Hitman: Absolution’s entire first act is caked in grime. Cockroaches skitter about in pantries. Cigarette butts litter air vents. Blood-spattered motel room walls are cleaned by jaded, world-weary maids. Particle effects and a fuzzy film grain filter make the air itself thick with decay. And it’s beautiful.
Absolution later moves on to sunnier climes, but it’s at home in Chicago’s rundown apartments and seedy hotels. Here, adulterous couples meet, desperate businessmen make equally desperate sales calls, and bent cops make deals with organised crime. IO’s Glacier 2 engine takes the moral degeneration and slathers it over the environment itself, painting in the incidental details such as the filthy state of a Chinese takeout’s kitchen, but dealing in broader brushstrokes, too. An overabundance of smeary bloom and lens flare faintly recalls the documentary style of the studio’s Kane & Lynch sequel, whereas light itself is almost aggressively stylised, with blades of it cutting violently through the game’s darker corners, exposing all the ugliness.
Absolution’s at its best in the levels that allow Agent 47 to weave dispassionately in and out of all that moral turpitude. Eavesdropping on tenants, spying on criminals: there’s always been a voyeuristic pleasure to IO’s series, a stealth game that staked its claim on the domestic and the urban while Solid Snake and friends went off to war, and Absolution is crammed with the kind of nonessential detail that shows the studio’s understanding of this fact. Guards chat and bicker when they’re not instructing loved ones how to operate the DVD player over the phone, while civilians go about their routines. Absolution’s highlights, then, are the stages that drop 47 in a clockwork microcosm of everyday life – a small-town street, a bustling market, a courthouse in session – and let him sadistically subvert it, twisting the situation to his advantage via a dash of poison here, a sabotaged power cable there, and one or two changes of outfit along the way. It’s at its best, in other words, when it’s simply being Hitman.
Accidents are still a good way to kill a target without arousing suspicion. Absolution’s NPCs have a worrying tendency to walk under disco balls, industrial pallets and museum exhibits
But Absolution spends a great deal of time not being Hitman at all, at least not as we know it. For series fans, the PR campaign for Absolution has been agonising, offering flashes of the familiar intermingled with what seemed like unnecessary loans from less atypical stealth games. The mystery was how it would all hang together. The answer is that it can’t.