The Hitman series has always been a slightly askew series, demanding a lot of its players, but being a thoroughly rewarding experience for those who stick with it, bordering on greatness yet never quite bursting out into the world of Triple A.
The team at IO have learned their lesson when it comes to taking its audience for granted. Maybe in a mainstream, by-the-books shooter you can get away with a sloppy iteration or two, but in a game with fans this passionate and a level of engagement this high, you really can’t screw around.
So it is that, rather than resting on the laurels of Hitman: Blood Money, the team have really taken their time and are coming back to the table with a technically advanced and very thoughtful entry into the Hitman franchise - Absolution.
“We really want to make locations that stand out, that have personality, that tell a story,” says Roberto Marchesi, Art Director of Absolution, with an enthusiasm and a genuineness which compliments his passion for the game. “Even though you’re not actively engaging in them or destroying stuff, just little stuff like crouching behind a couch ought to be entertaining – the world should be interesting to explore.”
The world really feels alive, which is vital for any game where you’re spending so much time slowly sneaking around and observing things.
Indeed, one of the first things which leaps out at you when you pick it up is the bright, colourful environment. It’s simply not afraid to really make each individual item, accessory and location stand out.
“We have a very broad spectrum of locations,” says Marchesi. “It helps to have this level to level variation – we’re not really afraid to give the player a bit more in terms of colour. It’s part of the philosophy we have. We’ll always go to the next level on colour, then scale it back if it’s too much, rather than going the other way around.”
The game hasn’t just imbued its locations with a sense of character, with world coming alive with huge crowds of people. Of course, as with any game which attempts a crowd numbering hundreds of people, you’re clipping through a bunch of them, but it’s a damn hard thing to replicate.
“We wanted you to be able to see someone in the game and know that that guy can only come from Absolution.” Marchesi continues. “There’s no other game that has that kind of edge to it – that’s what we’re going for.”
And they’ve pulled it off – it’s one of the most distinctive-looking games coming out this year. Not surprising, really, considering Marchesi was also the art director for Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, which, for all its failings, was a decidedly unique game visually.
So there are a few things which have Hitman fans cautious about this new entry – one is the risk of over-simplification with the lack of mini-map and Assassin’s Creed style see-through vision mechanic, and the other is the bizarrely off-beat trailer with all those sexy/dead nuns in it.
To the former, the new system works beautifully. It does exactly what the team says it will and makes it easier to interact with the world – it does not, however, make it more simple or more mainstream.
To the latter, Jebus only knows. Marchesi told me at E3 that the nun trailer fit into the game’s vibe, so perhaps I’ve been reading a vibe into Hitman which wasn’t ever there. Either way, from the vast amount of the game I’ve seen thus far, it’s a solid experience which doesn’t belie its roots with a wacky departure into a questionable surreal direction. All smooth sailing thus far.
It really is a game of multiple simple touches. As you sneak up on one person or another, you’ll overhear conversations which (thankfully) are very well written and have voice actors who are able to offer a sentence which doesn’t make you cringe. The world really feels alive, which is vital for any game where you’re spending so much time slowly sneaking around and observing things.
This brings me to the end-game though – what’s genuinely new?
So it’s not making any mistakes as a Hitman game, and it’s going to be what the fans want, but what is it trying which is a step forwards?
I’m glad to say, a lot. There’s a new mode wherein you can record your playthrough of any level, exit at will and have the game remember who you killed, in what costume, with what weapons and much else besides. When you’re done, you select a few parameters you want to add (such as ‘hide all bodies’, ‘don’t get seen’, or ‘don’t fire a shot’) and upload it to the online servers, at which point your friends jump in and try and replicate what you’ve done, only better.
There’s a new scoring system which means that each second counts, each time you’re cautiously eyed-off by a civilian is a rough edge to be ironed out, and each time you raise an alarm you know you’ve got to do better.
The end result is that the highly competitive Hitman community has a new way to play against each other which fuels their competitive spirit while staying true to the series’ roots.
Yes, this game is well on track to being everything a Hitman fan wants it to be, and just accessible enough that people tired of the glut of reflex-based shooters ought to give it a go.
It’s far and away the best time to jump into the series.
By Leigh Harris