While I’m not a Hitman aficionado, I’ve dabbled in contract killing a time or two. My usual M.O. is to bungle each and every objective, get spotted a million times over whether I’m dressed as a security guard, a chef, or a clown, and complete my mission by slaughtering everyone within the reach of my bullets. I’m not very silent, but I’ve got the assassin part down pat. Want me to kill that millionaire? Consider him dead, along with goddamn everyone.

Then along comes Hitman: Absolution, the latest addition to the franchise, though of a slightly different breed. To the hardcore Hitman fan, this could prove troubling, but to the casual assassin such as myself, it takes a series that wasn’t entirely accessible and gives it a push in a more appealing direction. Absolution is more action-oriented, and while I could sense millions of gamers crying out as they read that, in no way is the stealth portion of Hitman compromised. While many action games toss in stealth-based gameplay as an afterthought, I’ve always felt that’s how the Hitman franchise treated action.

When I would play the earlier games in the series and pull off successful feats of stealth, I felt extremely capable. Each undetected kill gave me the satisfaction I crave when playing videogames. However, when things would go south – alarms blaring and guns blazing – I would feel wholly incompetent, handling my dual silverballers as if 47 had never fired a gun in his life and then inexplicably chose to wield two at the same time. I understand that 47 does his best when operating undetected, but it never made sense to me that he would perform so poorly under the stress of incoming bullets.

That problem is rectified in Hitman: Absolution thanks to the Glacier2 engine. Now Agent 47 feels like a bona fide badass both in and out of the shadows and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to play it both ways. The biggest change to the gameplay is arguably the cover system, a simple mechanic goes a long way towards crafting a legit action experience.

Hitman: Absolution starts where Blood Money left off. Agent 47′s long-time handler, Diana Burnwood, has gone rogue and sabotaged the agency. After rebuilding, Agent Benjamin Travis assumes command and goes after Diana, who has now became the latest target of our barcoded hero. What follows is a tale of justice, revenge, defiance, and maybe a teeny bit of love. Hitman: Absolution isn’t going to blow your socks off with its narrative, but its solid and eloquently simple, and stellar voice work from pros like Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe help bring it all to exciting life.

The biggest change to the Hitman formula and the thing causing some gamers to cast Absolution from the Hitman canon is the scaling back of the open-world approach that the series is known for. Where there was once an overabundance of options, there is now simply a regular old abundance. While some levels are more linear than others, with some being extremely linear, they certainly don’t do much harm to the game when judged on its own. And there are still open-world levels that offer several ways to go about completely your objectives. Like I said, the openness has been scaled back, not removed.

Instinct is a new feature in Absolution. It acts as a sort of energy that 47 can spend in various ways, the most common of which is simply going into instinct mode, which is similar to Arkham Asylum’s detective mode. This mode allows 47 to not only see guards through the walls, but also the paths that they’re walking on. Point shooting, which acts like Mark and Execute from Splinter Cell Conviction, also requires instinct. Disguises work a bit differently this time around, and if you walk into the line of sight of someone you’re impersonating (dress like a cop and get spotted by another cop), they’ll grow suspicious, and you can use instinct to cover you face and blend in. Instinct can be replenished numerous ways, such as completing objectives and performing silent kills.

As in previous installments, the player is ranked on his or her performance after the mission is completed. Gone is the relatively simple newspaper interface, which has been replaced by a points and achievements system that adds some serious replay value to the game but clearly got away from the developers at some point. Discovering all of the ways you can eliminate your opponent based on the vague hints that the game offers is undeniably fun, but it’s the smaller in-game achievements that add nothing but grind that hurts the experience. There are certain staple goals for every level, such as completing the level without ever changing your suit or trying on every disguise available. Obviously some of these clash, like the two I just mentioned, so they warrant multiple playthroughs. That itself isn’t a problem, but there’s very little challenge in collecting most of them. If you need the “suit only” achievement, you can simply blast your way through a level, shoot your target, and run out the exit. It’ll be the sloppiest mission ever, but you’ll get your achievement. Then there’s the checklists, where you have the option of hunting down every usable object in the level. For a completion whore like myself, Hitman: Absolution can be a nightmare, as so many of these objectives aren’t the least bit fun.

Visually, Absolution looks fantastic. The lighting engine is beautiful, the colors are vivid, and some of the set pieces are absolutely breathtaking. The Nevada desert level, which is nothing but desert, manages to look amazing. What’s really impressive is how busy the screen can get without suffering any slowdown. A few of the levels offer crowds that downright put Assassin’s Creed to shame. And they not only look great, but the crowds respond well, too. The world of Hitman: Absolution is a live one.

For the first time in the series, Hitman: Absolution offers a multiplayer component, and thank whatever Gods may be that it isn’t some bullshit deathmatch. Contracts mode allows you to create contracts for other players to fulfill using the game’s existing infrastructure. There’s no confusing system for creating contracts, you simply “perform” the contract. Fire up a level, choose up to three targets and kill them, using whatever weapon you want while wearing whatever you want, and the game records all of the specifics and turns that into your contract. This method prevents players from creating contracts that can’t be completed. While you’re at the mercy of someone else’s creative talent, there are gems to be found and user-generated content always leads to a lot of fun and unique scenarios.

I understand why Hitman purists would take issue with Absolution. In fact, the hardest difficulty mode is called “Purist” and removes some of the new features of the game. Hitman: Absolution is an evolution of the series, though whether it’s evolving in a direction that the masses prefer remains to be seen. I/O Interactive set out to make the series more accessible without compromising what makes it work and I think they succeeded beautifully. Now, if they could just stop toying with my need for  100% completion, the game would be damn near perfect.

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Shooting is now awesome and no longer terrible

+ Solid narrative with stellar voice work

+ Looks fantastic

+ Contracts adds a lot of replay value to a game already bursting with it

- Linear levels are awful in comparison to open ones

- Calm down with the bonus objectives already

9 and 9.5 represent the pinnacle of the genre, a game that defines what that genre should be about. These scores are for games that you not only feel would be worth your purchase, but you would actually try to convince your friends to buy them as well.

Hitman: Absolution was developed by IO Interactive and published by Square Enix. It was released on November 20, 2012, at the MSRP of $59.99. A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.