Hitman: Absolution

Hitman: Absolution

Standing 5 feet and 11 generously-measured inches tall, weighing in at 160 lbs., and having lived on the mean streets of South East London for 2 whole months, I’d like to think that I’m not the most easily frightened person in the world. Of course, I’m not without concerns: spiders, human beings’ natural predators, give me the absolute willies, whilst  the threat of brain aneurisms is a constant concern. But all-in-all, I think I’m pretty well-rounded in the phobia arena. Still, I’m not immune to the fears of lesser men – usually a mild feeling of vertigo. But most recently? Claustrophobia. Only instead of fear, it’s inspired unparalleled levels of irritation inspired, a result of the “efforts” of the latest Hitman outing.

Where previous entries provided maps and disguises to allow inconspicuous and considerable planning, Absolution turns a series of patience and puzzling into a clumsily built stealth-shooter that incessantly tugs 47 along by the nuts. Gone are the satellite maps and effective disguises in the names of narrative and “realism”, butchered is the art of subtlety and freedom at the behest of set-pieces and spectacle. Hits – assuming you’re even give one, and then assuming you’re actually allowed to attempt it yourself instead of watching a cutscene – are no longer planned, but stumbled through blindly. Whilst Absolution may pretend that disguises are still relevant, guards can now almost-immediately see through them if they’re wearing the same thing: as most levels are occupied by only one NPC type, they become absolutely useless. When coupled with an annoyingly tight camera, levels which are mere corridor runs and the omniscient, forever scrutinising AI, the result is an infuriatingly constricting experience punctuated by my own sobs of what could – and ruddy well should – have been.

Absolution’s killing blow is its focus on plot. Fudging mechanics almost perfected by its predecessor over 6 years ago quite so spectacularly as it manages to do is one thing; doing so to give way for one of the single-most turgid, achingly stupid pieces of writing I’ve ever had to sit through and endure is another. Whilst the series has always held a peculiar fascination for its ridiculous clone mythology that’s not entirely dissimilar to that of a young boy’s for his dick, it’s never presented it in such an obnoxious, overbearing and flat-out laughable way. Likewise, where previous entries, Blood Money in particular, have used the hyper-sexualisation of incredibly obnoxious background characters to filter the world through the eyes of a near-enough asexual clone assassin, Absolution has you sit and watch as such pricks are endlessly rammed down your throat. It is suffocating.

Despite being a relentlessly irritating masterclass in laziness and misplaced priorities however, the accompanying, nausea-induced claustrophobia caused by Absolution’s design and narrative ultimately prove themselves to be entirely appropriate. Because if nothing else, playing Absolution is like watching the series choke and ‘bate itself to death in front of your very eyes. An insufferably self-indulgent piece of wank, from beginning to end.

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Change for Change’s Sake

The internet is full of idiots. Websites to do with gaming, doubly so. Normally I find myself ignoring the majority of commenters for their sheer stupidity, and even the topics which truly tend to rile me up have, in recent months, trended towards being less successful in doing so. (Evidently, being a member of the first generation to grow up with the internet has led to my growing weary of certain topics far sooner than ever thought possible.) But with the recent release of the (utterly shit) Hitman: Absolution, I find myself challenged by an old nemesis.

Trawling the internet for reviews of 47’s latest adventure to laugh at (if positive) or bathe in a puddle of mournfulness with (if negative), I came across Polygon’s review. The review itself was, of course, wrong but, as I’ve said, such a positive response to such a rubbish game didn’t quite enrage me in the way it used to. Instead, my irritation arose with this comment:

The suggestion seems to be that asking for an adherence to a series’ actual set-up and gameplay is counter to asking for innovation and evolution. The suggestion is also horse shit, because these are not two ideas that counter one another in the slightest, nor do they make the person asking for them a hypocrite.

Hitman: Blood Money is widely regarded as the best game of the series, and yet it was in many ways very different to its predecessors. Almost all of the game’s effort was now spent on imagining mini-sandboxes in which to experiment, whilst any sense of linearity had been almost entirely vanquished. No more trekking through blizzards in Japan, no more instant-insertions into dangerous territories. Mission areas became mostly inhabited by civilians, and players were, more than ever, encouraged to poke about their environment, to think and plan before striking. Blood Money was at once relaxed and yet puzzling. It was, fundamentally, the same as its forebears: introducing change in order to fully realise the concept that the series had begun with, yet evolved away from the crap that had kept it down.

Hitman: Absolution, however, is a game that does not do that. It is linear, heavily story-driven (don’t worry, the story’s also shit), and very rarely even features a target that you have to kill; let alone a fully-realised, open area in which to do so methodically. In fact, there’s only one mission in the whole game that anywhere near approaches what the four previous games have done their best to achieve. Sure, it’s changed, but only in that it has regressed: and change for the hell of changing is not worthy of automatic praise or an XX% score boost; but then neither would a carbon copy of the previous entry be particularly laudable either.

The fact of the matter is that we should always encourage evolution as much as we should encourage a sense of pride in a series’ uniqueness, mission-statement (a fairly horrible phrase for a creative effort, but the best I can think of right now), and spirit. Neither is a contradiction of the other, but what progress is built on: it’s what gave us Blood Money, and it’s what was ignored to make Absolution such a crushing disappointment.

Dishonoured: Karma Get Some Morality

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Originally I had intended for this piece – or a version of this piece – to be the next in my regular column, The Scripted Sequence, in Haywire, but it seems it’ll overlap with a longer, more thorough discussion-type feature that Joe (of Deadpan Lunacyhopes to get going. Still, waste not want not. I’ve adapted it a little to be less magazine-y, but it’s most definitely the original piece in mind, spirit and body(ish). 

And on the plus side, I get to spell Dishonoured properly. Every cloud. 

Mark Twain once said a person should, ‘Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.’ Well I’m sorry Twainster, but your mumbo-jumbo doesn’t cut it anymore. With The Witcher 2 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution both asking us in recent times to make up our own damn minds about what is right, it seems that even game developers no longer dare impart their own morals onto the choices they give us. Even Mass Effect 3, still using the Red ‘n’ Blue dichotomy of Knights of the Old Republic, makes a decent crack of the whip at being impartial towards our decisions. But now Dishonoured’s come along, reared its beautiful – but really quite bloody ugly – skull-faced head and, some have argued, stuck a shiv in the moral-relativism of those other games with a system it calls ‘Chaos’.

Quite.

Chaos in Dishonoured is simple. Cut your way through the streets of Dunwall like the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and kill all manner of folks, both nasty and nice alike, and you’ll come to realise that you’ve probably done more harm than good: Samuel the boatman certainly won’t be afraid to tell you as much. But choose to cuddle your opponents to sleep and you might just find yourself looking on the brighter side of life: Little Miss Empress will be crowned at the beginning of a new Golden Age for Dunwall, and not atop a pile of corpses that you’ve lovingly carved up for her to sit on. Samuel’s final departure will see him impart feelings of pride and loyalty, not disgust and trepidation.

Although Chaos was sold as a system of subtleties reliant on your physical actions throughout the entire game, in practice you come to realise that for all the things that do and don’t count against you as kills for whatever reason, the system is still just counting kills. And once you kill one chump too many, your gameplay stats are sent to Broadmoor and the end-of-mission slaughter count brands your Chaos rating ‘High’. Binary’s great for getting computers to do their bizzle and for saying naughty words in code (01100011 01101111 01100011 01101011), but that’s about it. In the wake of the monster-slayers and transhumanists, one can’t help but feel that Dishonoured’s apparent commentary on players’ choices is a little antiquated; a regression on new-found (or newly regained) principles of choice-systems in gaming.

I foresee a Dishonourable discharge in the near future.

To counter this, Deus Ex the First employed an extremely clever tactic of having a number of characters with ranging personalities react differently to your field-methods and general behaviour. By doing so, the game let players feel as if they were genuinely impacting upon the characters around them and averted the issue of making them feel as if they were being demonised by the developers for certain behaviours – a potentially problematic trait for any game that sells itself on letting you play how you want. Dishonoured does try this, but only once. And with only one character. A character whose moral alignment is “just a nice guy”. Yes, dearest Samuel: you’re a part of the problem. Because if you only have one character commenting on the player’s actions and it’s only once in the game and that character possesses the moral alignment of pretty much any regular, non-psychopathic person, then you may as well have the developers themselves send you a letter of elation/disappointment (delete as appropriate) in response to your actions.

So far then, so unsuccessful.

But whilst there are definite failures to be noted in light of Dishonoured’s cyperbunk ancestor, there are also legitimate, deviating paths to be mapped. Like, oh I dunno, the very essence of the Chaos system itself! Aha! If you were inclined to kill Anna Navarre after rebelling against her orders in Deus Ex then Gunther, Anna’s old partner, would have a personal vendetta in tow as he hunted you down. A pragmatic consequence to a physical choice. The narrative of Deus Ex is not unlike a tapestry, ready for you to pick your own needle and thread and embroider into it your own tastes and opinions. Sure, some bits are filled in already, you can’t choose the material and the tapestry isn’t endless, but when you’re finished you’ll find each of your own threads has a traceable lineage, and with a personalised touch.

Dishonoured, on the other hand, is like a Picasso. There is reason and meaning (or so my Art-student friends tell me), but its relevance to what you see in front of you can be strained and even tenuous. The link between action and consequence is karmic. And whilst the philosophy is quite obviously a load of horse shit in real life, it’s not an uninteresting concept to embed within an interactive narrative. There’s little practical logic in having Corvo’s bloodlust lead to a more plague-ridden Dunwall, but there is a theoretical and defined logic in his negative behaviour impacting upon the city around him in an equally negative way: a kind of pathetic fallacy.

Dishonoured’s Chaos certainly isn’t perfect, and I’ll rally alongside its detractors and many of their criticisms. But it is important to remember that there are two sides to the system: one which failed by being too limited in scope, and one which might prove a valid alternative to the approaches to choice and morality we have now, also hindered by that limited scope. And although it seems unlikely that a karmic system could ever live up to the satisfaction of seeing the practical repercussions to your actions, or entirely avoid the pratfalls of attaching a developer’s morality to a player’s decisions, I don’t know if it’s something we should discourage just yet.