gameplay segments, but you’ll never find yourself expecting much more than that.  Instead, Absolution’s narrative strength resides in its presentation.  The game takes place in a serious world filled with dark themes, touching on corruption of the law, drugs, and the seedy underbelly of industries and corporations.  This is not a cheerful setting in the slightest, and yet there is an element of mature humor that constantly permeates the game experience.  You meet a corrupt sheriff who spends his free time on the receiving end of a whip from his dominatrix, for example.  One of your targets—due to an unfortunate childhood experience—hates pigs, and has taken to doing his job testing landmines by releasing a herd of pigs to run across a fake setup and get blown to bits.

This humor is more evident than ever in the many NPC conversations you’ll overhear.  The very first one you hear is from a guard talking on the phone, overjoyed to hear from his doctor that he does not in fact have prostate cancer.  He happily claims that nothing can ruin this day before you pull him out of a window, sending him careening into the rocks below.  While on the lam, you might overhear a cop making a vain attempt to question a mentally retarded hobo about your whereabouts.  Midway through the game you’ll encounter a wrestler who fervently believes that his stuffed teddy bear is a lucky charm, and will whine and complain to his coach and managers if you steal it.

Absolution’s presentation extends to its visuals, which are phenomenal.  There is an ever so slight filter applied to the graphics that gives the world a constant and subtly oppressive look.  On PC, the game does lighting and depth of field like no other game I’ve ever seen.  When you open a door from a deserted alley and find yourself facing a hugely crowded plaza, it feels just like it would to have all this new information suddenly flooding your eyes.  There is a moment midway through the game where you find yourself emerging from a desert cave in broad daylight, and as you pass through the cave’s mouth, you’re temporarily blinded by all the light hitting your face.  Textures are also detailed and the modeling work is very good.  The only facet that is weak in comparison is the animation, which is good but not exceptional like the lighting.  It is overall a very good looking game, however.

The core of Absolution—the gameplay—doesn’t shine as brightly as its exterior elements, however.  To begin with, Absolution is structured differently from its predecessors.  Whereas in past entries you had the entire level open to you, and your only goal was to accomplish your objective and take the designated exit before moving on to the next level, Absolution is generally more linear.  Levels are fragmented, and there are plenty of gameplay segments where your objective is simply to get to the end of the level alive (and ideally without being seen).  Furthermore, levels vary wildly in their construction.  There are some levels that could have been plucked right out of Blood Money, so similar are they in structure to Absolution’s predecessors.  Some gameplay segments task you with killing someone, but many do not.  In many segments you’re simply passing by, or trying to accomplish something else, like disabling security measures or evading law officers.  This gives the game a feeling of inconsistency; like they knew what direction they wanted to go in with the series but didn’t go all the way through it.  It should be noted that I’m not really saying that the levels themselves are bad.  In fact there are some that are downright brilliant, such as one that has you hunting three targets across an entire neighborhood, or another that has you stalking targets in tall corn fields under a clear starry night.  It’s the overall structure of the game that comes off as feeling slapdash to me, not its components.

This issue is nonexistent in the game’s Contracts mode, however.  Separate from the main campaign, in Contracts all of the game’s environments and scenarios are available to play through individually.  The difference is that here you can play through them however you like.  You kill whoever you want, using whatever tools and disguises you want.  These parameters (who you killed, what you used to kill them, etc.) are then used to set up a custom mission, or contract that other players can then go through, attempting to one-up your score in the process.  It’s basically a combination of a level editor and H-O-R-S-E.  Not only is Contracts a brilliant twist on the concept of creating and sharing your own levels, by focusing on individual levels it escapes the inconsistency present in the story mode.

The game’s structure isn’t the only thing that’s changed.  The core gameplay has been refined in some ways and revamped in others.  For the most part, I like what they’ve done.  Absolution controls better than any other Hitman, for one thing.  The series has always had trouble wrapping its gameplay mechanics around a decent control map, but I think with Absolution they’ve managed to change that, and largely without relying on QTEs, which is admirable.

Furthermore, as a stealth game Absolution does a good job of keeping you informed about your situation.  UI elements like an arrow indicating NPCs that are onto you are standard, but you also have a minimap that color codes each NPC by their level of suspicion, so you know at a glance how information about you might be spreading.  You’re able to summon tooltips telling you things like the current capacity of storage containers (they’re able to hold two bodies now), the access level for areas you’re looking at (in case you’re about to cross an invisible line), and even what a disguise is, before putting it on.  The new Instinct mode—not unlike Detective Vision in the recent Batman games—allows you to see enemies through walls, and will even trace the path an NPC is walking, allowing you to immediately predict their route.  The Instinct mode also allows you to use Point Shooting, which is a feature lifted straight out of games like Splinter Cell Conviction and Red Dead Redemption, allowing you to mark and execute targets with increased precision.  Finally, Instinct mode makes you immune to having your disguise detected; causing 47 to discreetly pull down his hat or hunch his shoulders, deflecting suspicion.  This last bit is pushing suspension of belief, but alas, videogames.

Instinct mode sounds like and often is a crutch, but its use is limited.  How limited depends on what difficulty you’re playing on, but in general you’ll find the ability to use Point Shooting and hide your disguise limited by a meter, which depletes during use and is regenerated mainly by accomplishing objectives.  However, the higher you go in difficulty, the more restrictions you’ll find placed on not only Instinct mode, but the play experience in general.  The highest difficulty—Purist—does away with both Instinct mode and the UI (only the crosshair is spared), in addition to boasting the most enemies and the fastest detection rates.

Hitman has always been about a different sort of stealth than most in the genre.  Whereas series such as Metal Gear and Splinter Cell required you to hide in the shadows and duck behind walls and around corners to stay undetected, Hitman’s is more of a social brand of stealth; being invisible in plain sight.  To this end, disguises have always been an integral part of gameplay.  In past games it was pretty difficult to get far without a disguise of some sort.

The disguise system has been changed in Absolution.  You can still knock out dudes and take their clothes, letting you pose as them, but rules governing how NPCs detect you are different.  Now, only NPCs wearing the same clothes (and thus likely of the same profession) will be able to see through your disguise.  All others will be none the wiser.  As GameTrailers’ review succinctly puts it, it makes sense…except for when it doesn’t.  For example, it makes sense that, while infiltrating a laboratory using a scientist disguise, only fellow scientists would be able to see through my disguise.  It doesn’t make sense however, that a street vendor would be able to see through a street vendor disguise, does it?  Especially not when his stall is on the opposite side of a crowded plaza from my stall.  Furthermore, NPCs are able to see through your disguise from unbelievable distances.  Essentially, establishing line of sight tends to be all you need to be in danger of having your cover blown, even if someone is standing on the other side of a street.  I found that all of these changes discouraged me from using the disguise system at all.  It doesn’t help that it’s not often you encounter an area where it’s particularly difficult to just sneak through the old fashioned way.

Ultimately, I found it difficult to play Hitman: Absolution entirely like a Hitman game.  The moment I stopped trying to use disguises and just played Absolution like a straightforward stealth game was when I immediately found the game to be more enjoyable.  And frankly, as a straightforward stealth game it’s pretty great.  But the problem is that’s not how you should have to play a Hitman game.

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