Six long years since the bald-headed, bar-coded Agent 47 last appeared on home consoles in Hitman: Blood Money, there's something to cherish about his return. With a scarcity of truly stealth-driven games at market – where set-piece laden, high-octane action titles are ten-a-penny – IO Interactive have sought to redress the balance with Absolution. It's a genuine shame, then, that it just comes up short.
In seeking broader appeal for its series, there's a definite sense IO has stripped back some of the most interesting signature moves from its back catalogue, and purists will no doubt find some of the newest additions to the Hitman template unwelcome amongst its open-ended structure and stealth-based gameplay.
Chief amongst them is the new 'Instinct' mechanic that allows the player to 'see through the eyes', as it were, of the double-digited silent assassin. Similar in appearance to Arkham Asylum's 'Detective Mode'; Instinct serves in highlighting enemy targets (as well as draw their movements), signalling key items within the mission environment, and distracts the gaze of inquisitive guards where disguises are involved. And for that, Absolution is perhaps the most accessible of Hitman games to date, but there's no question it detracts somewhat from the experience at large. With it, players will be guided through many of Absolution's missions without too much trouble. Where stealth-driven games so often are marked on their ability to emphasise problem-solving, careful hiding, stoical patience and careful planning, having so many tools at your disposal from the get-go seems to remove much of what we'd expect from Agent 47's return. IO will no doubt point to the fact that the game on its harder difficulties reduces the impact of Instinct, though there's still something to be had in keeping the flavour of a game alive without punishing the player for wanting to experience it.
It doesn't help either that Absolution is much more linear than its forebears, with only a few stand-out moments from the campaign where open-ended gameplay is favoured ahead of dimly-lit corridors and infrequent checkpoints. One, a mission set amongst the hustle and bustle of Chinatown is a particular strong point, involving a nefarious crime lord and multiple ways to 'off' him. Do you plant explosives on his vehicle? Poison the produce of the nearest food stall in the hope he'll take the bait? Or go the old-fashioned route and fire a .45 round through his temple? Alas, it's choices like these that elevate Absolution above many of the usual suspects, where calculated moves and thoughtful tactics take the place of run-and-gun action.
Other levels, like that in the moonlight-soaked library, make good use of the upper and lower levels and busy environmental design, allowing Agent 47 to skulk through the shadows, use many a literary work as cover and perform assassinations with a deftness and silence worthy of his status.
Not that there's a whole lot of depth to be had here though truth be told. With many of the environments' points of interest sign-posted, never does Absolution reward players for trying things out for themselves. Where ingenuity so often reaped the rewards in the likes of Blood Money, IO's insistence to help the player at every turn means much of the achievement in discovering new tricks of the trade is lost. Moreover, despite IO's claims that the AI would show more nuanced behaviour this time round, there's very little sign of major improvement – triggering an alarm all too often prompts guards to confront 47 with no concern for their personal safety. A slo-mo, Max Payne-esque 'mark and kill' mechanic soon sees to that...
Much more successful is the score system at the game's heart that, like Absolution's secondary 'Contracts' mode (in which players can task friends to beat their contract kill scores), brings a competitive edge to an otherwise single player-focussed title. By assigning scores to a variety of in-game actions (from donning disguises, to dispatching targets in gorily interesting ways) as well as punishing players for others (killing innocent civilians, for example), not only does it extend the longevity of the game – we repeatedly found ourselves restarting missions once completed to boost our score – but it proves instrumental in allowing players discover the very best the game has to offer, where a second play-through will be sure to uncover all-new distractions.
Attempts to shed new light on the character of Agent 47 with the conspiracy-laden plot never sits quite as comfortably. Starting off with 47 being tasked to kill his former 'handler' Diane Burnwood who has since gone rogue, the story revolves around a young girl named Victoria whom Diane entrusts you to keep from the prying grasp of 'The Agency', for reasons as then unknown. The mystery at the heart of the game is intriguing and some drama is mined from the set-up, but in truth is largely used as a device solely to connect very disparate mission locales, while it so often seems farcical with a cast of zany, cooky and mentally-unstable characters that seem to have been transplanted straight from IO's previous, Kane & Lynch.
Absolution might well be the most visually lavish, mechanically sound and, with the introduction of the likes of the 'Instinct' feature, is easily the most accessible Hitman to date. And yet, so too does it feel not entirely in the same vein, with much of what we'd come to expect from the series either missing or unjustly watered down. He may look as dapper as ever in that iconic red tie-and-suit combo, but Agent 47's long-awaited return with Absolution isn't always of the same calibre. 7/10