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Hitman Absolution review: Murder by Numbers

Xav de Matos, @Xav

Somewhere within the A.I.-powered mind of a target is a kindling of what tomorrow brings; a spark filled with aspirations that will soon come to fruition. Goals to achieve, a life to live. That is, until a bald, bar-coded assassin ends those thoughts by slipping a thin fiber wire around his neck. Or pushing him off a building. Or poisoning his morning latte. Stabbing him. Shooting him. Ending him.

Hitman's infamous good/bad guy Agent 47 blends into the background, planning how he will extinguish that spark as a target unknowingly lives the last moments of its life. It's these moments, deciding precisely how to eliminate a target, that imbue Hitman: Absolution with its own special brand of sadistic magic.

Gallery: Hitman: Absolution (8/14/2012) | 11 Photos

Despite what the boisterous, awkward, and hypersexualized trailers have presented, Absolution is no action-focused adventure. In fact, for a professional assassin, IO Interactive's anti-hero is surprisingly clunky with a gun. Aiming is a little too loose, adding time to lining up shots, which could result in enemies spotting you before a bullet leaves the chamber. The majority of my time shuffling a target from its mortal coil focused on methods that did not require a weapon, making issues with running-and-gunning less of a concern during each of the game's twenty missions.

Some time has passed since Blood Money, which ended with a lifeless Agent 47 snapping back to consciousness, surprising a gathering of his enemies in attending the cloned killer's funeral. In Absolution, it seems that all has been forgiven between 47 and his employer, and the trained assassin goes back to work, but things quickly spiral out of control. After encountering an old friend, Agent 47 comes into the care of a young woman and makes a promise to keep her out of harm's way, getting him into hot water with the agency. Two factions – the agency he betrays and a rich mad man looking to sell the girl to the highest bidder – desperately fight over control of this young woman, as though she were an inanimate object. Agent 47 spends the campaign uncovering the plot to take the girl and unraveling the mystery of what exactly makes her so special. Though this breathing MacGuffin is the the key that drives the game's plot, it also drives the narrative into absurdity, culminating in a "What the hell was that?" moment that feels ripped straight out of Akira.

There's a thin tissue that connects levels in Absolution; working in tandem with the equally thin narrative. Absolution desperately attempts to tie levels together somehow, hopping from a dingy gentleman's club in one instance before shooting Agent 47 off to a massive military installation in the next. Suffice it to say the thread between missions is tenuous at best. It's disappointing, because I always felt that Blood Money felt more connected and led to one of my favorite ending sequences of all time.

Part of the issue lies in Agent 47 himself, who somehow manages to come across as someone with even less charisma than typical silent video game heroes. His dull, indifferent manner makes Absolution's attempts at emotional moments fall flat, expertly sniped by the story's inability to be executed half as well as its targets. Despite those somewhat inconsequential stumbles, the real story of playing any Hitman game comes from players themselves, from the decisions they make when exterminating a target.

Developer IO Interactive has made some drastic changes to the Hitman formula this time around, and franchise purists may dislike some of the design decisions. Unlike previous entries, there is no pre-mission planning, no loadout or inventory of deadly items to mull over. Some levels outfit Agent 47 with his signature Silverballers, others give him a loud revolver. Sometimes you get nothing at all. Instead, death-dealing items are all found within the world itself, limiting your assassination options to whatever you can discover within a particular area. You can't kill the King of Chinatown with a poisonous syringe, for example, because that level doesn't have one, though you can poison him with fish. There are also large sections of Absolution where killing a target isn't Agent 47's objective, instead focusing on evading capture or escaping hostile areas.

One could argue that Agent 47 is a wanted man, moving from place to place so rapidly that he doesn't have time to gear up. Along the same lines, one could say it only makes sense for certain levels to see him on the run. Those are all fine excuses, but the Agent 47 I know is a hunter, and in Hitman: Absolution he's often relegated to the role of prey. For franchise purists, these changes may be disappointing. Personally, as a fan of the series, I enjoyed stealthily exploring areas, discovering the best way to terminate my targets.

Watching a target, planning how to take them out, executing on that plan and exiting without a trace feels outstanding, every time. It's a feeling that the Hitman series is famous for and one that translates beautifully in Hitman: Absolution. The signature kills are intelligent, too, forcing players to know all of the working parts that go into each level. One signature kill, for example, allows you to set up a scenario where a target is killed by another NPC based on your interaction with the world, hearkening back to the fantastic opera house level in Hitman: Blood Money.

Once the campaign is completed, there's plenty of reason to go back and play it again. With multiple challenges per level, you'll want to go back to see what else could be done – especially considering one of those challenges is to kill your target in every possible way the level allows. You can upgrade weapons, though I never felt inclined to do so, as I attempted to play completely in stealth, and instead upgraded active abilities like throwing speed. You can also collect new weapons and disguises for use in the multiplayer mode. There are five difficulty settings, including the hardest setting – dubbed 'Purist' – that disables HUD elements (radar, health) as well as Agent 47's 'Instincts' mode, which shows enemy position and movement. After playing through Absolution three times on other difficulties, I'm half way through the brutally challenging Purist mode, in which you need to memorize every enemy movement and anticipate every step. Even then, you'll die ... a lot.

Depending on your play style, you may see other holes in Absolution's armor. The enemy A.I. is pretty idiotic, for example, which you'll find out if you're ever spotted, have a disguise blown, or make too much noise – you'll realize that the bad guys quickly get bored of trying to look into what's going on. Even in a military compound with dozens of enemies, you could systematically dissect enemy lines and the last man standing won't even drum up the gumption to ask himself where all his friends went.

Hitman: Absolution's asynchronous multiplayer mode 'Contracts' is one of the game's more surprising additions. In this mode, players can enter any single-player level, target up to three NPCs in the world, and set criteria for their death to challenge friends and other players around the globe. In order to create a contract you must act it out yourself, with your selected weapons, disguises and play styles (Did you hide all the bodies? Were you spotted?) acting as the criteria for bonus score in the level. Contracts mode does a remarkable job of filling in the murderless void left behind on some of the campaign's levels, giving players the ability to mark targets in any level they choose, even those originally focused on escape. That library mission you've seen where Agent 47 is trying to escape the police in single-player? You could turn that into a three-target assassination assignment, battling the world for top score on the leaderboards instead. It's almost like a murderous game of H-O-R-S-E, which I spent dozens of hours tinkering with.

Hitman Absolution review Murder by Numbers
The PC version, from developer Nixxes (also behind the PC version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution), has a number of bugs that have yet to be fixed a day before launch. One bug showed up during our live stream, which displayed a dozen icons on screen when tutorial prompts appeared in the first level. On a few rare occasions in the PC and Xbox 360 versions, enemies got stuck on the environment after they were sent off their preset path to investigate something. One humorous bug that occurred in both versions happens halfway through the game. If you pick up an enemy's weapon before a certain cutscene begins, Agent 47 will be threatening him with an empty hand during the scene, waving around an apparently imaginary gun (as seen above). There are also some issues with 'Instinct,' in that the feature – which is also used to hide your face from enemies when in a disguise – doesn't activate properly or stops functioning if you drop difficulty down to 'Normal' after attempting a level on Purist. When bugs occur, especially in perfect and methodically paced Purist 'all-stealth, no death' runs, it can be infuriating. But these rare technical issues never broke the experience for me; despite my frustrations, I happily reloaded and started again.

Hitman: Absolution may have abandoned some of the ideals of the original games in the series, but it delivers with its own formula. There are some bugs and the story is disappointing, but it says a lot about the experience that I was able to quickly shake those things off and keep replaying levels or building contracts again and again. Hitman: Absolution has its flaws, but its healthy dose of stealth and creative assassinations reminded me once again why it can be so good to be a bad guy.

This review is based on the final PC and Xbox 360 versions of Hitman: Absolution, provided by Square Enix.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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