Thoughts On: Hitman Absolution

Hitman 1Hitman: Absolution undermines itself spectacularly. It is a perfect testament to the importance of sweating the details. All it takes to bring Absolution down is one fatal flaw: its save system.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Hitman is a long-running franchise of assassination-simulators – traditionally, each consists of a series of large, open areas in which a specific target must be eliminated. Inventiveness is rewarded – each level is packed with objects and situations that can be manipulated to the player’s ends to achieve the goal with as much or as little subtlety as they desire. At a fancy party, for example, one might be able to disguise themselves as a chef and poison the target’s food, or sneak in through a backdoor and plant a bomb in a pot plant, or just eschew stealth entirely and go in all guns blazing.

Absolution is something of a revival/reboot, coming 6 years after the series seemingly ended with Blood Money. For the most part, it sticks impressively close to the original format – exploration and ingenuity are rewarded with plenty of options and possibilities, giving a great sense of freedom, reminiscent of games like Deus Ex or Dishonoured. The actual mechanics are fairly rudimentary (stealth, especially, seems very simplified), but there’s enough meat to the levels, and enough options in the difficulty settings, to dispel any worries about ‘dumbing down’ (though hardcore fans of the series may disagree).

Unfortunately it’s all for nought, in the face of the aforementioned abysmal save system. The way it works is that each level has a certain amount of checkpoints, and…well, that’s it. There’s no manual save, and certainly no quick save. The checkpoints are few and far between, and often in inconvenient areas – and worst of all, when you reload a checkpoint, all enemies and characters in the level respawn and reset. If you’ve been carefully knocking out civilian witnesses, killing guards and hiding bodies up to that point, then essentially all your work is completely undone. This can have disastrous consequences, rendering a situation you’d made safe suddenly dangerous, and perhaps worst of all it creates huge cognitive dissonance – how did I even get to where I am if, retroactively, everything I did to get here didn’t actually happen?

In previous Hitman games if you were about to do something risky, or experiment with something interesting in the environment, you’d make a save just before, and reload if things turned sour – and, to prevent over-use of saves, different difficulty levels would impose different limits on how many saves you could make in a level. Here, if you make a mistake or something doesn’t go as planned, you’re forced to replay big chunks of the game – which dissuades you from experimenting or taking risks entirely. In a game that derives all of its entertainment from experimentation and potentially risky exploration, this is ludicrous.

Hitman 2

It wouldn’t be so bad if replaying those chunks weren’t such a hassle. The structure of the game relies, in part, on the AI characters following pre-scripted routines – they have conversations among themselves, they travel around the area in specific ways, they undertake certain actions. This is what allows you to subvert them – if a character talks loudly about being hungry, it gives you a decent idea that you might be able to poison them via some food, and once you’ve seen them walk to and eat a bowl of noodles, you know that in any subsequent replaying of the sequence, they will always repeat that exact action following that conversation. You can arrange their demise accordingly.

The problem with this is that if you do need to replay a sequence more than once, you’re having to watch the same long, dull scene play out every time. Characters are rarely in any sort of hurry, and their interactions, though sharply written, are necessarily very mundane. This becomes tedious quickly.

To provide an example:
I was playing a mission set in Chinatown, in which I was charged with eliminating a skeezy mob boss. After a few failed runs, I determined that he would, at a certain point, buy a large quantity of cocaine from a local dealer, and that if I were to poison these drugs with uncooked fugu fish, stolen from a nearby sushi stand, I could pin his death on the dealer and leave no trace of my presence at all.

First I found a sushi chef, and stealthily knocked him unconcious, stole his uniform, and stowed his sleeping form safely in a nearby dumpster. Using this disguise, I was able to gain access to a sushi stand, and steal the deadly ingredient.

I walked to where I knew the dealer would be picking up his stash from, and poisoned the goods with the fugu. I walked back to where I knew the boss would be meeting with the dealer. I waited in the crowd, as they had their conversation about cocaine. I waited as the dealer went off to gather his stash, while the target wandered off to peruse the market. I waited while the dealer walked slowly back to the meeting place. I waited while the target walked slowly back to meet the drug dealer.

The dealer and the target agreed they’d go to a secluded place to take the drug. Wanting to see my handiwork, I followed them as they walked slowly to a nearby apartment building, chatting all the while. I noticed as they went inside that the building was guarded – I decided to snoop around a bit, see if I could get in undetected.

I don’t know what happens past that point, because I strayed into the wrong area for a second too long, and a guard spotted me and shot me. At that point I gave up on the plan entirely, in frustration – it was the latest in a long line of restarts, playing through these same sections over and over and over when things went wrong. And, of course, I’d already restarted many times as I’d prodded and poked at the world in developing the plan in the first place. I was thoroughly sick of waiting for this mob boss to casually return to his dealer, listening to him lazily suggest they go somewhere more private, sick of all of it. What should have been a slick, satisfying sequence became an exercise in unnecessary tedium. I never even found any checkpoints.

It is both fascinating and disappointing to see how such a basic detail, handled poorly, can unravel the entire structure of a game. I feel like all of this can be traced back to one bad decision, one ill-considered line in the design doc. That was all it took to bring down Hitman: Absolution. A clean, efficient kill.

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Posted in Thoughts On, Video Games
One comment on “Thoughts On: Hitman Absolution
  1. Dounna Mouldoon says:

    Cognitive dissonance usually refers to holding two contradictory ideas-of-self in your head, iirc.

    Nice essay, though!

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