Agent 47 has suffered in his life. From his vile creation and eventual torture at the hands of Dr. Ort-Meyer to the emotional scarring that has come with some of his more personal contracts, Agent 47’s life is one of deep pain. The one constant that has held him together is Diana Burnwood – his handler. His voice in The Agency, Diana has served as guide, conscience, and contract delivery for 47 while remaining the closest thing that he has to a friend. In the most recent game, Hitman: Blood Money, Diana used her unparalleled access to the Agency to help 47 fake his death, and through her scheming, manages to save the Agency from its utter destruction. We open Hitman: Absolution with a shocking twist of fate – Diana has used her access to take down The Agency from the inside. She has deleted all information from their databases and has used this blind spot to mask her escape. The newly-reformed Agency has given Agent 47 the contract to kill her – a contract to kill his one and only friend – he must kill Diana Burnwood.
Hitman: Blood Money came out in 2007 and we’ve not seen Agent 47 in the intervening 5 years. IO Interactive has given us two episodes of the critically-received Kane and Lynch series as well as the much-beloved title Mini Ninjas. Using what they’ve learned from Kane and Lynch, and the all-new Glacier 2 engine, it was time to return to the series that introduced us to the Danish development house.
Welcome back, Agent 47
[singlepic id=768 w=320 h=240 float=left]The game starts with one of two options – Absolution or the all-new Contracts mode. Absolution tells the story of Agent 47, though I can’t fill many of the details without ruining it. Determined to allow players from all skill ranges to play, the game features difficulty levels ranging from Easy, Normal, Hard, Expert, to Purist. On Normal players can activate checkpoints in the game, instinct does not regenerate, but will provide hints, and enemies have normal presence with normal reaction times, whereas Purist offers no help, no guides, no interface, and only a crosshair. The difficulty level can be changed on the fly if you’d like, so there is no harm in starting the game on one setting and then adjusting the challenge to suit your experience level.
The game opens with the voice of Diana Burnwood talking to young girl named Victoria, telling her that Agent 47 will come and take her away. He will protect her using anything and everything necessary to ensure her safety. With the contract money transferred into our account, Agent 47 has landed in Chicago. It’s never easy taking down one of your own, but having to kill one so trusted as Diana would be a test for even the most hardened assassin. When Agent 47 finds himself operating outside of The Agency, he’ll have to pull in every favor that he’s earned over his long career to discover why Victoria is special, and how he can protect her.
The Mechanics of Death
Agent 47 was made from the clone materials of Lee Hong (Red Dragon Triad), Pablo Belisario Ochoa (Drug Lord), Franz Fuchs (Austrian Terrorist), Arkadij “Boris” Jegorov (Weapon smuggler), and Dr. Ort-Meyer. The genetic materials of these horrible criminal masterminds have made 47 into a master assassin, and his missions for Absolution will be his most important yet. Let’s talk about the tools of the trade and the controls that tie them all together.
Agent 47 is not the type of anti-hero that carries a huge cache of weapons with him. Using his trademark silenced Hardballer pistols along with a span of piano wire and any disguises and weapons he can procure on-site, 47 can effectively eliminate even the most stalwart of evil true-believers without ever leaving a trace. This concept remains intact in Hitman: Absolution, but has been ratcheted to the next level. In previous titles, Agent 47 could perform “perfect accidents”, but they were very limited in their execution, but not so with Absolution. At the end of every mission you’ll receive a score and grade, but you’ll also be shown all of the other items you can recover in that level (guns, knives, crowbars, etc.) but also be given hints on the other ways you can handle your foes on a re-run. For example, in the first non-prologue mission alone there are 12 ways to assassinate your target. If you’d like to take a more targeted approach to the level, you can hit select to bring up your notebook. This section lists your objectives, sub-objectives, and any special challenges in the level. Oh delicious death…let us count the ways.
The controls for Hitman: Absolution work fairly well. R3 puts you into hiding, and O pushes your back against cover. When you are in cover, you can use X to roll from cover to cover, attracting minimal attention. The shoulder buttons handle several different duties, acting as a way to throw objects as distraction, aiming, and firing your weapons. R2 will stead your aim with a half-pull, but pulling it completely will fire the shot. Pulling your fiber wire you can garrote a body and then immediately drag them somewhere to dispose of the body – this is no longer a two-step action.[singlepic id=7517 w=320 h=240 float=right]
Figuring out all of the ways you can take out your targets is a big part of the fun, but you can get an assist in figuring out a few of them. Using a consumable called “Instinct”, 47 can intuit which objects can be interacted with, where enemies are (even through a wall), or figure out where an objective is located. Remaining out of sight, using uniforms and clothing, and taking out your target creatively will net you points as well as Instinct, allowing you to earn the highest scores as well as recharge your Instinct meter. If you are running a pacifist game, you’ll use a lot of Instinct to sneak past opponents, spot objects and other things while you choke out and hide the bodies, but if your tendencies run towards violence then you’ll want to hear about Point Shooting.
Point Shooting allows Agent 47 to use his instincts to eliminate multiple enemies with ruthless precision. Holding L2, targeting enemies in their most vital locations, and then pressing square to unleash it all allows 47 to dispatch up to four enemies before they have a chance to alert anyone. When done with a silenced weapon, you can still remain invisible while ensuring pesky patrols stop their roaming behavior. Point Shooting requires and consumes Instinct, so you can’t simply run around gunning down your foes in slow motion.
[singlepic id=6465 w=320 h=240 float=left]It is the nature of stealth games to be somewhat trial and error. This is obviously broken if you have an unlimited save-anywhere system. To that end, Hitman: Absolution uses a checkpoint system. The levels can take upwards of a half hour or more to complete, and obviously starting back at the beginning stings a bit, so IO gives you mid-mission saves. Finding a glowing Hitman symbol when guards are not on high alert allows you to save your progress up to that point. Since it is a single use item, and there is only one in each environment, you’ll have to be wise on how you use it. Larger levels are often split into multiple pieces, gating your objectives a bit better to ensure minimal frustration while still remaining challenging.
There are a few hiccups in Hitman: Absolution. Occasionally there are audio glitches where voices or sounds cut out or stutter (Editors note – this was seen on the PlayStation 3 Debug code and I have not received retail code yet to confirm), and occasionally the enemy AI seems to be able to pick you out of a crowd that you’ve blended with even without line of sight. It’s not a bug, but more a difficulty thing – it also seems like once an enemy sees you, you’ll not be able to change direction and prevent them from seeing through your disguise before it is too late.
Obviously it is a risk to change engines, but the original Glacier engine was too long in the tooth to bring 47 to a current-gen audience. After some debacles with more recent PlayStation ports it is important that we take a good look under the hood. Even Hitman: Blood Money suffered from some framerate issues, so IO went to work locking that down. What’s arrived is something pretty fantastic – the Glacier 2 engine is capable of handling up to 1200 characters while still hitting 30 frames per second, and in practice it actually delivers. While there are no levels with 1200 characters, there are some very wide-open spaces filled with characters (a Chinatown market, a crowded train station, etc.) and the game never misses a beat. The crowd members are not carbon copies of their neighbors, and seem to all be doing their own thing.
Complaints with previous Hitman games were well-founded. Put plainly, they were somewhat clunky and prone to some hilarious ragdoll madness courtesy of the Havok engine. To go with the new Glacier 2 engine, IO has begun working with nVidia to integrate their PhysX system. The result is more natural movement with realistic physics, save the occasional explosion causing human lawn darts, and takes away the ‘clunky’ complaints that we’ve had with past titles.
One area that was very frustrating in previous Hitman games is the unrealistic difficulty of it. It seemed like if you made any sound in the level, enemies would swarm in from all over the level and try to kill you, even if it would have been impossible for them to hear your actions. Absolution takes a better approach to this, allowing the player to handle enemies as they see fit without the AI going into overdrive. Wearing a disguise might keep you from tipping off most folks, but if you are wearing a cop outfit there is a good chance that you might attract some unwanted cop attention – they recognize their own. You can burn some Instinct to sidestep the odd curious person, but it won’t get you through the level. Absolution takes a better approach to this, allowing the player to handle enemies as they see fit without the AI going into overdrive – the better AI spends its time hunting instead of somehow knowing exactly where to go. You are also not committed completely when you ‘go loud’ in a level – if you take out those who heard the noise, you can go back to handling the rest of the level quietly. It’s a marked improvement that pays dividends across the entire product.[singlepic id=7520 w=320 h=240 float=right]
A Bloody Game of H.O.R.S.E.
Hitman Absolution does something that we’ve done ad-hoc up till this point – added multiplayer. Rather than challenging your friends by saying “I took that guy out and his friend with 1 bullet inside of 60 seconds” or some other brag, you can now build these contracts directly into Absolution, upload them to the PlayStation Network, and throw down the gauntlet. Your career is built on three simple steps – eliminate your target, escape, and then collect your payment. To ensure that you can use this mode to its fullest potential, there is an extensive tutorial mode that shows you exactly how it is done.
The contract briefing, just like it is in single player, shows your target and any sub-objectives, only this time, the parameters and targets are set by players. Your bonus objectives can be as simple as don’t get spotted, but they can also be as complex as killing a chef with your bare hands, dropping another down a garbage chute, and then poisoning another, all without missing a shot. You’ll get additional bonuses for only taking out your target, but you don’t fail if you have to get messy beforehand. Succeeding gives you the dollar amount specified as a payoff sent directly to your paycheck. It will also show you the objectives you met or failed, and how your score stacks up against your friends, those in your country, and even globally.
Creating a contract gives you the chance to dabble in the levels you’ve already played (and it’ll warn you if you are about to play in a level you’ve yet to play), except you are in control of the action. If you think of it as a game of H.O.R.S.E. you’ll have a great idea of what you are doing here. If you can pull it off, you can create a contract that you’ll use to challenge your friends. Stalking any character (actually, up to three in any given contract) and then marking them starts the clock. A simple run of the tutorial level allowed me to target a cop, take him out with an explosion, and then stealthily exit, all without using disguises, and inside of 24 seconds. I can then title the contract and add a description, uploading it for others to play and rate. There are 16 levels to play in, and a ridiculous amount of ways to solve them, so I can see this mode having a lot of replayability. Since you can also specify all difficulty levels as well, you can see how this mode might take a few shots to even build your contract, but you’ve gotta prove it can be done before you challenge your friends. Speaking of friends – once you’ve created a contract you can send it to your friends, allow your friends to invite their friends, and set a maximum duration that they have to try to pull off the same stunt.
[singlepic id=771 w=320 h=240 float=left]Completing contracts earns you money, and that money can be used to purchase new equipment for building contracts. You’ll always have your trademark Silverballers, but being able to create missions with sniper rifles and machineguns will take a few moments to earn. Once you have them you can upgrade them up to three times using additional cash in your pocket. The upgrades are vast, often having upwards of 10 types with three upgrades for each type. With over 50 disguises to unlock as well, you’ll be taking contracts for a while to earn them all. Since the game launches with IO-featured contracts, the ability to send your levels to your friends, and the ability to apply likes and dislikes to bring the best to the top, you can see that contract mode has some legs.
Welcome back, Agent 47
It has been five years since we’ve gotten to step into the black shoes and red tie of our favorite assassin. Many games have tried to do what IO does and have failed miserably. While the world fawns over the Wii U, it’s Agent 47 that brings mature gameplay this holiday season. Hitman: Absolution is a must-buy, and a great way to cap off this “Season o’ Stealth” we seem to have received this year. Stealth is my genre, and from sneaky signature kills to spectacularly horrifying ‘accidents’, nobody does it quite like Agent 47. Welcome back, you balding badass – we’ve missed you.