- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 18, 2012

Agent 47 returns with a bloodied chip on his shoulder and a big gun in his hand in the ballet of brutality referred to as Hitman: Absolution (Square Enix and IO Interactive, rated Most Mature, $59.99).

The latest game to the popular third-person franchise, not seen since 2006, allows a player to take control of one of the world’s deadliest assassins, although I’m sure Desmond Miles‘ stealthy ancestors would argue the point.

Well-dressed in his black suit and quietly methodical in his executions, the stern-looking, bald-headed brute mixes a facial physique of Lex Luthor with a Clint Eastwood brow and, correct me if I am wrong here, just a pinch of Steven Stifler from the “American Pie” movie series.

Our killer, now sporting a chronically-oozing wound on the back of his head (from a recently-removed bar code covered with a bandage), is out to save a young girl named Victoria while on a rampage of revenge against his former employees, the International Contract Agency, now also out to kill him.

Through a 20-chapter, heavily-broken-up story, loaded with plenty of deadly contracts to complete, Agent 47 has access to firearms, improvised weapons and dozens of unlockable assassin techniques.

However, killing can, and is, rewarded as an art form throughout. A stylish endeavor at every outing, it can be defined by stealth, misdirection, disguises, hiding bodies, hiding Agent 47’s body, chronic crouching (I can’t imagine the back pain issues this guy has) and blending in with crowds.

Assistance comes from many useable objects (bottles to toss are plentiful) or, most importantly, the Agent’s use of Instinct mode. With a meter that drains during its use (and fills up again for executing skills), it allow the player to see an infrared layover of a situation to predict the path of an enemy while undercover, fool characters, see the obvious hostiles and identify hidden objects and targets.

Disguises also help his stealth attacks and are as simple as knocking out a victim and holding a controller button to change into his clothes.

Unfortunately, nearby enemies are no dummies and pretty quickly catch on to the ruse, but the outrageous options eventually include a masked wrestler, Samurai, factory guard and hot-sauce factory chef.

Now let’s remove the occasional strangulation, neck-snapping and layers of blood, and players get a pretty slick puzzle game made more challenging as the controllable difficulty level gets ramped up. Be forewarned, the Purist level can make hardcore gamers’ eyes water.

A player moves through a maze of environmental obstacles and adversaries to complete contracts and escape danger to earn high point totals for the cleverest kills with the least amount of victims.

This is where the game will frustrate and exhaust the meticulous and retentive assassins. I found myself restarting at checkpoints over and over again, gritting my teeth, to find the right combination of strategies to kill and exit routes to get the highest point totals.

Of course, the Hitman can also simply take the rabid Punisher approach. Load up silencers, snub-nosed handguns, semi-automatic shotguns and unload with no prejudice upon anyone in the Agent’s path.

The denouement to that slaughter technique is engaging the Instinct meter while tapping into the Point Shooting option. It temporarily slows down time for the player to target headshots of multiple foes in view and restart the action to watch the grisly result.

Of course, existing in this world of murder-for-hire pushes the limits of R-rated action.

Besides the knives stuck in a head, breaking bones, body dragging and such, it offers creative profanity, scantily-clad females, some nudity, machine-gun-wielding nuns on a rampage and a variety of gross misogynist bosses, all no less familiar to “Boardwalk Empire,” “Sin City,” “Sopranos” and “Pulp Fiction” aficionados.

A familiar voice-over cast — led by David Bateson as Agent 47 and mixed in with veteran character actors such as Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe and Steven Bauer — helps sell the mature tale of revenge.

Also, locations are seamy and urban throughout, loaded with aggressive and squeamish characters that, especially in crowds, can really alter a player’s strategies. My favorite encounters took place in the fine areas of the Windy City. Listening to the cops unload on the Hitman with a slew of verbiage tinted with a Chicago-thick accent was hilarious.

A new online mode Contracts can greatly extend the action for the serious fan. A player accepts a kill order from others online, for up to three targets in one of the campaign’s locations, and collects cash and points for following the correct parameters (such a killing only with a pistol).

Or, a player can design his own contract for other assassins to follow by customizing a target, weapons, location and setting rules for completing the target kill. He must also test the contract before making it available online.

Not quite like Resident Evil 6’s feature to drop into someone else’s game as monster or a traditional player versus player frag fest, the online mode really tests the solo assassin’s abilities while judged by his competitor’s point totals from around the world.

Additionally, those who ordered the game early (although I bet a downloadable option for a price will be available soon), can enjoy a Sniper Challenge.

The stand-alone mission places in the hands of Agent 47 a Kazo TRG sniper rifle and offers rounds of target practice on some weapons manufacturer and his passel of 15 bodyguards.

Best part of the extra is the large gun and any other upgrades unlocked carry over to the main campaign. It’s really a stand-alone joy appreciated in nuggets as the unlockables become more tempting and point totals reach into the millions with successful attacks, numbers worthy to brag against others online.

After the last contract has been fulfilled, Hitman: Absolution dazzles through its strategy elements. Developers IO Interactive do succeed by sticking to a solid, brutal formula to keep players tense, thinking and busy. Agent 47’s violent agenda is a hard-core experience tailored to remind the mature gamer that the hunt is more rewarding than the kill.

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