IO Interactive's Hitman is one of my favorite action franchises. Although the games have always had a few rough edges here and there, they offer a stealthy experience like no other - rather than hiding from enemies directly, your goal is to infiltrate using deception and subterfuge rather than sneaking. Later games like Blood Money moved away a little bit from the global AI systems that defined the past few games and more towards puzzle-like assassinations that let you set up delightfully malicious "accidents", but the careful subtlety and patience remained.
I was excited to get a chance to sit down and try my hand at Hitman: Absolution, the latest game in the franchise, but walked away somewhat confused - not at the stunning production values, but at some of the mechanical changes to the gameplay. More than anything, the game's scoring system, and its dissonance with the core gameplay style the series is known for, fundamentally altered the experience in a way that the developers themselves may not have anticipated, and the result was a Hitman game that for the first time that I couldn't really embrace. If nothing else, Absolution was very interesting as a case study in how completely tertiary, ancillary mechanics can change the way a game is perceived and, ultimately, plays.
Hitman is what I'd call a sandbox game in that it has a set of game mechanics - mostly governing AI, but also physics and other relationships - which interact to form sets of challenges. These are then made more interesting by the inclusion of pre-scripted game elements, such as enemy patrol routes, specific actions assassination targets take, and so on. It's your goal, playing Agent 47, to navigate this sandbox of characters, enemy and civilian alike, to take out your target. How you choose to do so is largely up to you, and where the vast majority of the fun in the series comes from.
As mentioned in the introduction, later games moved away a little bit from this model. Though the global AI systems remained, introducing those "perfect" kills into the mix changed the way the game played out. Instead of being about manipulating the world around you (and the characters within it), Blood Money encouraged exploration not of mechanics, but of the levels themselves. Its saving grace was that these were still entirely optional to the game, and you could still get a perfect Silent Assassin rating by using the same old mundane techniques.
Hitman 2's levels were sprawling, and allowed for a manifold number of ways to take out targets that emerged as a result of the game mechanics, not pressing E on an environmental cue.
Flash forward to 2012 and Hitman: Absolution has largely abandoned the stealth sandbox approach. Levels are significantly smaller and more linear than past games. The majority are not even centered around assassinations, but rather around sneaking past or fighting enemies to get to an exit point. While many of the tools of the trade Agent 47 is known for remain, the small size of the environments and limited options cut back on room for experimentation significantly.
What's more, the puzzle-esque elements introduced in Blood Money have been pushed to the forefront, and actual player skill has been largely removed in completing challenges. Instead of using every tool at your disposal to win, every level is like a complex pre-scripted sequence, where there is always one or two ways that are set up just so to allow for flawless play. This means that many of the sandboxy elements, such as using disguises and distractions (thrown objects, noises) are actually a hindrance rather than a benefit.
Get the High Score
All past Hitman games have had a scoring system, but those ones were relatively conservative compared to what's seen in Absolution. In earlier games, score was a ranking determined by the number of unnecessary kills made, the number of bodies discovered by enemies, the number of alarms set off, and so on. If you could assassinate your targets without being noticed at all, you'd get the elusive "Silent Assassin" rating. Kill everyone in a level using high-powered weaponry and you might get "Butcher" instead.
The important thing to note about the scoring system in past Hitman titles was that it was both non-immediate and non-punitive. What I mean by that is that the score was only something you got to see at the end of the level. It had no influence on you when you were actually playing the game unless you had already set a bunch of criteria to aim for before jumping into the game. Additionally, the ratings given by the scoring system did not feel unfair or like they were outright judging you; rather they reflected the play-style you chose to take part in.
Ratings in Hitman: Blood Money and earlier games were less about judging how well you did and more about describing your play-style.
There was one punitive element to the scoring system: money. The amount of cash you got between missions was dependent upon how you played. Silent Assassin rating would give you the most money to spend on upgrades and equipment, while lower ratings would give you less and less. However, there is an important distinction to make in that there were additional costs associated with "clean" play versus violent play. For example, Silent Assassin and other "stealthy" ratings were hard to get without changing a disguise, so an added "suit retrieval" fee would punish you if you decided to take that route; the same went for leaving large weapons behind, or not removing evidence from the level (security tapes etc.). Although it was possible to avoid these penalties, there was a significantly steeper challenge associated with it, so changes are even if you played "perfectly" you'd still get penalties that equalized the cash reward with other approaches.
The non-punitive approach was further highlighted in Blood Money, which took steps to include a pretty entertaining piece of feedback: the post-mission news report. After every mission you'd get a fake news article describing the chaos you'd just sewn, with body counts, shots fired, and so on, or perhaps a description of the fatal "accident" you'd set up for a crime lord. Regardless of your approach, this feedback was gratifying simply because it reflected your play-style.
In Absolution, the scoring system has been changed to a literal scoring system: that is, it's a numeric counter that ticks up or down in real-time based on your performance in the level. Kill an enemy? Maybe you lose 1000 points. Take out an assassination target? You might get 10,000, 15,000 etc. depending on your methods. Sure, there are no more news articles to colorfully explain how you've played, but in theory, it sounds like an enhanced, more reactive system than past games. What's not to love?
The Game Told Me it Was Wrong
Regardless of mechanics improvements to the scoring system in Absolution, it's actually the way in which the information is presented to the player that really changes the gameplay experience. As I mentioned, past Hitman games featured a scoring system that was always watching, but only judged you when you completed a mission; Absolution gives you updates for every single aspect of your performance, and it does so on an immediate basis.
There are several issues with this. The first is that the numeric scoring system already has certain concepts of value built into it. Videogames and indeed pretty much all of society train us that bigger numbers are better, and in Absolution the game gives immediate feedback on how you are playing in the form of numeric updates. In other words, simply by assigning explicit number values to certain styles of play, it's informing the player whether one method is better than another. Some actions even decrease score - such as killing enemies or being spotted by enemies. Rather than letting the mechanics speak for themselves, the game simply says "you screwed up, player, and this is exactly how much you screwed up."
Second, the very fact that the score updates are in real-time actually encourages the player to restart the game more often. Because it's now possible to see exactly how you screwed up and by how much, as it happens, there is an additional pressure to perform well; if you screw up, the incentive to restart the game then and there is far greater. Even though Hitman: Absolution has very small and short levels compared to previous Hitman games, I restarted its missions just as if not more often than in the other games in the franchise, because the scoring system told me I was playing the game wrong. A small slip-up in a past game? I wouldn't have cared, and when I saw my less-than-perfect score at the end I'd shrug and move on. But now the challenge in playing the game is not actually beating the levels, it's doing it flawlessly and with a perfect score.
Absolution breaks down every action you perform into precise, raw numbers, but doing so also heavily encourages you to play in only one style - the one the designers considered optimal.
Third, this scoring system effectively kills a lot of the exploration and sandbox fun that Hitman is so well known for. Absolution punishes you for almost everything but what it considers to be "perfect" gameplay. That is, if you knock out or kill an enemy, you will lose points, which can only be partially regained by hiding the body away safely. There is no way to make up for alarms set off, bodies discovered, and so on. Instead, each level has one or two methods to win which are completely, 100% flawlessly. Once you have discovered these, the challenge from the game disappears almost entirely; since executing a plan is no longer very difficult due to the small levels, all gameplay boils down to is trial and error repetition in seeing which item in the environment you can interact with to determine the "best" assassination. Blood Money got away with this because getting the best rating was still possible using creative solutions, thanks to a wide variety of weapons, disguises and tools available, but Absolution's limited toolset forces you into these means.
What's more, the fan-famous "suit only" challenge in Hitman, which involved a refusal to use the disguise system in favor of pure stealth, and recommended only for experts at the game who wanted to show themselves off, has now been officially validated in Absolution by way of a challenge badge. The problem is that "no suit" challenges have now been specifically designed into the game levels; what's more, these are also always one and the same with the "ideal" pre-scripted assassination options. Because of changes to the disguise system which make avoiding it easier than using it, and the lost score when actually choosing to indulge in it, now going "suit only" is actually preferable to taking part in the game's more unique mechanics. That's right: while Hitman built its fame on fun sandbox mechanics and exploring the limits of its systems, Absolution actually rewards you the most for playing it as safe as possible.
I still liked Hitman: Absolution quite a bit, but it's not a game I'll be going back to time and time again every couple of years like the past Hitman games. To me, it speaks of a developer that perhaps was looking to freshen up an old formula or to provide enhancements onto a system that was already "proven good" by past games, but wasn't exactly sure how to do so in a way that would benefit the core experience.
The fact that many of the new features and changes seem to be in direct contradiction to what most fans loved about the game in the first place, suggests either an ignorance by the developers towards the fanbase, or an eagerness to appease new audiences while relying on the fact that old fans would buy the game on name recognition alone. Gameplay elements taken from titles such as Splinter Cell: Conviction and Batman: Arkham Asylum shows an obvious set of influences, but it's not clear if there was a master plan directing their inclusion in service of a coherent whole; perhaps they were simply put into the game because other successful games did the same.
I'll be very interested to see where the franchise goes in the future, and whether it will push more and more towards linear scripted action and directed narrative, or goes back to its more open-ended roots. More importantly, I hope the developers can resolve this dissonance in how the game allows you to play it, and how it wants to be played.