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"Hitman" has always been one of those series that I've known about but was never particularly interested in. The original wasn't impressive, and I wrote off the sequels. But those who stuck with Agent 47 and his cohorts talk wistfully about the franchise.

These are the people who rave about the level design and the unique gameplay in this stealth game. It's a type of fervor that's so infectious, I decided to give the "Hitman" series a second look with the latest entry, "Hitman: Absolution."

This video game image released by Square Enix shows a scene from "Hitman: Absolution."
This video game image released by Square Enix shows a scene from "Hitman: Absolution." (Square Enix)

For those jumping into the franchise for the first time, it's easy to get into the world. Agent 47 is a genetically engineered super assassin who works for The Agency, a clandestine organization that accepts contracts from all sorts of people and government agencies. In this case, the protagonist is sent to kill his former handler, Diana Burnwood, who betrayed The Agency. She ended up revealing the group's secrets to the public. On his way to off her, he discovers that The Agency made another killer similar to him.

New protagonist

The big difference is that the assassin is a young girl named Victoria, and she hasn't learned to harness her powers yet. Whereas Diana saw an innocent child, others see a weapon. The whole campaign focuses on Agent 47's mission to rescue Victoria from the hands of those who would exploit her.

That will take him to such places as Chicago and Hope, S.D., and have him face an army of mercenaries. But Agent 47 doesn't have to slaughter all of them. "Absolution" rewards those who kill only the necessary targets and avoid needless bloodshed. That's done through stealth, but it's a different kind of hide and seek than "Metal Gear Solid" or "Splinter Cell."

"Absolution" is about disguises and coming up with creative ways of eliminating the mark. That can include anything from putting poisonous fugu fish in a soup to pretending to be a scarecrow so he can be close enough to strangle an unsuspecting thug.

Combine this open-ended gameplay with some intricate level d esign, and "Absolution" can be stunning. Each scenario has rooms and several routes to take toward a goal. Exploring a high-rise can be exhilarating, and the design rewards players who can craft a plan to make each death look like an accident instead of a murder.

Hits and misses

However, the problem with building a game like this is consistency. Some levels have multiple solutions, while others have one or two. Some enemies act as you'd expect, while others behave bizarrely. The maddening stages dangle the blueprints for a signature just out of reach because the developer, IO Interactive, doesn't communicate them clearly or because the game's artificial intelligence doesn't seem to cooperate with Agent 47's carefully laid plans.

It can be frustrating. There is a lot of trial and error as players try to go through a perfect run-through in a stage. I wish there were more flexibility in the stealth system, so that being found wasn't so punishing. After being spotted, players can hide until the guards calm down, but the wait can be agonizing, and it does cut players' scores and hurt their chances for upgrades.

Ultimately, though, where "Absolution" stumbles is in creating a compelling narrative. It has some impressive moments, but the game's story jumps in places, and without much explanation, it's hard to find out why Agent 47 ends up in South Dakota or why he's escaping police.

There's never much in the way of character development. IO Interactive relies too much on Agent 47's past exploits and doesn't reveal anything new about the character. However, that doesn't stop them from creating some memorable villains.

All of this amounts to a good but flawed experience. But it's one worth taking, if players are curious about another angle on the stealth genre.

Contact Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanews group.com. Read his blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei.

'Hitman: Absolution'

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Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Rating: Mature