This week I downloaded the HD remakes of the PS2 Hitman games ( Silent Assassin, Contracts, and Blood Money) thanks to PS Plus giving them away for free. Going back through the old games is a great trip through memory lane, though it made me more depressed than ever at the shoddy sequel that was Hitman: Absolution. It's one of those rare games that, while not technically bad in any way, fails to live up to the pedigree of the series.
Why is this? Lets take a look at some of the things the new Hitman got wrong...
1.All That Talk and You Still Said Nothing
This may seem like an odd point to start with, but I’m starting from macro to micro problems, and believe it or not, I feel the single worst creative decision—the one that ripples throughout all of the other decisions of the game—was this story.
Put simply: This is a terrible story in general, and an absolutely wrong-headed one for a Hitman game. Why? Because it actively impedes the player from committing assassinations.
Read that again. Of all of the problems with this game's story, the biggest is that is actively works against the center of the gameplay. By putting Agent 47 on the run most of the levels are designed around escape/infiltration as opposed to pulling off a hit.
This, to me, is a baffling decision.
Hitman games don't require large stories--heck, the previous games basically had a small "wrap-around" to give the missions some sort of context, and that was it. Abolution's could’ve been as simple as there is some sort of conspiracy and Agent 47 needs to kill the conspirators. Or even better—continue where the last game left off, where 47 needs to hunt down the rival assassins in the organization that killed most of his company. Boom. There’s your throughline for the experience. It’s rare that I’ve seen so much effort put into a story no one will care about, and actively impedes the experience that players WANT to have with the game.
And Jesus, this story. This stupid, poorly written, overly-complicated yet-still-silly story, with characters and villains that make no sense in this universe. This uninteresting, done-to-death story about a hitman finding his conscience thanks to a little girl. This story that's filled with weird hang-ups about sexuality and women in general. This story that opens by making you kill off the only other consistent character in the series (which is particularly strange, considering she saved your life at the end of Blood Money). This story that constantly contradicts Agent 47’s character.
Actually, let’s talk about that briefly—this game is not faithful to the Agent 47 in past games. You may not think that Agent 47 had a deep characterization, but he still had his definitions. He was calculating, unemotional, efficient, and intelligent. He had rules.
So when I got to Absolution's midway point and was offered the choice whether or not to kill a mentally handicapped person, or leave them in the desert to die, I suddenly found myself very confused. This is not 47. There are all sorts of things like this in the game, and it starts as early as the end of the second level when, with no target to kill, Agent 47 blindly jump guns blazing through a door without knowing whose on the other side? That is not smart. That is not calculating. That is not how a HITMAN would approach the situation.
That's a generic action-hero. And in fact, that might be the best way to describe the plot Agent 47 is brought through--it's a generic action-hero's story with Agent 47 grafted into it.
But we've talked enough about story--what about actually playing the game? Well...
2.Always on the Run, Never Having Fun
The scarcity of assassinations has major repercussions on the feel of the game. Here’s the thing about stealth games—they need catharsis. All stealth games have it—Metal Gear Solid has shooty sequences and memorable boss fights. Assassin’s Creed has killings and daring escapes. Hitman’s catharsis was after an hour of tense, nail-biting play, being able to spring your trap on a target and watch it work perfectly. When you take that away from most of the levels, there’s no release. The natural rising and falling tension is gone, replaced with a series of short, linear levels where you just run to the next exit sign.
And getting to the exit in most levels? Well, it’s way easier to do it without taking disguises, because…
3. I'm Already Dressed to Kill
The disguise system is busted. There’s no way around it, and I feel like on some level the developers knew it too. Many levels I found it much easier to simply hide behind crates, stay low, and never bother changing out of my suit because it was a simpler way through the mission.
This has never been what Hitman is about. Hitman is about hiding IN PLAIN SIGHT. About taking out your target and not standing out from the crowd. It hasn’t been about Sam Fisher/Solid Snake/Assassin’s Creed maneuvering through an environment, and the sudden emphasis on mobility took away from Hitman’s unique systems.
Not only that, but the idea that keeping your face hidden is a SPECIAL POWER completely screws the balance. In a level that’s nothing but cops and you’re using a cop uniform? Well then pray to God you don’t have to walk past a bunch of police in the first few minutes or you’ll be out of ability to blend in with few places left to refill it. This is not cunning. This is not stealthy. Mechanically, this is a turbo boost in WipeOut.
Now because you’re moving through most areas as opposed to setting up an assassination, in most levels it makes to just stay out of sight rather than risk getting caught in a poor disguise. I think that, on many levels, that’s how the developer wanted you to play, because…
4.You’re Taking a Test, and You’re Always Failing
Previous Hitman games had a scoring system that would kick in at the end of every level. Depending on how you took out your target and how much chaos you did/didn’t leave in your wake, your payout would vary. In Blood Money, they also added a system where the more carnage you left, the easier it would be for enemies to identify you in later levels. It served as a good reminder to keep it stealthy, and it communicated that idea by rewarding expert play with more money for new equipment in next missions.
But then you have this game—a score system constantly in the upper right corner of the screen, tallying each and every little mistake you make. The games score system is like a helicopter parent who tells you to try again, but every time you make a decision passive-aggressively says “Oh, well, I don’t think that was the right way to do things.” It’s the difference between taking a test and having it graded when you're finished, and having someone stand over you while you take it, marking every answer as correct or incorrect as you go along.
As opposed to feeling like I’m discovering my own way through a level, I feel like I’m being penalized for not finding the developers super-specific-and-wholly-correct route. It’s antithetical to the entire Hitman experience, actively dissuades improvisation and thinking, and makes you just wonder what the exact series of moves you need to make are so that your score doesn’t get creamed.
Past Hitman games let you screw up. This one can't stop reminding you of every time you do.
5. The Good Old Days
I'm currently working my way through Contracts, which still has some of my favorite missions in the series (The Meat King's party is a particular favorite). Rediscovering the different ways to accomplish the hits makes me long for another game in the series with the same level of creative freedom.
There are moments in Absolution that work. The end of the police level where you’re waiting for a train, struggling to keep yourself hidden in a crowd while police comb through them had me palms sweating. Hell, the mission where you had to kill three men in Chinatown in a relatively tight time frame in an insanely crowded scene made for some good thinking.
But in the end, Absolution's top down design—emphasizing a story that doesn’t fit the game or the character, building missions that don’t pay-off, limiting your assassinations, breaking the game’s disguise system, and having a score meter hovering over your every move—all of these things take away from the core gameplay and themes of previous hitman games.
I want to see this series back on it's feet, and I hope that the next iteration pays a bit more attention to what really made the earlier games tick.