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It's been six years since we last saw Agent 47 in action in the entertaining Hitman: Blood Money, with creators IO Interactive temporarily putting the series on hold to work on its mostly forgettable Kane and Lynch titles. But now the silent assassin is back.
Powered by IO Interactive's new Glacier 2 engine, Hitman: Absolution builds upon some of the artistic and technical choices of the older Kane and Lynch titles while making dramatic changes to the rendering set-up in a number of areas. For one, IO eschews the 60Hz gameplay of its last title, instead targeting a 30FPS update in line with most other titles this generation, while a more subtle version of the grain/noise filter used in Kane and Lynch 2 gives Hitman: Absolution a grittier look.
The lighting model is also engineered using deferred shading techniques, allowing for many more dynamic lights in any given scene compared to IO's previous work. On top of this, the other main change comes from the Glacier 2 engine's ability to render hundreds of characters on-screen at any given point, creating some densely populated environments in parts of the game. From crowded town centres to packed rush-hour train stations, Agent 47's actions directly affect those around him - a quick showing of firearms shocks surrounding individuals, while witnessing gunfire and hand-to-hand combat sends them fleeing in panic.
So far so good, but how well does Hitman: Absolution's share of technical achievements fare across multiple platforms? Let's start with the requisite head-to-head videos covering both console versions and the PC edition, backed up by a comprehensive triple-format comparison gallery.
"Image quality is clean on console with the chosen post-process anti-aliasing techniques providing the most noticeable point of difference between 360 and the PlayStation 3."
Firstly, both console versions of Hitman: Absolution render natively in 720p, although we do find that the game looks a little sharper on the 360. Texture detail and especially foliage tends to get blurred a little more on PlayStation 3, reducing the clarity and crispness of the artwork. The cause of the variance here lies with the anti-aliasing techniques used on each format, with different forms of post-process edge-smoothing subtly changing the look of each version of the game.
"There's a handful of plus and minus points in terms of image quality on either console, but you're not likely to notice the differences at all during general gameplay."
On the Xbox 360, NVIDIA's FXAA is utilised, with all the usual benefits and trade-offs we find when using post-process AA: some texture blur is visible and sub-pixel shimmering is very apparent in certain areas of the game, particularly evident when the engine is rendering finely detailed scenery. On the other hand, MLAA appears to be deployed on the PS3, providing slightly better edge coverage but incurring a more obvious blurring effect in the process. Sub-pixel issues are also a problem despite the additional smoothing effect in other areas.
On the PC, edge aliasing issues can be mitigated by using a combination of both multi-sampling AA (for better sub-pixel coverage) and post-process FXAA, which works on the rest of the scene after other rendering passes have been done. After experiencing a few game-stopping crashes when using high-level multi-sampling options (something that was being actively addressed by the developer during our work on this article) we opted to use 2x MSAA in concert with FXAA - although it is possible to select up to 8x MSAA. Compared to the console versions, troublesome edge artifacts are more easily suppressed and there is certainly less in the way of blurring where the artwork is concerned.
Upping the level of MSAA beyond 2x works wonders in cleaning things up further, and at 1080p resolution the overall level of presentation is excellent. The only downside is that multi-sampling incurs a massive performance hit at higher levels - anything more than 2x MSAA requires a decent mid-range enthusiast GPU with a large amount of video RAM and bandwidth. Such are the ballooning requirements of deferred shading when MSAA enters the picture.
Naturally, the PC game features a number of graphical upgrades over the console versions: most notably, texture detail and resolution are higher, as is shadow quality, while tessellation is used to create additional geometric details to the characters and environments. Artwork is also loaded in more quickly than on console - however, we see a number of steaming issues appearing on the 360 and PC where higher quality assets fail to load in some scenes. Low resolution textures manifest on the 360 during some cut-scenes, while on the PC high quality LOD models sometimes fail to load altogether.
In other areas we see that foliage detail is given a noticeable boost over the console games too, and there is a clear increase in incidental environment detail on show, from litter on the city streets to small piles of rubble in other locations. Additionally, a higher-quality SSAO implementation enhances the use of ambient shading, a stronger depth of field effect is also present during the in-engine cinematics, and in terms of lighting, the level of bloom sits slightly between that of both consoles.
In terms of FMV quality, video sequences on all three formats suffer from visible compression artifacts in scenes with fast motion, but fare much better on darker scenes where the level of noise is less noticeable. Slightly higher-quality encodes are present on the PS3 and PC, although compression issues are easier to spot when running the game in 1080p on the computer, where we find the videos being rendered in 720p before being upscaled to fit the display resolution. In all honesty, we think it's about time that developers moved to 1080p video as standard for PC versions - or at least provided an option to download higher resolution encodes.
"Both PC and PS3 enjoy more lavish quality on video sequences, but in high action areas, there's still visible compression artifacting on all SKUs."
Hitman: Absolution - performance analysis
While the PC release is visually the most polished of the three versions, in terms of performance, a solid 60FPS appears to be out of the question for older gaming rigs. Even playing at 720p - where we wouldn't usually expect to see any major issues - we see our Core i5 750 and GTX 460 system struggle to maintain a consistent frame-rate, with between 20-60FPS being rendered depending on scene complexity and the level of visual effects on offer.
Lowering the level of MSAA from 4x increases bottom level performance, but it's only when we drop the use of multisampling completely that we see major gains in smoothness, making a perpetual 60FPS possible. Performance can be highly variable on less capable machines and in this respect the ability to apply a 30FPS cap to frame-rates would have worked wonders in giving us more stable refresh with fewer large fluctuations in smoothness.
The consoles target a more manageable 30FPS - a significant drop from the 60Hz target of IO's previous Kane and Lynch 2. Doubling the rendering time available per frame allows for the implementation of the deferred shading, more detailed imagery and a higher level of visual effects quality, but this comes at the expense of slower controller response. That said, with Hitman: Absolution, we get the feeling that low latency controls aren't really required to fully enjoy the game, so trading smoothness in this instance makes sense - but even more so if IO interactive is able to consistently maintain stable frame-rates throughout the game.
"Bearing in mind the detail level and the sheer volume of NPCs, Hitman: Absolution's console performance is very strong on both platforms."
Impressively, both versions of Hitman: Absolution manage to hit that 30FPS target with very few issues: frame-rates appear steady and any dips in smoothness are relatively minor at worst. The game is also solidly v-synced on both formats without a single frame ever being torn. Perhaps the only issue here is that there is still some judder present, even when the game is running at 30FPS in more detailed environments. The usual unique-dupe-unique frame cadence normally found during a 30FPS update is briefly abandoned in favour of rendering out a few more duplicate frames in a row, followed by a bunch of unique frames, before re-establishing the usual rendering pattern. 30FPS remains the average, but the judder is very noticeable.
One of the first missions in the game sees Agent 47 having to assassinate a Chinese gangster in the heart of a crowded square in Chinatown: environment detail is high and NPCs completely fill the play area. Remarkably, both versions stick closely to the desired 30FPS with relative ease, with the only annoyance being a mild judder effect caused by the uneven frame cadence.
In general, performance only starts to drop more visibly during quick camera pans or when switching into aiming mode before engaging in a heated gunfight. A combination of densely packed crowds and multiple light sources seem to be the cause here, with nighttime scenes being more adversely affected. That said, the engine often recovers quickly and heavy drops in smoothness never last for prolonged periods outside of specific scenes in which the renderer is constantly being pushed to its limits. Thankfully such areas are few and far between and all told, Hitman: Absolution features excellent performance considering the level of detail in the scenes being rendered.
"A combination of higher resolution, MSAA and FXAA produces superb results on PC, but you'll need a large amount of processing power to run this at max settings with high frame-rates."
Hitman Absolution - the Digital Foundry verdict
After two disappointing Kane and Lynch diversions, IO Interactive has returned to form with Hitman: Absolution. The game expands on the simplified gameplay seen in Blood Money while also introducing a few new elements to mix things up a little for long-term fans. The good news is that IO has managed to successfully bring Hitman: Absolution's gameplay across to both consoles without any glaring differences in performance: seeing a solid 30FPS in many scenes is a welcome sight and the engine doesn't falter for too long when under load outside of a few isolated incidents, usually when faced with environments jam-packed with NPCs and intricate detail.
"PC is the best choice if you have a powerful gaming rig, while PS3 inches ahead by a nose as our console recommendation."
From a general visual perspective the console games match up fairly well, but we do see the 360 featuring a small image quality advantage where clarity of the foliage is concerned, whereas the lower level of texture filtering and more heavy handed post-process MLAA on the PS3 gives that version a slightly softer look. Subjectively, the less intense use of bloom on the PS3 is also more pleasing on the eye, better suiting the game's gritty aesthetic. Most importantly though, both versions play just as well as each other, so we can easily recommend the game to both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 owners alike. However, on a purely visual level, we'd be inclined to give the PS3 game the nod here if you have the choice.
The PC version side-steps most of the image quality issues seen on console with higher levels of anti-aliasing and improved texture resolution giving us a cleaner and more detailed looking game as a result. But at the same time, there are a number of performance issues which impact running the game in lower resolutions on more modest hardware, especially if you want to dramatically improve image quality when using MSAA, as using FXAA alone still results in noticeable jaggies. In that respect, the 360 and PS3 releases can provide a more consistent experience where frame-rates are concerned for those still gaming on older PCs.