Important Note: the contents of this post were written in 2014 for a series of tumblr posts analyzing Hitman: Absolution and why it failed so hard. I intend to refer to it heavily in my upcoming review of 2016’s Hitman: Season One, and am not particularly happy with how tumblr handles long text posts, so I’m republishing it here and reformatting it into a single post.
The latest title in IO Interactive’s long-running and much-acclaimed Hitman series, Hitman: Absolution, was fairly controversial on release. Although it reviewed about as well as previous entries into the series (it brought in high-seventies to low-eighties on Metacritic, depending on the platform, whereas Hitman: Blood Money rated low-eighties; Hitman 2: Silent Assassin came in in the high-eighties range but was also released all the way back in 2002, so the numbers may not be perfect comparable), many devotees of the series were profoundly disappointed, even angry, about changes made to the series’ formula, to the point that IO Interactive started the development of the next Hitman title with an open letter promising a return to form. But in the meantime, it’s worth looking back at Absolution, a few years after its release, and asking: was it really as bad as all that? Was it really as broken as its detractors claimed it to be?
Spoiler alert: Yeah, it kind of was. What’s more interesting is why. Closer examination reveals that although some of the game’s problems were unique to it, many others were not. Rather, these flaws were minimized by the level design in previous games, whereas in Absolution the levels emphasized these faults and made them stand out. In this post, I will be looking at the game in three areas (Narrative, Game Systems, and Level Design) to try and clearly express what sets Absolution apart from its predecessors and why it comes up short in the process. Click on the read more for an introduction to my perspective and the context in which I will be writing.
Before launching into a dissection of the whys and hows of why I think Absolution stinks, I should disclose my personal perspective and where I’ll be coming from in this. I’ve been a fan of the Hitman series since I was in high school, when my friend loaned me his copy of Hitman 2: Silent Assassin on PC. I was instantly taken by the combination of stealth and action (and how hilariously the ragdolls would pinwheel around the room when struck with 47’s trademark Silverballers) and I played that game into the ground, eventually managing to achieve a Silent Assassin rating on most missions up until 47’s unfortunate trip to Japan.
So frankly, I have expectations for the series going in, which may have colored my view of the game. On the other hand, however, I didn’t play Absolution until well after it was released, and I had read multiple reviews and arguments about the game’s merits, so it’s not like I wasn’t expecting it. I tried to give it a fair shake on its own terms and leave my personal baggage out of it.
I’m going to mostly be comparing Absolution to two specific games from the series: Hitman: Blood Money and Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. Blood Money is an obvious point of comparison; it’s the game which immediately preceded Absolution (although there was six years between the two), and it set the gold standard for the classic model of Hitman: the levels were huge, AI was fairly complex, there were a lot of NPCs milling about, and players were given a massive range of options for dealing with their targets. It wasn’t perfect, but when Hitman devotees wax poetic about the halcyon days of yore, they’re usually generally talking about Blood Money.
Silent Assassin, on the other hand, is included because on both narrative and gameplay levels, Absolution feels very much modeled after it. There are many points of similarity between these two games, and it would not surprise me in the least to learn that the development team played a lot of Silent Assassin while making Absolution.
First, I’ll be addressing these games’ narrative layers, and why even though the Hitman series has always had bad writing, it hurts Absolution much more than its predecessors.
Harping on Absolution’s narrative is perhaps not that productive; it’s low-hanging fruit and let’s be real, the only really worthwhile part of the narrative layer of Hitman games has always been David Bateson and Vivienne McKee’s performances. Bateson puts in an absolutely heroic effort in Absolution, by the way, but it’s not nearly enough to salvage things.
Yes, Hitman: Absolution features some hilariously bad writing and line delivery. And yes, there are a few sequences that feel like refugees from a Saint’s Row game. And, yes, its treatment of its female characters is questionable at best. But none of that is even close to new! Just listen to the voice acting in Silent Assassin’s opening cutscene – I can’t decide which is worse, the fake Russian accent or the other guy’s feeble attempts to sound like an actual human being. Check out your target’s wife in Blood Money staggering around drunk dressed in almost nothing, and then trying to have sex with a clown. The best thing that can be said about these games’ stories are that they provide an excuse for 47 go around Hitting Mans, and other than that mostly stay out of the way where they can’t cause much trouble.
The problem, however, is that 47 does not spend this game Hitting Mans. The narrative conceit is that he has gone rogue from the Agency and is seeking – you guessed it – absolution by protecting a young girl who, much like 47 himself, was the subject of genetic experimentation to produce a superhuman assassin. He makes a promise to her and to Diana that he will keep her safe, and then almost immediately allows her to be kidnapped and has to spend the rest of the game trying to get her back. That this is yet another ‘strong man protects young girl’ game, a description which applies to so many games released in the past few years that it is practically a genre in itself at this point, should not surprise anyone.
This is not, however, the first time 47 has sought this absolution: in fact, it feels very much like they were trying to recapture the plot of Silent Assassin, which opens up with 47 confessing his sins to a surprisingly nonchalant priest (then again, this is Sicily) and ends with him leaving the Gontranno Cathedral and hanging his crucifix on the door. Unable to find peace and forgiveness in the world of ordinary men, he returns to the life of an assassin. Absolution is playing to similar themes. The abundance of Catholic imagery in both games only underlines these parallels.
The difference between them is that in Silent Assassin, 47 begins the game having left the world of crime and murder, and is drawn back into it over the course of the game by a desire to do the right thing (rescue Father Vittorio), while in Absolution 47 begins the game as an assassin but almost immediately abandons it in order to do the right thing (rescue and protect Victoria – good grief, even their names are similar!). This is a pretty significant difference, because it means that Absolution does not actually have a framework which allows 47 to travel around the world and murder people during the course of the game. In fact, the only hits (defined as murder for hire) he performs are in the tutorial mission and The King of Chinatown! This means that for the other 18 missions, IO Interactive either had to come up with a plot related reason for 47 to murder the targets (often specious ones), or have him do something other than murder targets (usually run from the cops).
The result of this is that, since the game has to plot-justify 47’s murders, the lousy story intrudes into the game itself far more than it does in previous Hitman games. In Silent Assassin and Blood Money, you could skip all cutscenes without losing much but there is no chance of doing that in Absolution. In addition, it leads to a lot more levels where the objective is not to kill a target, but rather to get from point A to point B; these levels had to exist because the narrative’s premise is that 47 is on the run from both the police and the Agency, and the game has no other way of demonstrating that.
While these types of levels existed before Absolution, they were generally thought of as some of the worst in the series; in fact, Silent Assassin’s Hidden Valley and At The Gates levels, two successive A-to-B missions set in the mountains of Japan, were voted by fans as the worst Hitman missions of all time. And, as I will discuss in the next part, these A-to-B levels disrupt the usual flow of Hitman gameplay and dilute the experience significantly.
03. Stealth Systems
The classic Hitman formula is a stealth game, but it is not a stealth game in the same sense as Thief, Deus Ex, Dishonored, or Hotline Miami. In those games, the key is to avoid the enemy’s line of sight and to remain silent when in their hearing range. Enemies (best referred to as ‘guards’) begin in a passive, patrolling state, in which they move about in fairly predictable patterns, responding only to player action. Make noise, and they will come to investigate. Enter their line of sight, and they will enter an alarmed state, in which they break from their usual movement patterns and begin to actively pursue and attack the player character (and typically will also send other nearby guards into an alarmed state as well). Depending on the game, you may have more or less leeway in managing the situation once this alarmed state begins, but you cannot avoid the situation and remain in plain sight at the same time. There are also other characters, who we will call civilians, who will not themselves pursue and attack the player character, but who will go run to alert a guard, triggering an alarmed state.
In the Hitman games, on the other hand, 47 is able to blend in with the people around him. In public areas he simply becomes part of the crowd, and he can wear uniforms or other outfits in order to infiltrate areas that are off-limits to the public. In addition to line of sight and auditory range, guards possess a third criteria which determines whether or not they enter an alarmed state: suspicion. Suspicion raises if they see you with a gun out or otherwise behaving in a manner they deem suspicious, and if their suspicion rises too high, they will identify you as a threat and become alarmed. Suspicion is affected by various factors: when a body is found, all guards become more suspicious, and if they find the body you took your disguise from that disguise will become less effective at allaying suspicion.
There is also an intermediary state between patrolling and alarmed, best named suspicious, in which the enemy is aware that something is not right about 47, but has not yet identified him as an intruder. In this state, the guard will follow 47 around, more closely monitor him if he is in the guard’s area of patrol, and will react more quickly to suspicious behavior. Depending on the circumstances and the guard in question, the player may be able to defuse this situation simply by walking away casually, or else may have to lure this guard to a secluded area and deal with him forcefully. Depending on how 47 got the guard’s attention, naturally, this phase may be extremely short of even non-existent: if the gardener comes around the corner with a sniper rifle in hand, even the dimmest of guards will immediately identify him as a threat.
The function of the disguise system, then, is to allay suspicion. So long as 47 is disguised as someone who is permitted into the area he’s in, and does nothing to bring attention to himself, the suspicion meter will not rise – or, at least, will not rise sufficiently to cause an alarmed state.
From this basic formula, Absolution makes two innovations: first, that characters who 47 is disguised as will quickly see through his disguise at close range. If dressed as a police officer, for example, the disguise will function perfectly against an electrician, but spending too long in a police officer’s line of sight will send him into a suspicious state. The other is the introduction of the Instinct system, which is intended to complement this modification to the disguise system.
Instinct is a finite resource, restored by making progress through the level and by silently killing enemies, which when expended performs various functions: it allows 47 to see the position of nearby characters, even through walls, and indicates where they will move next. On lower difficulties, it provides hints for the player. It allows him to use precision shooting to kill multiple enemies instantly. Finally, when 47 is under scrutiny by guards or civilians, it can allow him to temporarily defuse suspicion. Activate Instinct, and 47 will cover his face with his hand, briefly preventing attempts to identify him.
In theory, these two systems are intended to add a level of realism and challenge. Disguises are no longer foolproof, requiring 47 to more carefully plan his path through the level, and intuitively it makes sense that police officers or guards would recognize one of their own, and would thus be more likely to recognize an imposter. In practice, however, these innovations completely break the disguise system.
The purpose of disguises has always been to achieve access. In civilian garb, 47 can only freely enter a relatively small part of the map, and will be barred from entering other parts of it. However, in Absolution, the areas your disguise makes available to you will inevitably be full of the characters you are disguised as. Even once you have access, you have to remain out of sight. Use of instinct will allow you more freedom of movement, but using Instinct in this manner burns through your reserves incredibly quickly. Even a full meter is unlikely to last for more than ten seconds. Thus, disguises are all but useless in many parts of the game, and Absolution becomes much more like a traditional stealth game: line of sight is everything.
In addition, this new disguise system is entirely too literal at times, leading to major breaks in realism. In the tutorial level, the guards are ordered around by a loud, controlling, detail-oriented commander. He personally vetted and hand-picked each and every one of the guards, and controls all elements of the target’s security team. And yet, disguise yourself as one of his men, and he won’t think anything of it; the disguise is effective on him because he is not a guard himself, never mind that he’s the person on the map who should be most able to see through 47’s disguise. Ambush the chef and wear his clothes, and the commander will demand angrily to know why he wasn’t told about the new chef’s assistant, but he will not become suspicious or alarmed.
One defense of these changes is that Hitman 2: Silent Assassin did similar things in terms of disguises, and that Absolution is merely returning to these roots. And, to be fair, it is true that in Silent Assassin guards you are disguised as will become suspicious of 47 if he comes too close, and will even see through the disguise fairly quickly. However, I would argue that this was also a major issue in Silent Assassin! If nothing else, this system completely broke the missions set in Japan, where 47’s disguises were completely useless even though they almost all covered his face. It was a bad idea, detrimental to the Hitman concept, and was rightly scrapped in Contracts and Blood Money. Furthermore, the implementation was quite different. In Silent Assassin, guards and NPCs were organized into factions, and all members of the faction you were disguised as would recognize you. This avoided problems like the commander from Absolution’s tutorial mission. And finally, have a look at this screenshot from Silent Assassin:
Look at how close I am – while suspiciously walking backwards, no less! – while disguised as a guard. And yet, look at the suspicion meter in the top left hand corner of the screen. No suspicion whatsoever! The acquisition range on guards in this game is much shorter than in Absolution, where guards seem to have an almost unlimited line of sight. This small difference alone alleviates much of the problem.
However, a bigger difference by far is the level design. Absolution’s level design is radically different from Blood Money and Silent Assassin’s, and as we will discuss next time, these changes badly exacerbate the problems these system changes create.
04. Level Design
When discussing video game level design, it is generally more useful to think of a level in terms of phases, rather than as a series of discrete spaces. The spacial construction of a game space (the size and design of the locations which a player’s avatar moves through during the course of gameplay) is generally a secondary concern in the design process. Rather, what is important is how the player experiences the space. For example, consider an example which most people have played through: Portal’s very first test chamber.
Considered spatially, this level has very little going on. It consists of three rooms, connected by short corridors. One room contains a box, in which the player’s avatar spawns, and which cannot be exited except by way of a portal which opens a few minutes after spawning. The second room contains a switch and a cube which can hold down said switch. This switch opens the door to the final room, which contains the exit to the level.
However, there is much more player experience going on than that brief listing of spaces and contents would suggest. Consider the level, instead, from a player experience perspective: First, the player spawns in a small confined space. This space is full of physics-able objects, and a variety of onscreen prompts informs them of their movement options. The player is already learning about the game: first, that it controls like any standard FPS, and second, that objects within it can be picked up and manipulated. Perhaps more importantly, however, the player quickly learn that they are trapped. Although the game has prompted them to test out their movement controls, they can’t use them to go anywhere.
In order to ensure that the player discovers this, Valve implemented a considerable delay before the game’s first-ever portal opens. It takes a little while for GLaDOS’s first piece of monologue to begin, and GLaDOS is allowed to ramble on at considerable length. This is the only time in the game when the player is kept waiting for one of GLaDOS’s lines to finish, and it’s no accident. By the time that first portal springs to life, a restless player has so thoroughly circled and checked their room that when it does, there is no question that the portal is breaking spacial continuity. This is emphasized by the configuration of the portals, allowing the player to clearly see themselves – or, to be more specific, their avatar Chell – through them. This introduces the game’s primary mechanic in a completely safe and intuitive manner. Finally, the incredibly simple puzzle which opens the door to the elevator introduces the game’s other major mechanic: holding switches down with boxes.
By the time the player has stepped onto that first elevator, they have been introduced to their avatar, introduced to the antagonist, and had two major game mechanics explained to them. All of this from a tiny space which contains no real obstacles and no noteworthy geometry. The physical dimensions and content were made to serve the needs of the player experience, not the other way around. The same is true of almost all other games.
While the player experience in many games is carefully tailored and crafted by the developers, due to Hitman’s open-ended nature, the developer does not have the luxury of directing the player’s action in a linear way. However, Hitman does present a fairly consistent player experience. The key to this success is that, although open ended, most Hitman levels are built around a simple formula, which can be broken down into five phases:
- Discovery. In this phase, the player is allowed to freely traverse the public areas of the level. The guards are not yet actively looking for 47, nor will they accost 47 unless he begins behaving suspiciously where they can see him. Although 47 is limited with regards to which areas he can safely enter, the player can use this time to orient themselves, get a feel for the level’s design, identify vulnerable access points for restricted areas, and find disguises. In some levels, 47 may be able to walk right up to one or more of his targets during this phase – although it’s unlikely that he’ll have an opportunity to surreptitiously off him. Regardless, a rough plan begins to form in the player’s mind. When the player feels ready to act on it, they proceed to the next phase.
- Infiltration. This phase begins as soon as 47 breaks the rules of the environment and does something suspicious. This may include entering a restricted area, or knocking out a janitor and taking his clothing. However he accomplishes it, 47 now has access to restricted areas of the map. He is now able to gather information more thoroughly, and can begin stalking his prey in search of the perfect opportunity to do the deed. The risk of discovery is still quite low in this phase, unless the player is sloppy, but greater care must be taken to avoid detection. A complete plan now begins to form in the player’s mind.
- Assassination. This phase begins the moment the player sets their plan in motion. This phase might last for only a few moments, or it might involve ten minutes of waiting for that damnable opera track to finish playing. Regardless, during this phase of the level, the player is actively hunting and working to eliminate 47’s target. The risk of discovery is greatest at this stage, as it is the only phase which requires that the player act in an overtly suspicious manner, and targets are usually at the center of the level’s highest security.
- Recovery. This optional phase is triggered by a mistake. A guard you weren’t expecting walked around the corner while you were strangling your target. An electrician spotted you with a gun out and ran to find a guard. You opened the wrong door and got seen sneaking into a back room. There are a lot of ways the player can screw up while playing Hitman. And when it happens, you can either immediately reload your save file, or you can try to recover from the error and complete the level anyway. If you haven’t saved in a while and redoing the level will mean listening to the opera track again, recovery looks pretty good. The best way to recover is always to kill everyone who saw you, hide their bodies if possible, and then lie low until the furor dies down. If you don’t have the opportunity to do that, you might instead sprint to a good hiding place and crouch there until they stop looking for you. If you succeed in recovering, the game resets to the appropriate regular phase, although the guards will likely have heightened suspicion.
- Escape. You’ve gotten in, you’ve done the deed, and now it’s time to leave. If you were particularly stealthy, this phase might involve nothing more than a casual stroll towards the exit. If you made a lot of noise and fuss, it might mean a tense game of hide-and-seek with the guards, or a shootout in the final corridor. This phase covers every action taken between the completion of the last objective and when 47 reaches safety.
For an example of how this formula plays out, consider the level Kirov Park Meeting from Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. In this level, 47’s objective is to kill two Soviet generals who are meeting in the eponymous park. The generals arrive in two limousines, parked at opposite ends of the park, and will flee the area in the same limousines if an alarm is sounded. The agency has left 47 two carbombs, a silenced pistol, and a sniper rifle at a drop near the level’s starting point. There are multiple ways to complete the level, but here is one method, broken down according to phase:
- Discovery: 47 is free to walk around the streets surrounding Kirov park, although he cannot enter the park itself without bypassing the guards posted at each entrance. From here, the player can locate the limousines, note that one of the limos is parked right on top of an open manhole, see that the only entrances are heavily guarded, and identify the radio tower and cathedral as potential vantage points for sniping. A rough plan forms in the player’s mind: one general will be eliminated with a carbomb, and the other will be shot from the radio tower.
- Infiltration: The player returns to the agency supply drop and retrieves the sniper rifle and one of the car bombs. Making it from the drop point to the sewers with a sniper rifle is made problematic by the presence of an unusually nosy guard, so the player shoots him with the silenced pistol, drags his body behind the dumpster, and takes his clothing for good measure.
- Assassination: The player enters the sewers, climbs up beneath one of the limos, and attaches the car bomb. He then makes his way through the sewers to the manhole which nearest to the radio tower. He disposes of the guard, climbs the tower, and then pulls out the sniper rifle and waits for a good opportunity. When he has a clear shot, he shoots the target whose limo he has not sabotaged. The other target panics, runs back to his car, and dies when the carbomb explodes.
- Escape: The player returns to the sewers, runs through them back to the drop point, changes back into 47’s trademark suit for extra style points, and then walks right back onto the boat he arrived on. Mission accomplished.
The same formula can be applied to some levels of Absolution as well. Consider, for example, The King of Chinatown, generally considered to be one of the game’s better levels. In it, you must assassinate the eponymous King of Chinatown, a local crime lord who has set up shop in a pagoda in the central square. The pagoda is surrounded by corrupt police officers, and he leaves it only for a few specific purposes: to eat, to urinate, to check on his car, and to meet with his drug dealer. The level might play out something like this:
- Discovery: Once again, 47 has free reign of the streets. He is considered trespassing only in the alley containing the King’s car, on the pagoda, the building which houses the drug dealer’s apartment, and the employee-only areas of some of the local food vendors. The player can walk directly up to the King’s pagoda and stalk him through the crowd, but has no good opportunity to kill him undetected. An NPC has informed 47 about the car and the apartment, and so the player decides to break into the drug dealer’s apartment.
- Infiltration: A police officer sits on guard by the stairs leading up to the drug dealer’s apartment, but he’s easily distracted by sabotaging a nearby fusebox. The player slips past him and makes his way up the stairs, entering the drug dealer’s apartment just as the dealer is answering a phone call from the King himself. The player breaks out the fiber wire, and then stuffs the dealer’s breathless corpse into a closet. The player had intended to take the dealer’s clothes and use them to lure the King to an isolated area, but a far better solution has just presented itself: the drug dealer’s apartment contains a Kazo TRG sniper rifle and a window with a clear view of the pagoda.
- Assassination: The player simply waits for the King to return to the pagoda, takes aim, and sends the crowd into a panic by placing a bullet right between the King’s eyes.
- Escape: Unfortunately, the Kazo TRG is not silenced, and so the police officer the player evaded earlier is now running up the stairs to investigate the gunshot. The player hides 47 in the same closet they earlier stuffed the drug dealer into, waits for the police officer to turn his back, and then emerges and shoots him in the back of the head with a silenced Silverballer. The player then takes the officer’s clothing, stashes the body, and uses the disguise to make his way to the level’s exit.
It should be noted that what I have described here is quite generalized. Not all Hitman levels follow it exactly. The most notorious examples are Hidden Valley and Enemy at the Gates from the Japan section of Silent Assassin, which were voted by fans as the worst maps in Hitman history, but significantly better missions, including the St. Petersburg Stakeout and Tubeway Torpedo from the same game, also lack a meaningful Discovery section. In these missions, 47 must begin Infiltration almost immediately, and has no way of traversing public areas without a disguise. Furthermore, Hitman games have a tendency to end on a violent note, in a mission full of openly hostile guards. In Blood Money’s optional final mission, stealth is not even an option; 47 must stand up in the middle of his own funeral and engage in a bloody (and enormously difficult) gun battle.
Silent Assassin and Blood Money contain twenty and thirteen missions, respectively. The following is a list of missions which do not conform to the formula, and how they differ:
- St. Petersburg Stakeout. No real Discovery phase. 47 is free to freely move around the subway terminal he spawns in, but cannot progress in the level without immediately picking up a sniper rifle, thus entering the Infiltration phase. There is nothing of interest in the train station itself.
- Tubeway Torpedo. No Discovery phase. 47 spawns in the sewers, which he is free to run around in as much as he likes, but only because there are no guards in them. All guards in the area are already suspicious of and hostile towards 47.
- Hidden Valley. No Discovery phase and no Assassination phase. The only objective is to reach the end of the map.
- Enemy at the Gates. No Discovery phase and no Assassination phase. The only objective is to reach the end of the map.
- Shogun Showdown. No Discovery phase. All enemies are immediately hostile to 47.
- The Graveyard Shift. No Discovery phase. All enemies are immediately hostile to 47.
- The Jacuzzi Job. No Discovery phase. All enemies are immediately hostile to 47.
- Tunnel Rat. No Discovery phase. All enemies are immediately hostile to 47.
- The Death of Hannelore. No Discovery phase. All enemies are immediately hostile to 47.
- Terminal Hospitality. No Discovery phase. All enemies are immediately hostile to 47.
- Redemption at Gontranno. No Discovery phase. All enemies are immediately hostile to 47. There is no Escape phase either, as the game ends as soon as you complete the Assassination phase.
- Death of a Showman. No Discovery phase, as this is a tutorial level and the game wants to teach the player about the new stealth mechanics.
- A Dance with The Devil. No meaningful Discovery phase. 47 only has access to an empty parking lot and the lobby, which contains nothing of interest except for a guard who can easily be lured away to his death.
- Requiem. Not really a mission at all, but rather a simple shootout.
Of the thirty-three missions contained in Silent Assassin and Blood Money, only fourteen do not follow the standard Hitman formula completely, meaning that it applies to approximately 57% of them. Note that almost all of these exceptions are concentrated in Silent Assassin, where the formula-pure missions make up only 45% of the game. Blood Money, by contrast, is composed of 77% formula-pure missions. If you were to exclude Death of a Showman and Requiem from the calculations, owing to their exceptional nature, that percentage rises to 91%.
Note that when exceptions are made to the formula, they are almost always the exclusion of the Discovery phase. Of the main four phases of the Hitman formula, this is arguably the least important phase, as easy access to a functional disguise allows the Infiltration phase to serve much the same purpose; looking around while disguised as a guard is similar in terms of gameplay experience to looking around undisguised, so long as the guard disguise stands up to scrutiny. It’s clear as well that the series had been moving away from Discovery-free missions over time; they were quite common in Silent Assassin, but almost entirely absent from Blood Money, the later game.
Breaking down Hitman: Absolution missions according to the formula described above is somewhat more difficult. This is because the game’s structure is different; whereas in Silent Assassin and Blood Money each mission consisted of a single map, each mission in Absolution is broken down into multiple segments, each of which is a discrete map in itself. The obvious solution to this difficult is to gauge according to the number of segments instead of the number of missions. However, this is also a flawed solution, as segments vary dramatically in length. The Central Heating segment of the Rosewood mission, for example, consists of all of two rooms, while the Chinese New Year segment of Hunter and Hunted consists of a sprawling map with three assassinations to perform. While it’s certainly true that missions in Silent Assassin and Blood Money could vary considerably in size, they were far more equivalent than these examples. On the other hand, if Absolution is broken down only to mission level, only two missions, The King of Chinatown and Shaving Lenny, meet the standard Hitman formula (out of eighteen, excluding End of the Road and One of a Kind, which are more interactive cutscene than actual mission). This erases certain segments of the game which do meet the criteria of the formula.
Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, and so I have broken Absolution down in both ways. As writing these breakdowns out would be impractical, please instead consult this spreadsheet I’ve prepared, with the first sheet representing the game as broken down on a segment-by-segment basis, and the second on a mission-by-mission basis. I’ve excluded missions and segments with no substantial interactive elements – Victoria’s Ward, One of a Kind, etc. – so as to not skew the results. As you can see, the results differ significantly depending on how they are broken down, although the end result is the same: in both breakdowns, only 11% of the game follows the Hitman Formula.
The most striking differences lie in the Assassination and Escape phases. Only 33% of gameplay segments contain an Assassination phase, but 66% percent of missions do. Conversely, 90% of segments contain an Escape phase, while only 50% of missions do (bear in mind that for the breakdown by missions I only considered the mission to have an Escape phase if it ended with one; movement between mission segments did not qualify). This strongly indicates that a small number of Assassination phases are stretched out over the course of the game, and are connected by a series of levels in which the objective is simply to progress forward (hence the high number of Escape phases). However, missions tend not to end with an escape phase, generally transitioning directly to a cutscene once the mission objectives are accomplished.
More to the point, however, these statistics clearly reveal that Absolution’s levels are not designed according to the same principles as those of earlier games. While missions which strictly adhere to the Hitman formula have never been universal or even the overwhelming majority, they make up only a tiny percentage of Absolution’s content, no matter how it’s broken down. Furthermore, the manner in which they differ from the formula has changed. Of the fourteen missions which broke the formula in Silent Assassin and Blood Money, ten (70%) did so by excluding only the Discovery phase. Only the games’ respective final missions lacked an Escape phase, and only Hidden Valley and Enemy at the Gates – widely considered the worst missions in the history of the franchise – lacked Assassination phases. By contrast, although the Discovery phase is almost entirely absent from Absolution, the Escape phase and, most critically, the Assassination phase are also routinely omitted.
As a result, a different understanding of Absolution’s mission design is required. I’d say that they are best understood as two separate categories, each with their own design priorities: standard levels and evasion levels.
As the name would imply, ‘standard levels’ are mission segments which fit, in large part, the formula of the Hitman series. If they are missing any phase at all, it is the Discovery phase. In these segments, 47 must infiltrate an area, identify and assassinate a target who moves throughout the area according to his or her own pattern and AI, and then escape the area afterwards. There are a total of sixteen standard levels:
- Mansion Ground Floor
- Chinatown Square
- The Vixen Club
- Chinese New Year
- Streets of Hope
- Test Facility
- The Arena
- Parking Lot
- The Penthouse
- Blackwater Roof
- Burnwood Family Tomb
On the other hand, ‘evasion levels’ are those in which the objective is simply to maneuver or fight one’s way past the guards and reach the level’s exit. There may or may not be other objectives to complete en route, but they exist to facilitate the escape or to provide another obstacle towards escape. These missions do not contain a Discovery phase. In some of these levels, 47 is evading pursuit, and in others he is traveling deeper into enemy territory of his own volition. The common thread is that 47’s only interaction with NPCs is to avoid them. There are a total of thirty evasion levels:
- Terminus Hotel
- Upper Floors
- Burning Hotel
- The Library
- Pigeon Coop
- Train Station
- Dressing Rooms
- Derelict Building
- Convenience Store
- Loading Area
- Orphanage Halls
- Dead End
- Old Mill
- Factory Complex
- Patriot’s Hangar
- Holding Cells
- County Jail
- Hope Fair
- Blackwater park
- Cemetery Entrance
There are a few levels which fall into neither category, which I will call ‘Miscellaneous levels’. The makeup of this group is not as consistent as the other two, for obvious reasons, but they are generally structured like standard levels without an assassination to perform. Unlike evasion levels, these segments have a Discovery phase. The exception to this is Mansion 2nd Floor, which serves solely as an explanation of the game’s shooting mechanics. There are a total of four miscellaneous levels:
- Mansion 2nd Floor
- Great Balls of Fire
- Gun Shop
Although Silent Assassin and Blood Money did not always adhere strictly to the formula they were designed around, only three missions from these two games would not fit into Absolution’s standard level set, and only two of those would be considered evasion levels: Hidden Valley and Enemy at the Gates, both of which were terrible missteps that ought to have never been repeated. There are a number of reasons why these missions are considered the worst in Hitman history, but perhaps chief among them is that simply evading detection is not particularly fun in the context of Hitman. The game is not designed around simply getting from point A to point B, and sabotaging stationary equipment is a poor substitute for an assassination. By contrast, evasion levels are rampant in Absolution.
Why did this shift in priorities occur? Was the game handed to a team with little experience with the series? Was there one misguided executive pushing the wrong agenda? Was it a conscious effort to redesign the game for modern sensibilities, or to make it more palatable to console gamers? We may never know. What is clear, however, is that this change coincides with the nature of the game’s narrative.
As previously noted, Absolution makes the narrative layer far more central than did Silent Assassin or Blood Money. Furthermore, this narrative positions 47 as a man who is on the run and who is already being actively hunted. It pits 47 against powerful enemies who already have it out for him personally. Whereas before the organizing principle of the series’ narrative was ‘go to location, hit man, receive money’, in Absolution the narrative must find excuses for 47 to be present at critical junctions in the plot, and that involves a lot more leg work. Going places and avoiding pursuers becomes more important than killing targets, leading to a movement away from the Assassination phase.
The question, of course, is: which came first? Were the levels built in order to satisfy the demands of an already-written narrative? Or was the narrative written to accommodate a set of levels? Either way, these two layers of the game amplify each other, causing the game to drift further and further away from the standard Hitman formula.
Although we’ve up until this point focused on the level design as a player experience, rather than the actual geography of the level itself, it’s difficult to deny that the spacial design of Absolution’s missions are also a departure from the series as a whole. For example:
1. Map Construction
In Absolution, 47 has lost access to the map. In previous Hitman games, the press of a button would bring up the blueprints of the surrounding area, with a separate map representing each vertical level, marked with areas of interest and targets’ locations. Exactly how much information 47 has access to depends on the game and difficulty level; at the basic difficulty level in Silent Assassin every NPC is marked on the map and their locations are updated in real time, but in Blood Money only important NPCs and guards are.
In Absolution, however, this map is nowhere to be seen. Taking the map’s place is Instinct, a system which allows the player to see enemies and other NPCs through walls, see their future walking path, and identify targets and areas of interest from a distance.
This change likely has to do with the fact that missions are now broken into discrete segments instead of being one huge map. Apart from 47’s disguise and inventory, the game does not keep track of any actions taken from area to area. The player can set off multiple explosives and leave a dozen strangled bodies in plain view, but as soon as 47 passes through the door to the next area all suspicion is forgotten. A map system would not make any sense in this model; either 47’s map would need to change completely every time he moved on, or the game would need to keep track of the movements and actions of NPCs who 47 cannot influence in any way.
All of this serves to make planning ahead all but impossible. The player has no way of knowing about an area’s layout before entering, and has no way of knowing what to expect the next area to bring. Instead of careful preplanning, the player has to fly by the seat of their pants and adapt to the situation in front of them.
Those who choose to defend Absolution’s disguise system often do so by pointing out its similarities to Silent Assassin’s. As I noted in a previous section, although they are similar, Absolution is much harsher about it, and enemies are much more suspicious as a whole. In addition to this, Absolution’s level design most certainly exacerbates the problem. For example, consider this screenshot from Anathema, the first mission of Silent Assassin:
Currently disguised as a mafia guard, 47 needs to make it across this courtyard to an unseen door, located just past the second tree from the left. A guard stands on top of those stairs. If 47 walks right by the guard, the guard will see through his disguise and become hostile. This would be a big problem for 47, except that look at how much room he has to the guard’s right. It’s huge! The player can easily skirt around to the right and bypass that guard altogether, without arousing the slightest amount of suspicion.
The reality is that Absolution’s levels are tiny. That courtyard alone is larger than some whole levels in Absolution. And not only the short evasion segments between larger setpieces: you could fit most of the Chinatown map from The King of Chinatown and Hunter and Hunted into that courtyard, and the strip club level would fit neatly within its confines. There are very few levels in Absolution which cannot be crossed end-to-end in less than a minute at a walking pace.
Although it’s not clear exactly why the Hitman team decided to go with small levels for this entry, it’s not difficult to guess. Note that the game’s most complex and dense levels, with the most active NPCs, are almost all its smallest: the Chinatown levels are cramped, the strip club is basically a single room, and the bar could be walked across in twenty seconds if not for the obstacles in one’s way. By contrast, the cornfield, the only segment comparable in scale to an average Blood Money or Silent Assassin mission, is a ghost town, populated only by a few pockets of guards scattered here and there across a huge, empty space. There seems to be an inverse correlation between a level’s size and its complexity. Given that, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the game was shrunk in order to accommodate the limited hardware of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.
Understanding the reason for this shift towards small areas does not, however, alleviate the problems it raises. Because each level is so small, the player is forced into close contact with guards and other NPCs at all times. In many cases, player simply has no choice but to walk right past a guard. These close quarters make Absolution‘s disguise system all the more troublesome, because 47 is constantly at risk of having his disguise blown. Only rarely can he simply give a guard a wide berth, as he can in the above screenshot.
3. Save Slots vs Checkpoints
In all Hitman games prior to Absolution, progress within a mission was saved in a specific and somewhat unique manner. The player was only allowed to save a certain number of times, and those saves had to fit into a certain number of slots. For example, the player might be allowed to save five times, and have three slots to save in. Save number four will require the erasing of one of their previous saves. This system was designed to prevent ‘save-scumming’, in which players constantly hammer the quicksave button and reload whenever something doesn’t go their way. At the same time, it allows players to commit to their progress, and return to an earlier gamestate if they completely screw something up. It gave them the freedom to experiment, but without the freedom to abuse the save system to remove all of the game’s challenge.
In Absolution, this system is replaced by a checkpointing system. The game is saved at the beginning of each segment, and in some levels the player can activate manual checkpoints, saving their position and state (although, crucially, very little else. The game will remember your disguise and weapons, but if you reload from a checkpoint non-target enemies you’ve taken out will be alive and well again).
Although it may seem like a minor change, the result is a much more repetitive game experience. In Silent Assassin and Blood Money, the player can save after accomplishing a required but tedious action, such infiltrating a Russian base and finding an officer’s uniform in Silent Assassin’s Tubeway Torpedo. Although some repetition is inevitable, as the player has to ration out their saved states, the player can decide where the breakpoints lie. In Absolution, by contrast, the player must generally begin a segment from the very beginning every time the finicky stealth systems betray them or they misjudge a guard’s range of vision.
In my first playthrough of Absolution, I tried to play it on hard difficulty up until Rosewood, when I gave it up in a fit of rage and reduced the difficulty to Normal. The issue was with one of the fuses 47 is tasked with finding during the Orphanage Halls segment. At Normal difficulty and below, this fuse sits at the very back of the room it’s found in, and 47 can easily sneak in and take it with nobody being the wiser. On hard difficult and higher, however, the fuse sits right in the middle of the room, at the center of a circle of four guards at all times. I played through this segment, completing try after agonizing try, every time restarting from a checkpoint which was positioned two and a half minutes of ducking and covering away from the fuse’s location. Every single time I made a tiny error and the game sent me into a functionally unrecoverable failure state, I had to perform the exact same actions for two and a half minutes, every single time. The repetition became mind-numbingly painful.
The point of this isn’t that that section of level was poorly designed – indeed, I just replayed it at the same difficulty and managed to get it right on the second attempt. The point is that in previous Hitman games, it would not have been so frustrating. I could have saved at that room’s doorway and tried just that segment over and over again, rather than having to restart from the same point every single time. And unfortunately, it was not the only time when I had to restart an area over and over. A checkpoint save system is simply inferior for a Hitman-styled game.
4. Cover and Linearity
One of the other changes made in Absolution is the addition of a cover system. The use of cover to break line of sight had, of course, been a part of the gameplay from the very beginning, but now the press of a button tells 47 to cling to a wall or object, and the directional controls now instruct him move along its perimeter. When 47 is in cover, he is all but invisible to NPCs who are on the other side of his cover, and he can safely move between nearby pieces of cover using a context-sensitive button.
In isolation, this cover system is a welcome addition to the game. In previous games, using cover to break line of sight was a finicky business, and the cover system simplifies this process substantially. It also allows 47 to properly take cover during a firefight. It is also fairly well-implemented; while many games featuring cover systems have issues with player characters attaching to the wrong surfaces, or unintentionally attaching to surfaces when trying to perform other actions, in Absolution one is only likely to have even minor problems when trying to duck into a corner.
However, this cover system is given the task of compensating for the changes made to the disguise system, and here the game struggles. Because disguises are much less effective in Absolution, keeping out of sight becomes of paramount importance, and the cover system provides the tools for remaining unseen.
Unfortunately, this has the effect of making levels more linear: navigating each level now requires that the player follow the paths of cover which the developers have laid down for them. Passing undetected without making use of this cover is all but impossible in most cases. As such, the player has fewer viable paths they can take through the environment.
It’s become something of a truism within the Hitman fandom that Absolution “is an okay Splinter Cell game, but a lousy Hitman”. While that’s perhaps too cute, I hope that I’ve shown that whatever its other merits, there is indeed something fundamentally different about Absolution as compared with the rest of the series. While it is true that Absolution is mechanically a reasonably close relative of the other games in the series, a game is more than a simple collection of gameplay mechanics. Just as important to the playing experience is the ends to which those mechanics are put, and as I’ve demonstrated, in this regard, Absolution could not be more different from the other games in the series. It’s not a matter of a single mechanic or aesthetic choice. It’s not simply that the game’s narrative is more important than it ever has been. It’s a combination of factors which, together, reveal misaligned priorities on the developer’s part. The game they were trying to make is simply different from the Hitman games of old. And it’s just not as good.
One of the toughest things about this game review is that Absolution very nearly works. In the Chinatown levels, in the barfight sequence, even in the train terminal, in all the segments where the developers filled the space with crowds for 47 to lose himself in, the areas where they really allowed players time to look around and come up with a plan…you can see what they were going for. The game looks amazing, the animations all work beautifully, and although the main plot was as puerile as ever, some of the banter between guards was really inspired. Some of its cutscenes had fantastic musical direction. For brief moments, I could believe that I was playing a good game. But then another tedious escape sequence would begin, or I would get spotted through my disguise from a million miles away, and the illusion was shattered. It comes close to working but those last few inches destroy the whole project.
The crowds really were the key ingredient in the Hitman: Absolution cake, giving 47 a way to compensate for the incredibly strict disguise system. That they were so seldom used really says a lot about how troubled this game’s development process was, and how wrong-headed the decision-making involved was.
Fortunately, the next game in the series appears to be starting off on the right foot. The concept art they’re showing and the promises they’re making indicate that, at the very least, they understand that the smaller levels were an error. Does this mean that they’ll stay true to the classic Hitman formula? I hope so, I really do. I love this series, and doing this review has only made me love it all the more.
I really want another game to love. Just give me that, Eidos. Just give me that.