Why Games Matter Blog - Hitman: Absolution Sounds Awful
By Edward Smith | November 20, 2012 11:24 PM EST
Hitman: Absolution Sounds Awful - The first in a three part series that will dissect what used to make the Hitman games great. This week, sound design
I don't like Hitman: Absolution, not one ruddy bit. For starters they've turned 47 into an action-hero, the kind of impervious white-toothed borearse who goes on quests for revenge and protects children from bad guys.
In the old days, he'd sooner slosh poison into your tea and arrange your corpse to look like it's sitting on the toilet than spew one-liners. Now he's just a good guy. Thanks Hitman: Absolution, thanks a bunch.
They've made the levels effing boring, too. In Hitman: Blood Money you sneak inside a performance of Tosca to assassinate a child sex trafficker; in Hitman: Absolution you walk into a strip club to kill the manager of a strip club.
The whole game is filled with pathetic "me too" levels like these, which want to be hard-hitting but end up as edgy as 47's perfectly round head.
My biggest gripe of all, though, is with Absolution's sound design. Cut from the same generic, grey cloth as the new 47, Hitman: Absolution's foley is a disasterpiece of half-arsery, failing to live up to the superlative, and - if you listen closely enough - ground-breaking standards of the old Hitman games.
It's too busy; the sinister quietude of traditional Hitman gets talked to death by layer upon layer of pedestrian chitchat. You overhear phone conversations, couples arguing; there's a big focus on police radio chatter. And although it works as part of IO Interactive's new "living, breathing world", when it comes to how Hitman ought to be it's an absolute soundtrastrophe.
Agent 47 is a clone; he's not a human being. And until Absolution took a great big idiot piss on the metaphorical fireworks, the most enduring part of his character was that he had no feelings.
With his sleek, hairless appearance and immaculate tailored suit, he was eerily perfect - nothing like the sullied, perverted humans he stalked and killed.
The sound design, in old Hitmans played into that, with unnatural silence permeating each level. You couldn't hear people nattering; you couldn't hear guard's radios; if it wasn't mission specific you couldn't hear any talk at all.
The silence kept you at this wonderful aural distance, imbuing you with the same disconnect that the soulless, inhuman 47 experienced. As far as your ears were concerned, you were not of this world - you couldn't hear it, couldn't feel it. Like 47, you were outside, looking in, observing with unclouded senses.
It gave you this kind of sociopathic insight. Since you couldn't hear the people, you couldn't hear their begging or their pleading. That checkpoint between the game world and what you could hear stripped your targets of their humanity; as silent, inexpressive mere figures, it was much easier to kill them than if they'd had voices.
They couldn't explain themselves, meaning your only understanding of them was your mission briefing, which usually explained that they were into torturing women or selling plutonium or some other bad-bastardry. Again, it made you think like 47. You were on task, focused and couldn't - literally couldn't - be dissuaded.
A ruthlessly pragmatic, unfeeling outsider with little connection to the world - that's who you were playing as, and that's what you felt like. By shutting the hell up the old Hitman games created symmetry between you and 47, whereby, without even knowing it, you felt like he did.
And although he didn't say much, 47 had bodybags of character - it just wasn't in his dialogue. The whole game is played to the beat of his uncaring brainbox, the lack of ambient sound maintaining yours and his rhythm of dispassionate murder.
So, when I play Hitman: Absolution, I feel like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, ranting about how the industry had to open its mouth and talk, talk. Blood Money, Contracts and the aptly named Silent Assassin were the Golden Age of Hitman, before talkies arrived and spoiled everything. Whatever IO wanted to say back then, it said with 47's looks, or actions. He didn't need to be written into this heady heroic badass because he already had character - you just couldn't hear it.
Next week, I'll be looking at some of those actions, and how Hitman's gameplay mechanics, map system and combat draw you even further into the mindset of Agent 47.
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