When you start up Hitman: Absolution, the first thing the game does is to tout its new graphical engine—the software that draws the game’s 3D world. Game studios like to boast about new engines because such puffery fits their favored metaphor, in which games are machines of entertainment, and therefore a major under-the-hood improvement like a new engine means you get more artistic horsepower. Or maybe your art is more fuel-efficient. I don’t know. It’s not a great metaphor. And a graphics engine is not a good way to express the appeal of Hitman: Absolution, whose strengths lie in its similarity to the most primitive computer games: text adventures.
There was a day when the notion of moving pictures on a computer terminal was audacious futurism, but the people of that era still wanted to play on their electric boxes. So games like Adventure and Zork built worlds in prose and gave the player agency with an idiosyncratic second-person narrative style—“You are likely to be eaten by a grue”—that took its cues from the user’s typed commands.
The limitations of interactive fiction, as text adventures are now known, are extreme. But the form has advantages. It’s relatively easy for a designer to create a story with branches—one that plays out a little differently if you happened to find the secret papers in the spymaster’s quarters, say, or if you recited the correct solution in the Cyclops Puzzle Room. What text adventures lack in visual appeal they make up for in possibilities. Absolution may be a fine-looking game, but it too thrives on possibilities.
As with previous entries in the Hitman series, you play a grim high-class assassin known only as Agent 47. This installment implausibly tweaks 47 by turning him into a dual-pistol-wielding assassin with a heart of gold. He still sports a perma-scowl and a power tie, but he’s also on a quest to save a girl from the evil forces who want to exploit her superhuman abilities (abilities that were bio-engineered into her by some of the same evil forces).
The overarching story is a dud. Confronted with the problem of making a murderous sociopath into an appealing character, the game’s writers have pushed 47’s nemeses to the outer reaches of cartoonish evil. I’m talking cigar-chomping, nun-executing evil. On the small scale, though, the game works as a series of kill-and-escape vignettes, and it seems to recognize its own ridiculousness. A moment in one early mission exemplified the game’s amusing mix of the dark and the loopy: As I perched outside a window at an Evil Guy’s mansion, a henchman approached the sill, preoccupied with an important phone call. The call was from his doctor, who said that the tests came back negative, and he didn’t have prostate cancer. The hired goon practically sobbed with relief. And then I yanked him out the window, to his death.
The missions range from executing a hit in the bustle of a strip club to sneaking through the tense quiet of a quasi-military mining installation. Absolution is at its best in stages such as one early excursion into Chicago’s Chinatown, where your task is to execute a local crime boss who holds court in his own little urban pagoda. You can just pop the guy, hide in a dumpster until the police settle down—cops in video games always suffer from crippling Attention Deficit Disorder—and stroll away. It’s all pretty straightforward if you want it to be, although I don’t know why you’d want it to be.
In the same way you might keep reloading a save file in a text adventure and experiment with different versions of the story, many of the levels in Absolution are designed to be replayed dozens of times. Explore Chinatown again, and you might find the sniper rifle conveniently forgotten in an apartment that overlooks the town square. Or the remote-detonated explosives in the vicinity of the local don’s car. Or less obvious, craftier vectors of murder. The quantity and variety of these possibilities turn a given level into a playground, in spite of the fact that your character couldn’t seem less playful. That’s the joke.
The major difference between Absolution and a text adventure (aside from the obvious) is that Absolution’s experimentation incorporates the element of pinpoint timing. The players on the Absolution stage all adhere to patterns of behavior, so as you replay a level, the buzz of human activity transforms into a sort of clockwork that you can observe, internalize, and exploit. As you sneak through the South Dakota auto garage where a few local toughs hang out, it becomes clear that your adversaries are part of a machine, and your task is to flit through the sprockets and belts at just the right moments to keep from being ground up in the works. So I suppose in that sense, the machine metaphor is apt.
Absolution’s most magnificent clockwork is on display, intermittently, in its first and second acts. The game suffers as it wears on because the designers choose to ramp up the difficulty by restricting your options. Where Chinatown feels like a playground, later levels like the aforementioned factory mine can feel like an airport terminal, funneling your world through one crowded checkpoint after another. (And the less said about the sequence with the sexy nuns, the better.) The game also shines somewhat less brightly in levels like an abandoned library where there is no target for your hitman to hit, and thus your objective is just to make it out alive. These sections feel more familiar—parroting other games of “dodge the eyeline” like Assassin’s Creed—and stealth alone simply has less of a charge than the pairing of stealth and creative murder.
A “Contracts” mode, which operates separately from the main story, invites you to undertake challenges created by other players (or, naturally, to create your own). A contract might specify that you have to take out the sharpshooting cowgirl in the game’s gun-shop level—while disguised as a store staffer, without being detected, using your strangulation wire. Players can’t create an impossible contract—they must accomplish a feat themselves before they can challenge others to match it.
The Contracts mode is a nifty way to broaden that playground feel with a bottomless well of dares and puzzles, and even in these early days I found some devious, creative inventions. Still, it feels somewhat sterile. Aside from a short title, Contract creators can only communicate to players by ticking off items from a pre-set menu of possible mission parameters. In the main game, however, the developers use goofy wordplay to hint at potential strategies. One entry on a mission checklist might read “Caught With His Pants Down,” to cite one of the crasser examples—you earn this merit badge if you assassinate your mark while he’s sitting on the john. That’s hardly poetry. But neither is “You are likely to be eaten by a grue,” and that still manages to light up the mind with possibilities.