I never expected that Hitman Absolution would speak to my competitive side. The game’s first mission began in a way that first missions often begin. As Agent 47 was approaching the whereabouts of his former handler, Diana, to assassinate her for revealing secrets about their agency, the game taught me how to toss things to use as distractions, crouch-walk around to stay out of sight, and use costumes to sneak through restricted areas.
Then, all of a sudden, the game informed me that it was going to start scoring my progress.
At first, I just thought I’d ignore it, given how green I am when it comes to the Hitman franchise… Then they presented me with the national and world averages for the stage. Simply the presence of this information sparked my competitive spirit. I couldn’t stand to have a lower score than the world average. From this point on, the game became less about beating each level than beating it in such a way that I’d be above the world average.
This led to me restarting most stages a number of times. You see, your score is more prone to dropping than it is to increasing. Knocking out or killing someone will drop your score, but doing so silently and efficiently and/or hiding the body will balance that drop. Having someone see through your costume as suspicious or witness some sort of indiscretion (like hiding a body) can also result in a sizable decrease in points. Each thing you do imperfectly is punished. You might finish a stage in a hail of gunfire, but should you not get headshots, your score could very possibly be negative by the time you arrive at your destination.
Seemingly to counteract this, accomplishing the goals of the level (such as killing a certain contract or simply reaching a specific point to finish the stage) will result in a huge point increase, anywhere from 4 to 10 times the penalty for being suspicious, depending on the way that you perform it and the multipliers/restrictions that the game puts in place. If you complete a mission “suit only” or unseen, your score gets a boost.
Whether it’s setting up accidents or lining up a headshot that will knock your victim off of a bridge (instantly concealing them), the point system encourages and rewards certain kinds of stealthy play. For instance, setting off a target’s car alarm to lure him into the vicinity of a remote explosive before escaping in the panicking crowd is more highly rewarded than simply shooting the target in the head from afar as he sits down for a meal. Accidents are better than bloodbaths. The drive to do things with a higher point value than the rest of the world has a tendency to amplify the very trial-and-error nature of the gameplay. A single mistake would have me reloading the stage to try again… sometimes because a single mistake on some stages can make Hitman Absolution completely miserable.
The costume mechanic often led to these sorts of mistakes for me.
You can occasionally stumble across costumes in various corners of a level, or should you incapacitate someone of a certain occupation, you can don their outfit. This costume will allow you to pass people who aren’t of that occupation mostly unquestioned assuming you’re not carrying anything out of the ordinary. For instance, if you’re dressed as a corrupt cop, greaser thugs will pay you no mind, even if you’re wielding a pistol. However, pass by another cop, and he’ll start to grow suspicious of you. You can deflect their interest by holding LB, but doing so drains your “instinct” gauge. When that gauge is gone, Agent 47 will lose his ability to put his hand by his face/pull the brim of his hat down (depending on the costume), and everyone will suddenly freak out and try to arrest/shoot you.
While this is all well and good, I’ve got to admit that I was rather annoyed that in the middle of a chef-filled Chinatown, one chef suddenly got suspicious of my presence and somehow called in a SWAT team. Now, at this point, I hadn’t killed or knocked out anyone, carried a weapon, or done anything aside from a costume change. The fact that this chef somehow had immediate access to a SWAT team and called them in simply because she didn’t recognize the chef in front of her just bothered me, especially because of the way that Hitman Absolution tries to make its NPCs seem more human by having them talking about their daily lives.
It’s a bit jarring to hear an average Joe trucker talking about his newly-born daughter before pulling an Invasion of the Body Snatchers on me and bringing in an attack team for dressing too similarly to him. This would occasionally happen even if I was using instinct, which was just lovely.
While being pursued, hiding until your enemies lose interest is typically the best option, but it is possible to muscle your way through, should you kill everyone before they contact backup, and the detriment to your score makes this option much less appealing… so I kept restarting so that I’d have to deal with it as little as possible. Naturally, after a while, my patience began to wear thin.
My annoyance was at its peak in the areas that only had one or two available costumes. Whereas the more densely populated areas allowed me to move around generally hassle free, when there are two costume options, whichever you choose will have a good portion of the stage looking at you funny if you try to walk by them, which also meant that half of the stage would chase after you should things go poorly. These parts felt like successful play was more about hiding than it was about stealth, and it made things a chore. Sure, I could still get a number of points if I escaped without anyone seeing me, but even with multiple routes and hiding spots in a stage, I missed the freeform nature of the assassination missions.
This wouldn’t be so bad if the majority of the story was simply assassination, but instead a sizable chunk of the game is rather schizophrenic. As Agent 47, I ran from the police in an Uncharted-esque set piece, participated in a shooting contest to get my signature guns back, and even started a giant QTE barfight to gain access to a bartender (who wasn’t actually a target). Yes, these stages have a bit of freedom in them, but it just felt like wasted time in between proper assassinations.
Fortunately, the game’s Contracts mode mostly eliminates that issue. Jettisoning the game’s (well-presented, but not exactly compelling) story to focus on user or IO Interactive-created assassination missions cuts the fat out of the game.
Sure, certain annoying mechanics and enemy layouts are still present, but trying to match the exact way the creator of the contract took out his or her targets is pretty fun (the contracts are made by players simply marking targets and playing through a level a certain way), and attempting to match that taught me a few tricks in terms of how to approach the story missions.
Aside from the obvious plus of providing a new set of averages to try and beat, the points you gain in Contracts mode also allows you to purchase different weapons and costumes to start the stage with. All in all, Contracts mode was the aspect of Hitman Absolution that I enjoyed most.