Hitman: Absolution shows you can't just be a good new game with a revered old name

The fans of these old games are older now too, and they expect to find something of what they liked about the franchise in the first place.

That Hitman: Absolution managed to step on almost every rake on its way to release is hardly surprising. When a game series often considered cerebral and refined re-emerges onto the scene with a trailer showing the hero brutally murdering a gang of kinky nuns and later trailers have our hero rescuing damsels in distress and toting shotguns it’s hard not to think that something stupid this way comes. Few games scream their failure to understand their audience from the rooftops in this manner.

As first impressions go Hitman really couldn’t have done worse if our hero had shambled drunkenly onto the scene with his fly open. But trailers can be misleading, as can memories of old games, and in the case of Hitman: Absolution we are not so much seeing an old series dragged up from the grave and defiled so much as we are seeing an old series being remade in a very modern way.

One thing that it is important to remember about the Hitman series is that this was always a series of brutally, often comically, violent games, often with plenty of combat. You could complete most of Blood Money, the best of the series, with a series of nasty accidents, but even then it ended with one of the most feeble and incongruous shootouts in gaming history. Just because you could rely on accidents and precision didn’t mean you had to and the early games featured shotguns, sniper rifles and remotely detonated mines aplenty. Hitman games have always allowed the player to smash into the missions like The Terminator into a police station if so desired. The titillation isn’t so much new for Hitman: Absolution, rather it is more obvious, the earlier games had it too though the more limited graphics made it harder to express. The story is poor in Absolution, but this is a recurring theme to a series which has always been more about the mission than the narrative.

In practice Hitman: Absolution is not so far removed from the series at heart, but what we see with the game is a thoroughly modern work and this is what has managed to so deftly antagonise some die-hard fans. Some elements of gaming have fallen by the wayside over the years and others have appeared. In the same way that we no longer approach a game with three lives and three continues Hitman: Absolution eschews elements of old games and brings in new established tropes.

Such tropes include health that regenerates once you’ve stopped getting shot. Also new is a cover system where you stick to walls and low obstacles in order to remain hidden. The ability to slow down time in order to more accurately shoot whole groups of people in the face as pioneered by Max Payne appears. Saving the game based on checkpoints and shorter, more linear level design are also par for the course. These features are game-changing but their inclusion is often almost arbitrary in modern games.

Modern remakes of classics can often risk upsetting fans. Syndicate was remade as a generic science fiction first person shooter, a capable one at that, but it wasn’t Syndicate, it was barely anything. XCOM: Enemy Unknown took a chainsaw to its namesake, dozens of features and layers of strategy were brutally stripped away, but this was seen as a more positive change because the game that was left at the heart of this ruthless reduction was a much more tense and engaging affair than the original. It’s rare to find somebody who played the original UFO: Enemy Unknown and didn’t love it, but the games had always been mired in busywork and a depth of micromanagement that wouldn’t be out of place if you were sending your team off to their first day at primary school. Building extra bases and taking a mechanised platoon to an alien crash site instead of four troops was great, but not so great was ensuring everybody was carrying ammo, everybody had the right trousers on and that you’d built enough storage space or living quarters. In new XCOM you can lose everything with a bad move, with UFO you could blithely administrate yourself into a terminal situation without ever really knowing how.

Something that Hitman: Absolution has demonstrated is that it is not always enough to be a good new game with a revered old name. The fans of these old games are older now too, grown up men and women with a suitably grown up disdain for the new and the trendy. If developers want to win back fans when they revisit established franchises maybe they should look to what made those games popular in the first place and by doing so maybe they’d avoid stepping on a rake or two.

A still from Hitman: Absolution.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.