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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories