With a six year absence since Agent 47's last outing, it's not surprising to see that everybody's favourite murderer has gone through a few changes. And while series purists may lament the days of yore, Hitman: Absolution still steals the show with its unique stealth elements, freedom, and deadly satisfaction.
Indeed, Hitman: Absolution does stray slightly from the path of previous entries, but it feels like a natural progression for the character and the narrative. Agent 47 is given a contract to kill his former handler Diana after she liberates an Agency asset in the form of a young girl. The protagonist's previous relationship with Diana, and memories of the horrors he suffered at The Agency's hand when he was a boy, trigger an elaborate tale, as Agent 47 agrees to keep the girl safe and free.
It's an interesting setup, but one that suffers from cringe-worthy humour as the narrative meanders towards the obscure and ridiculous. Characters mostly devolve into caricatures of themselves, and it's easy to lose interest as a result. However, the series has never been known for its strong story, and while developer IO Interactive are far more heavy-handed with the plot this time around, it can still be ignored.
As a consequence of the tale, Agent 47 is thrown into acts of bartering, revenge, and information gathering, rather than the traditional assassination jobs. The sequel removes the ability to choose your own equipment at the beginning of missions, and the save anywhere mechanic, leaving you to search out checkpoints within the area of operation. Despite these tweaks, your actions mostly follow the same script as previous Hitman titles.
Equipped with your trusty silenced pistols, garrotte wire, and disguises, you're prompted to kill specific targets, interrogate the corrupt and powerful, and generally murder or subdue your way through untold numbers of henchmen. A new instinct pool allows you to avoid being spotted and scan your environment to clue you in on guard patrol routes and interactive objects. Instinct also acts as the fuel for a Splinter Cell-esque targeting mechanic, which provides assistance when your back is up against the wall. Environments tend to be small or separated into segments, but there's still plenty of room for you to tackle your objective in any manner you choose.
You can stealthily sneak past guards, subduing or killing anyone that gets in your way, before dealing with your quarry up-close and personal. Alternatively, you can disguise yourself with the clothes from almost anyone you incapacitate, and then use this disguise to walk by anyone that's not wearing the same getup. As always, there are the multiple 'accidents' that can befall your target – with a little help from you, of course. Electrical outlets can be sabotaged, food can be poisoned, and targets can be shoved as they stand precariously over huge drops. There are many options available to you in each location, often unique ones to the mission, making the experience extremely varied.
There's always the more direct approach, as well; storming in all guns blazing, taking human shields, and indiscriminately killing anything that moves is possible if you prefer. However, this has never been Agent 47's style, and while you're no longer required to blend into the environment, kill silently, and escape without anyone ever knowing you were there, you're still encouraged to achieve the cleanest, most efficient kill possible.
You're scored on how well you execute each mission, with points awarded for efficiency, stealth, and generally anything considered good hitman etiquette. Additionally, a challenge list can be pulled up at any time, which provides you with a set of conditions to meet for each mission. At times is can feel as though you're being punished for your autonomy, and nudged towards the game's preferred route, but it's actually a well defined set of rules a good assassin should follow. And even if you alert a whole army of bad-guys, and kill dozens of innocents, your score may be low, but the mission is still registered as complete, allowing you to continue the game without any impact on the next objective. Of course, the score system encourages you to replay missions, and improve your total. With multiple ways to tackle each stage, it all adds to the longevity, and is part of the reason why Hitman games are so compelling.
In addition to the campaign is an asynchronous multiplayer mode named Contracts. Here you play through a solo mission, but instead target someone other than the story-specific character. Upon dispatching an individual, you can then upload your contract for other players to try. It's up to them to match the conditions of your kill, and better your score in the process. It's a fantastic mode that successfully blends the traditional Hitman kills with a unique multiplayer element. The breadth of quality contracts available is disappointing at the moment, but once the community fully commits, we expect there will be plenty of challenging and interesting scenarios to enjoy.
Hitman: Absolution represents a stellar return for Agent 47, incorporating the best elements from previous titles, while also experimenting with plenty of new ideas. Some of the additions are a little rough around the edges – the narrative stumbles over its ridiculous characters, and the checkpoint system discourages experimentation – but it's still a refreshing experience that challenges your thinking and rewards perfection.