Between speed runs, marathon sessions, completionist efforts, and miscellaneous extracurricular activity, “time” is a powerfully associative element to our gaming habit. If an adventure is too short or too long we feel cheated or exploited, regardless of the content therein. There's a sweet spot though. It's not quantifiable; it's more of an abstract relationship between invested time and a sense of novelty that makes for entertainment—it's a feeling. No matter the case, time is an inescapable, inseparable aspect of how we interact with a game.
Get what I'm saying? Cool, because you shouldn't concern yourself with how long it takes to 'finish' IO Interactive's Hitman: Absolution, and you certainly shouldn't let anyone quote you a definitive time. 'Completing' Absolution isn't only dependent on skill or persistence, it's equally as necessary to factor in your patience and curiosity. Built with familiar stealth mechanics and employable actions, Absolution uses structured choice to create the illusion of infinite routes to an outcome through its story, and all but infinite possibilities for its free-form, player-created “Contracts” mode. The characters and narrative serve as little more than context for the duration, but overall it's a skillful execution of functional aesthetics and believable gameplay.
In a way, Absolution is more than just a stealth-action game. As Agent 47's latest chapter unfolds, how you play the game illuminates what kind of gamer you are, clearly indicated by in-game titles: The Tank, The Brawler, The Shadow, etc. What could be interpreted as a slowly paced, frustratingly lackluster shooter can just as easily be reviewed as a precise stealth simulator requiring only some suspended belief. There's enough leeway and wiggle room between the two reactions to make for a surprisingly fluid experience that obliges the whim of the player. What can last only some hours with a reckless approach can also require dozens from a more studied and cautious disposition. Absolution is a test of a player's standards and thresholds, and it only underachieves if you skew towards the more heavy handed options.
Where Absolution fails to meet the mark, however, is in providing a substantial story and host of characters to back up its mechanics. Driven by bookend cutscenes to each stage, Absolution's story seems to only exist as setup to or context for your sneaking through crowds, hallways, or open spaces. There isn't much scare of giving away spoilers when a game's narrative is so barely integrated to its gameplay or anything more than serving to string you along from wealthy compound, to small town, to motel parking lot. When it's up to 47 to take down a rogue handler, then turns rogue himself to protect the Agency asset his target went rogue for, and spends the duration of the game killing and sneaking his way around to this end—it plays out as an exposition of little depth, twist or nuance. The enemies in 47's way are disgusting obstructions, worthy of his garrote, but not too far into things, they all become a bit overbearing, overdone and uninteresting.
Were IO able to better meld the “Léon: The Professional” or “Firefly”-esque element with such pleasingly varied settings (alive with reactive foliage and curtains, and people inanely chatting) and intricately laid puzzles, where distraction traps are often more useful than an automatic weapon, Absolution would portray a real sense of interactive fiction, even with set plot points. It's a game that thankfully doesn't nail itself down to any one type of environment, and institutes some real pacing. One level takes 47 from broken down library to crowded train platform, the transition of which is fairly seamless but involves a relatively longer slink to the goal; while a subsequent stage brings him to an arid desert with a quick choice to make and no enemies to avoid.
Each stage is set with objects to pick up and interact with, making it a kind of point-and-click adventure, but the more investigative you get and more patient you are with listening for side conversations, the more rewarding the trials. Replaying scenarios multiple times reveals event queues for NPCs and enemy movement, but it also allows for perfecting strategies. Enemy AI is fairly basic when confronted head-on, but when treated as proximity sentries, getting to the finish of a stage can require precise timing of subduing, hiding, and movement. Everything happens in realtime, so no animated events save you from alerting patrols. Once your most favorable path is found, it's a matter of execution. The right combination, that can also fulfill the requirements of assigned stage challenges (using a specific environment object, not getting spotted, etc.) grants a higher score to compare on leaderboards, and also unlocks helpful buffs for 47, creating added reason to do more than the base objective.
There are plenty of routes and strategies to string together throughout the story missions in Absolution, but the player-created assignments of the Contracts side of the game grant the opportunity for even more creativity. Also measuring success with scores, Contracts allows players to mark up to any three NPCs of a stage as a target, incapacitate them in the way they choose, and send out their hit as a competitive challenge for others to try and top. It's a bit of a morbid take on “H.O.R.S.E,” where a challenger can only get the maximum amount of points if they stay in the guidelines of the creator's kill, that has a few interface quirks, but it's a smart way of incorporating a multiplayer element without sacrificing the integrity of the single-player structure.
Designed like a series of mazes with more than one right path—and some tools to help bust through stubborn roadblocks—Hitman: Absolution requires an investment of a player's time to fully appreciate. The area of a stage might not be 'big' in regards to the amount of space Agent 47 has to traverse, but there are enough elements to tie together, which only become noticeable by lying in wait, that even a small, rowdy bar setting isn't a quick maneuver. It all takes a degree of persistence, observation, and patience, but Absolution rarely feels overtly straightforward or claustrophobically linear. There's always a goal in place, but getting there doesn't involve forcing your hand—if only there were a more interesting reason for everything that goes down and the cast more redeeming.
Filled 47's shoes over the years? What do you look for in a Hitman game? Or is stealth gaming just not your bag? Let us know over Twitter @Gamers_Hell