The Most Murderous Janitor in History
HIGH Sneaking around as a scarecrow while killing nuns is so surreal it's sort of fun.
LOW Having a guard 100 yards away see right through my disguise.
WTF Who left all these empty dumpsters around for me to hide in? Why does no one ever look inside them?
Dear IO Interactive,
I'm not generally in the habit of writing game developers letters—I tend to just formulate my thoughts about whatever I've recently been playing in the form of a review—but after finally completing Hitman: Absolution, I felt compelled to go with a more personal approach.
Before we dive in, a bit about me. I'm your target audience—a self-identified hardcore gamer who's loved your Hitman titles from the start. Agent 47 is one of the few gaming characters I really like. Sure, that Timothy Olyphant version in the movie didn't work quite the way I wanted it to, but hey—game movies are usually a disaster. They didn't get Max Payne right, either.
With that in mind, I scored a copy of Absolution with high hopes. It's been six long years since I've last seen Agent 47 (that's like a century in gaming time) and I was excited about his return. Sam Fisher and Solid Snake might do the whole stealth thing well, but they don't quite scratch my itch when it comes to plotting out elaborately detailed assassinations. That's Agent 47's niche—and man, have I been missing it.
All of this is just to point out how excited I was to be back in your leading character's finely-tailored suit. I went into Absolution excited about the prospect of authoring a new adventure in death written in the digital blood of my enemies—which is why I'm so disappointed with the end result of your latest game.
It's generally accepted form to start off critiquing with something positive, so allow me to begin here: Absolution is hands-down the prettiest Hitman game to date. The graphics are a marked improvement from the previous generation's titles, and appear even nicer than those featured in the last outing. The characters might be a bit over the top, but the modeling is impressive.
The same can be said for the landscapes Agent 47 sneaks through. An early segment in Chinatown feels and looks alive, so much so that I can all but smell the cooking duck at the vendor shops and the bum urine staining every alley.
Unfortunately, though, it's all sort of downhill from there. I can't shake the feeling that Absolution was focus-tested into oblivion. Did you guys do that? Did you rip out the worst page from the Hollywood movie playbook and solicit feedback from focus groups to shape the direction of this game? I mean, nothing else explains why this particular outing feels like such a departure from the earlier installments —or why it feels so slapdash in the construction and implementation of its game mechanics.
I only ask because you guys made a big deal of talking about how this Hitman was going to appeal to a wider range of gamers than ever before. That made me nervous when I heard it (and that sense of foreboding was only made more palpable after seeing the focus on combat in the much ballyhooed "killer nuns" trailer), and my fears certainly came to fruition.
I'm sure you'll agree that Hitman has always been, first and foremost, a stealth game. Yes, there are brutal assassinations—but those hits are the culmination of a well-executed plan. Think of them as the game's equivalent of porn's money shot, if you don't mind a crass analogy. The kills are the reward, and the real joy comes in everything that leads to our arrival at that moment. Was it the The A-Team's Hannibal who said he "loves it when a plan comes together?" That's how earlier Hitman games felt. I'd guide my Agent 47 through an open environment, learning what the patterns of movement were, and then I'd formulate and execute (pun fully intended) a devious plan to eliminate my target.
That's gone in this new outing. I mean, it's purely absent. It's just not there. Disguises, once one of the coolest features of Hitman, have now been completely screwed. Dress up as a security guard and another guard a football field away will somehow notice you and blow your cover? It's shoddy and makes moving quietly around the levels a complete chore.
Speaking of those levels, why are so many of them so linear? The hallmark of Hitman always involved open areas with multiple ways to complete an objective. I could sneak into a highly guarded mansion and shank my target in the heart so that he could look into my eyes as he took his last breath, or I could snipe him from a mile away with no one ever getting close to me. That's missing here. Sure, you guys throw in an option here or there, but many of them feel obtuse, clumsy, and not really worth the extra effort. Add in the enemy A.I. (which vacillates between idiotic and supergenius) and the whole game feels like little more than trial and error. Reloading to start over because some enemy arbitrarily spotted me isn't fun.
In fact, I think you guys might have realized that, which is why it's entirely possible to blast through the game on the normal setting. I love using Agent 47's Silverballer pistols as much as anyone, but they should be the tool for delivering the aforementioned money shots—not my key to getting over every hump in difficulty. I'm an assassin— blasting my way in and out of locations makes no sense. At least when Splinter Cell: Conviction went this route, it was quasi-logical since Fisher is a grizzled soldier. Agent 47 is not the same kind of character.
This speaks to the greater logical disconnect of your entire game. How bizarre is it that two men can be standing next to each other at a railing and I can sneak up and push one over, then the other, without the second guy noticing what I did to the first? Why can I shoot up an area, then duck into one of the conveniently placed body disposal boxes, and no one ever bothers to look inside? Better yet, why can't I shoot or kill enemies from this cover?
The body disposal boxes might be the most immersion-breaking element in your entire game (no small feat, that…). They make no sense in a narrative context and my constant reliance on disposing of enemies in them makes me feel more like a murderous janitor than a world-class assassin. It's all just so…disappointing.
That's the same word I'd use to describe the plot of this game, too. Narrative has never been a highpoint for your titles, they really exist to give players a visceral thrill from pulling off perfect assassinations before slinking back into the shadows undetected. Yet, even by the admittedly low narrative standards of earlier entries, Absolution fails.
The overarching plot is some tripe about Agent 47 rescuing a girl who's maybe even more of a super assassin than he is. This alone should set off alarms in your head since your main character is a ruthless assassin—and ruthless assassins aren't really big on rescuing people. Adding insult to injury are the rest of the goofy cast members—a rich redneck, a 'roided out bodyguard, the previously-mentioned killer S&M nuns, a crazy sheriff with a taste for being dominated (really, what's with all the kink in this game? None of it serves a purpose…) and so on. By comparison, 47 is the least strange person in this bizarre concoction.
For impact, just let that sink in for a moment—the assassin with a barcode tattooed on the back of his dome is the most normal guy in this game. The whole thing just tries too hard. I find it all a bit insulting. Maybe next time just craft an open world game with various targets to assassinate and skip the whole story thing…
I guess that's sort of what you've done with the Contracts section of the game—and kudos for that, because it's better than the main game by a fairly significant stretch. The idea of players and developers alike crafting their own missions and objectives for others to try and duplicate often feels like a deadly game of Horse. "Kill Officer X with the garrotte while wearing a security guard uniform and escape without being noticed…" is the murderous equivalent of "crossover dribble, hop on one foot, arching jumpshot, nothing but net." I'm not sure I'd want a whole game built around it, but I definitely had more fun here than in most of the story missions.
Anyway, I hate to be so negative about this—I'm sure you guys set out to make a great game that would satisfy longtime Hitman fans while bringing new ones into the fold, but I'm sad to say you missed the mark. For every one interesting level (like sneaking around through cornfields as a scarecrow), there are too many that just aren't any good. Let's be honest here—
when a game's mechanics work against the player at almost every turn thanks to poor design and implementation, it's pretty safe to say you've failed as a developer.
I don't tell you these things to be mean or to put down your hard work—but in the hopes that you'll take the criticism to heart and give us back the Agent 47 so many of us have come to know and love. Stop worrying about "growing the brand" and "appealing to wider demographics" and just do what you were so good at in the previous games. Players will come, because a good game is a good game. Hitman: Absolution however, is not a good game.
Oh, and one last thing before I go—please, for the love of all that is holy, never make another title where I kill the final boss in a cut-scene. If I've played through the entire adventure, the very least you can do is allow me the satisfaction of pulling the trigger personally. Anything else feels like cheating and deprives the player of a reward for their work. Thanks.
Yours in stealth,
Disclosures: This game was obtained via rental and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 11 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed one time) and one hour of play in multiplayer modes.
A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.
Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.
In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.