The view shifts to “instinct mode” and everything is rendered in slow motion. As I was trained to do in an instinct mode tutorial, I make Agent 47 line up a series of careful head shots that include the assassination target. Two seconds later the game jumps to a pre-rendered cinematic. Agent 47, scowling like someone on the toilet who has only ever eaten cheese, loses sight of the girl he means to rescue. He punches his victim and takes his car keys. The wounded man, having just been shot through the skull a second ago, is bleeding from a chest wound. The game has had me tracking this man for quite a while and, despite the setback of the kidnapping, I might be about to receive some valuable information about 47 and the story as a whole. I am meant to feel like all of this is part of an important moment in the game’s grand tale of redemption.
“I’ve got wood,” the target coughs out.
47 turns away and as the screen fades to black the dying man finishes the last sentences he will ever speak before shuffling free this mortal coil.
“Why do I have wood?”
Jesus fucking Christ, IO Interactive. What are you doing?
When you fire up a game of Hitman: Absolution an elegantly designed menu screen appears, accompanied by a haunting cello melody. It’s reminiscent of the Max Payne theme. This is where the similarities between the two games stop. Max Payne deftly straddled the line between absurdity and seriousness in each of its installments, its writers being smart enough to know when a joke was appropriate and when to opt for a little bit of gravity instead. The in-game televisions may have played surreal Twin Peaks knock-offs and self-satirizing detective stories, but the murder of a loved one and the depths of Max’s melodramatic despair were treated as emotionally significant. These games are successful because they are aware of when it’s okay to laugh and when it’s better to keep a straight face.
Absolution, on the other hand, has no such common sense.
While playing the game it becomes pretty clear that IO Interactive, the studio behind Hitman: Absolution, staffs a writing team of total dirt bags. The people who wrote the scene described above are incapable of making the basic distinction between comedy and tragedy. Because of this, their videogame is targeted toward nobody but the reprehensible few who are both capable of laughing at a poorly written death/hard-on joke and weeping when a grim-faced “hero” assassin mistakenly kills his only friend in the world. Who are these people? Do they exist? It’s likely that IO wanted to couple an emotionally resonant story with some cheap gags along the way, but, by completely failing in this, they’ve created something far grosser than a simple misstep. They have made not just a bad game, but one of the vilest titles I’ve ever encountered.
None of the characters, from the wretched villains to 47 himself, are even remotely likeable. They are all skin-crawlingly sick, designed around their awfulness from the ground up. Dexter, the Southern antagonist who must be hunted throughout the bulk of the game, is a lecher with crumbling yellow teeth and a love of murder. He is constantly accompanied by a woman named Layla who, like each of the superficially sketched women in the game, is a plastic fetish doll meant to appeal to the desires of the (assumed teenage boy) player. The two of them represent the only character molds that IO seems capable of offering: perverted, greedy, violent man (like the shit-stained Birdie, small town sheriff, evil head of the assassin agency, etc.) and one-note woman defined only by her hyper-sexualization (behold the schoolgirl, nun, secretary and latex-clad BDSM lady) and subservient relationship to the game’s men.
The rampant misogyny and general love of filth should make it come as no surprise that playing Absolution is a terrible, soul-sucking experience. Two hours with it is like reading all of Bukowski’s novels in a single setting, but without any of the redeeming qualities of experiencing worthwhile literature. This game makes you feel fucked up and nauseous and all around wrong. It makes you want a brain shower. Even worse, it does all of this without imparting any kind of lesson or providing engaging gameplay. I have watched difficult films, read difficult books and played difficult games, but have left many of these experiences enriched. Absolution is not like that. It is the Saw of videogames, a torture porn movie’s atmosphere diffused over twelve excruciating hours.
A savvy editor wouldn’t have been able to make this a good game, but s/he might have been able to salvage something by sticking to either the jokey or serious approaches that Absolution is torn between. If everything in the game was done as a gag — if the design was less self-serious — then the latest Hitman could have gotten away with being offensive. It could have, like Saints Row: The Third, had its cake and eaten it too. But it hasn’t. It is, instead, a scummy little endeavor that is never able to decide if it wants laughs or dramatic pathos. If all of it is meant to be camp (and that’s the only way to contextualize the baffling “murder nuns” who make up a game mission and that awful trailer from last year) then it’s completely missed the point of how to convey a cheeky B-flick tone.
Hitman: Absolution is, at its core, an ugly game created by mean-spirited people who care little about the weight that gruesome death and violence should have. It also has terrible depictions of women, an awful sense of humour and an apparent complete misunderstanding of how to write anything like a sympathetic character.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.