There's a certain coolness in wearing the crisply pressed clothes of Agent 47. There's something appealing about sneaking into this cloned super-assassin's shoes, plotting out pathways to an objective with his stoically patient mindset, finding disguises and passageways that help him blend seamlessly with a well-defined, open-sandbox world and, finally, fulfilling that stealthy mission without raising a single suspicious eyebrow. Yes, being Mr. 47 has its gaming rewards.
On the other hand, that stealthy killer is part and parcel of a game that's all about murdering … creatively. And the ultimate assassin's latest M-rated title, Hitman: Absolution, is filled to the brim with rank bloody death, f-bomb-spewing miscreants, and enough near-naked sensuality that it might be hard-pressed to avoid an NC-17 rating at your local movie house.
An Instinct to Kill
The story this time around starts off with 47 being ordered to eliminate his former friend and handler Diane Burnwood. It seems she's gone rogue and run off with a special project that the super-secret Agency has been working on. And once 47 slips past a squadron of armed guards and is standing over a wounded Diane as she bleeds out in a pool of blood and shower door glass, we find out that the project isn't just a "project" after all. It's a girl named Victoria. A girl being programmed with the same death-delivering skills as 47.
And that's when 47 agrees to Diane's last dying wish: He'll hide the young girl away at a local convent. He'll become branded as a traitor himself. And he'll have to dig into the Agency's fiendish plans—rooting out money-hungry crime bosses and powerful company bigwigs—in an attempt to save one innocent life. Of course that'll mean ending many, many, many not-so-innocent ones in the process.
As in previous franchise games (Hitman: Blood Money among them), you enter a location with a general objective and about a dozen or so different ways to reach your goal. You can, if you want to, just walk up and plug your victims point-blank with a slug. But that will likely draw an angry crowd of cronies and end up in a mission-ending bloodbath. Thus, the game rewards stealth and ingenuity.
All manner of usable items—a gardener's apron, a bottle of prescription meds, casually discarded sniper rifles, bowie knives, full gasoline cans, movement-sensing proximity mines, etc.—are scattered throughout a given area. Gamers only need to search for them and figure out a way to use them. Perhaps you could locate a spare guard's uniform and find a way to "accidentally" drop an overhead light fixture on an unsuspecting target. Or maybe throwing an ashtray will distract a guard long enough that the victim can be slipped up on and garroted unseen. Then the corpse can be quietly hidden in a nearby broom closet.
To help in these deadly endeavors, the game offers two devices: On the lower skill level settings, an "instinct" button can "light" the path ahead of you by helping you sense where a thug might be standing behind a nearby wall. It also pinpoints areas of interest, interactive objects or specific people you may be seeking. And a mark-and-kill ability allows you to slow time down to a standstill as you designate a series of quick headshots that take down charging foes.
Stealthily Stalking Your Conscience
Once you get past the sneaky bits and into the kills, the blood runs thick. To put it bluntly (and mildly), Hitman: Absolution is an extremely violent game. With dozens of guns, a wire garrote, or any of the impaling and exploding environmental objects in your virtual hands, enemies meet their ends in blood-spouting and painfully realistic ways. Heads explode, body parts fly and flesh is torn—sometimes with slo-mo emphasis. And it's not always just bad guys getting the ax (another one of those objects you can find lying around). One mission features murdered nuns who are left butchered and bleeding in a convent's hallways.
Thus, the game uses the baddies' barbarism as a way to make 47's own death-dealing seem justified. Indeed, the criminals and thugs are some of the most obscenely depraved bottom-feeders that can be digitally conjured. Some are so vile in their language and crude descriptions of planned actions that you begin longing for a virtual bullet that will get them to shut up.
Then there's this: We see the bare backside of one central character as she stands in the shower. A dance club features pole dancers who gyrate while wearing nothing but tiny shorts and miniscule pasties on their fully fleshed forms. A local sheriff "enjoys" the painful-looking whip ministrations of a barely dressed dominatrix. And a team of female assassins called the Saints show up dressed in highly sexualized latex hooker/nun costumes. Why? For no reason I can discern other than just for the outlandish edginess of it all.
Two things come through clearly while playing: You can't help but be drawn to 47 for his casual cool, stealthy skills and heroic innocent-protecting ways. And you can't help but be repulsed by the carnage he creates. It's good to be repelled by such nastiness, of course. But the former point can eat away at the latter for some gamers. And that can stealthily stalk a person's conscience.