Hitman Absolution

“How many lives will you take to save one?” asks the back of the box. “Absolutely loads,” replies Pocket-lint. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of coppers, rednecks, truckers, miners, construction workers, security guards, strippers, sexy killer nuns, and a pig; all mercilessly slaughtered in the name of plot development. Or not, as the case may be. No doubt as you read these words, somebody, somewhere, is painstakingly working their way through Absolution without firing a shot in anger.

Hitman is after all, in theory at least, a stealth game, and the mysterious Agent 47 returns after a six-year absence, replete with trademark black suit, red tie, and barcode-bearing slaphead. A master of disguise, he hides in plain sight, gets the job done, and disappears into the shadows. In practice, what generally happens is that someone sees you, an orgy of bloodletting ensues, and then you hide in a wardrobe for 20 seconds until it all dies down.

Shoot To Kill

It’s a schizophrenic affair, swinging wildly between moments of sphincter-tightening tension and ludicrously frenetic action, as the blood flies and the bodies pile up. And while you can shoot your way through the early stages, you do eventually have to take a more inventive approach. It’s just that while you’re looking for the elegant solution, you get sidetracked by ten-minute gun battles - replete with multiple costume changes - which generally end with you face down in a pool of blood.

Agent 47 is certainly equipped with the tools for the job, with 19 unique firearms, including the iconic dual Silverballers - which, perversely, are fairly ineffective. He’s also a master of improvisation, as happy to crack someone about the temple with a hammer as he is to smack them upside the head with a fire extinguisher, or leave a friendly proximity mine in their path. Garrotting and throat-slashing are also in his repertoire, and it’s an ultra-violent business that easily warrants the 18 rating.

On the stealth front, disguise is his primary ally, the more unusual the better, the reason being that if you’re dressed as a policeman, for instance, other policeman will become suspicious. You can befuddle them momentarily with the all-new “instinct mode”, which replaces the old mini-map and enables you to “see the world through the eyes of Agent 47.” What it actually does is enable you to see the world through the eyes of Batman, a direct steal from that game that highlights every hidden enemy, climbable ledge and accessible vent. It also activates the so-called “point shooting”, a pseudo bullet-time affair whereby you can tag multiple enemies and murder them in cinematic slow motion.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Getting through each level is often a case of trial and error, and with fairly sparse checkpoints you’ll find yourself repeating sections multiple times until either superior firepower wins out, or you discover an often ludicrously simple solution. The game is at its best when you’re tantalisingly on the cusp of being discovered, and something as seemingly straightforward as confidently walking towards the exit can be almost unbearably tense, particularly if you have to pick the lock once you get there.

As for the story, it’s an obligatorily preposterous affair, taking you from the mean streets of Chicago to the badlands of South Dakota, where you’ll encounter all manner of unsavoury characters and witness countless unspeakable actions. As long as it doesn’t offend your delicate sensibilities, it’s a joyously sleazy world to inhabit, with an almost Tarantino-esque level of depravity, littered with the trademark Hitman black humour.

Very much a single-player experience, it’s an epic campaign that keeps on giving, with several false endings requiring you to carry out one more job. So you can only imagine our joy when at 6am the concluding scene inexplicably froze, forcing us to replay the final level.

As for multiplayer, there is none, the only concession to online being the leaderboard-based “contracts” mode whereby you design your own challenges or attempt those of other player. On current evidence, nobody’s playing them, as they’re probably still sunk up to the elbows in the main campaign.

Verdict

In many ways, Absolution is an old school videogame, replete with high scores, keycards, single-player emphasis, political incorrectness, and unconscionable levels of ultra-violence.

It’s also a massive production, with quality voice acting (including Traci Lords, Google fans) and a near-hysterical orchestral score that ratchets up the tension. It’s also rammed with swathes of little details, and there is ample replay value, simply to see what you missed.

Arguably the world’s bloodiest stealth game, it does get to the stage where the relentless murder almost becomes an annoyance, and there is ultimately more satisfaction in duping your foes with a bit of clever chicanery. An intense experience, Absolution is a sprawling adventure that leaves you slightly sullied, but hugely entertained.