Levels are subdivided into discrete checkpoints, which in itself is an inoffensive change. Transitions can feel arbitrary, however, with the guards in one section of a level blissfully unaware of the bloody, noisy carnage that occurred just down the hall. More importantly, only a precious few of Absolution’s stages take the form of typical hits. There’s a couple of standout non-hit levels, including a train platform sequence that acts as a stunning showcase for IO’s crowd technology, but the rest are guard-filled stealth sections, snappy action sequences, or quasi-traditional levels that do have targets but drop 47 in a hostile environment from the start. Far too many of these levels are less than memorable, and they seem eager to nudge you towards conflict. There’s not a section of the game that can’t be ghosted through by a skilful player, but it’s a different kind of stealth that Absolution encourages. It’s less focused on hiding in plain sight, and more on keeping out of it, while the substitution of the series’ map screen for X-ray Instinct vision encourages quick thinking over planning. Absolution would rather players adapt to mistakes than reload, too; the inability to save whenever you wish can lead to punitive restarts.
At its worst, Absolution is never less than a solid action-stealth title. Its controls, cover systems and AI behaviours are consistent and easy to understand, with disguises in particular having benefitted from IO’s codifying of the rules. When 47’s dressed up, you can trick any NPC not similarly attired, but those of the same type will be suspicious (this does occasionally throw up logical oddities such as all the chefs in Chinatown seemingly knowing one another by sight). In order to get past a suspicious NPC, you must burn through some of 47’s Instinct meter. Instinct, which also powers a mark-and-execute manoeuvre, can be topped up via stealth kills, but when it runs dry the wrong disguise can be worse than useless. The clarity Absolution gives you is useful, but it’s frustrating and sometimes illusion-breaking to have the effectiveness of a stealth system reduced to a supply of mana points.
But if many of Absolution’s additions are misguided, Contracts mode isn’t one of them. It’s an intelligent and considered introduction of multiplayer into Hitman’s world, and it even salvages the game’s weaker levels by restoring a sense of possibility to them. Elegantly turning 47 into a mission design tool, Contracts lets players pick targets, carry out their own assassination and then share the ‘contract’, competing with friends to see who can assassinate the mark the quickest and most cleanly. Played well, Contracts encourages a reliance on 47’s more basic skills, since NPCs need to be divided from one another with distraction and executed efficiently, but even a scrappy kill could well result in you having to entirely rethink the level.
Contracts redeems Absolution, but it doesn’t absolve it. The game has taken a unique formula and diluted it, allowing the fashionable trappings of other stealth titles to intrude upon a series that has always confidently eschewed convention. It’s often churlish to criticise a game for daring to do something different, but Absolution is its own indictment – it’s still at its peak when it gives its antihero an unwitting victim and a sandbox, and lets him get to work.
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