Hitman: Contracts

Sex and death, the beginning and the end: entwined irrevocably like cheese and pineapple at some terrible cocktail party of the soul. But sometimes life's various beginnings and ends loom so large we forget about the in-between: life itself. And yes, repressed religious delusionals, we mean you. You won't like this. Along comes Hitman: Contracts, full of both extremes, in a clear attempt to delay us even further from fruitfully living the in-between. Just think, you could vacuum the stairs and walk through the rain to buy toilet paper in the time it takes to play a mission. Hey, wait! Life really sucks. Screw the in-between, let's fiddle with guns.

Obviously you've read the word 'Hitman' and you know about the death, but sex? Hmm. Many games lay claim to 'darker, more adult' themes as the sequels build up, and mostly they convince like an ex boy-bander growing a goatee, insisting his first love was always industrial goth-core, then collapsing outside The Viper Rooms from a Haliborange overdose the week before the single comes out. However, we've experienced some of Hitman: Contracts' perversions and they're proper wrong. In previous games your targets were nasty pieces of work, crime bosses and the like, but it was fairly impersonal. The worst 47 could be accused of was a certain moral flexibility... but now you're taking out the bottom one percent of humanity, and your glacial murderousness is almost angelic in its mercy. Not that the game ever apologises for the nature of its characters. Not on either side of the divide.

Consider this example. Early in the 12-mission ladder, you're instructed to investigate an abattoir owner arrested over the disappearance of a young girl. Your stealth skills are obviously useful in retrieving proof, if there is any, of his involvement - the girl's parents don't believe the case against him should have been dropped. The Meat King's holding a party to celebrate beating the charge, and this provides you with several ways of getting in. OK, so what? You can tack on any backstory you like with a quick cutscene, but that doesn't make any difference once you take control.

True, but darkness seeps from every surface, not just from extraneous story movies. The party - the idea of which is pretty callous in itself, as the girl is still missing - is held in the blood-painted, carcass-strewn slaughterhouse. Lovely. It's bondage themed, so everyone's wearing gimp masks. Lapdancers gyrate luridly to the music and leather girls kiss. Io Interactive are even considering retaining the chap getting his little pixel prong blown... but, as your maths teacher probably told you, you shouldn't count on it. As you shuffle deeper into the building you discover the mentally ill brother of the Meat King wandering around in just a butchers' apron and sordid Y-fronts. Turns out he's the real killer - and he's built a little shrine to the dismembered corpse strung above a lake of glistening blood...

Flattened on the page it sounds a bit crass, perhaps, but there are some affecting images beyond the obvious titillation. The evidence you take to show the girl was there is... her arm. After wading through opium dens of wasted gimps, you find the owner himself, grossly obese, pallid, near-naked and beached alone on a bed. Far more intriguing than a blinging, heavily-armed smoothy would be, his terminally debauched appearance is a metaphor for the entire set-up. So the dark new themes are more than just surface bruises caused as the developers - or perhaps publishers - try to kick the game into a fresher, more popular genre. No, there are little snowy bone shards sticking through from the core.

But wait, this is just one mission. It's not all sexual perversion. You may instead be called upon to whack terrorist leaders building nuclear bombs for the black market, or execute gangland bosses, or to kill off the moneyed English family who are hunting kidnapped homeless people on their castle estate... OK, so there's quite a bit of perversion, even if it's debauchery but not explicitly sexual. Bloody House of Lords, eh? You can't leave them alone for a minute.

You steal into this wretched world like poison unfurling in a tyrant's mouth, an avenging angel, but you're not a hero. Codename 47's extended abilities mean he's morally more ambivalent than ever. Beyond the iconic baldness, bad tie and barcode Eidos hope will cast a shadow over even Lara's unfeasible assets (vote now!) lies his amoral nature, and it's still unusual. Even Vice City bad-boy Tommy Vercetti has redeeming features. Mr 47 is just cold. He's almost as bad as the people he kills.

Consider this example. In that same meat-based level - called Slaughterhouse 2 in reference to Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel of existential exhaustion - our boy can perform atrocities of his own. Yay! These involve one freshly killed guard, a large, S-shaped meat hook, a motorised rail currently transporting pig carcasses and a couple of switches. Time it right and you can send him round the factory to dangle in the freezer, where he won't be discovered, still hanging by his head. Shoot him as he goes and you'll see the rag-doll physics are as convincing as ever. But first, make sure you roll one of Death's condoms - a silencer - onto the end of your weapon for protection. You don't want to catch anything. Like 101 bullets to the face.