Hitman: Contracts

Ah ha, guns! About time. You've a fantastic array of weaponry, of course, including golden Desert Eagles inspired by Woo's Face/Off, and a hidden... well, they don't want us to tell you, but it's big, heavy, devastating and featured in the first Hitman. The rest is a variety of shotguns, automatic rifles, sniper rifles, machine pistols and handguns either brought by you or taken from corpses. Despite causing serious damage, the use of anything unsilenced is really a last resort. There are various ways of approaching each mission, and extreme violence is one of them, but 'going loud' at best provokes lethally numerous responses and at worst alerts the target. And if the target escapes, it's all over. So the emphasis is on quality of disguise and the depth of your patience, cunning and observation. Though entirely playable in first-person, if you approach it like a standard FPS you won't get far at all.

You could always steal any (dead) man's clothes in the previous games, but now some are more useful than others. Anything that covers your face and shiny baldy head is going to get you further, so those gimp masks are very handy - as are snow goggles and furry parkas. With some missions bearing multiple targets, there's also the option of dressing up as the important man you just killed in order to reach an even more important one... curiously, though, you still can't dress up as a woman. Why? Possibly 47 is afraid his bum will look big in it. Possibly he'd feel like a total spanner. Or possibly it'd break even his cold heart to look in the mirror and see kohl streaking his cheeks as tears - tears he never even felt well up - turn to Christmas baubles on his quivering, lipstick-smeared mouth. We just can't say.

So 47 continues to bite down on such urges and at the same time becomes ever more murderous. Simpler but even more fun than guns are the personal deaths, such as with the garrotte, the meathook and the lethal injection. Or the laxative. Yes, you can spike a target's soup, wander off to the toilets and cap him as he's poised in trap three. He dies like Elvis and you get a laugh, and what's more, you're rewarded for really clean stealth kills. Garrotte a guard silently, for instance, and next time you get a new and inexorably more violent animation for it. Melee weapons also include such delights as a pool cue, poker and the high-comedy-potential spade, though these make slightly more noise. Perhaps you would prefer to suffocate, impale or drown your victims instead? All these are now possible, although sadly not at the same time. Horrified? Intrigued? Relax. It's like mobile phones: soon we'll wonder how we coped without them.

You also have the ability to climb through windows or jump from balcony to balcony, though not in a platforming sense - in specific locations you're given the option. Io Interactive are clearly trying to fill the gigantic levels with more choice than before, and they're noticeably more populous in many ways: more civilians, more guards, more routes to the kill. Whether this will fundamentally change the game or simply refine what was already there, only time will tell.

Walked in these shoes before? Then certain levels will be very familiar. In a manner somewhat reminiscent of Tomb Raider Chronicles, Hitman: Contracts is told in a series of near-death flashbacks. The game begins with 47 bleeding heavily over the floor of a Paris hotel room - we've all been there, it's the carpets, they're grotesque - and getting bullets dug from his guts by a dodgy French Sawbones. Missions occur each time he slips into unconsciousness, though his memory is clearly somewhat confused. The restaurant hit on crime-boss Kong taken from the first game, for instance, is entirely recognisable but different in every meaningful way. It's either a clever reminder that reality is subjective and a single truth untenable, or to make it more fun. We just can't say.

Also promised is a smoother learning curve, along with a simpler menu system - despite the explosion in carnage and psychological viciousness, Eidos are hoping to build Hitman into their new greatest series. Well, it was that or Herdy Gerdy. There are even faint rumblings over Mr 47 becoming a one-game-a-year man which, if true, makes the coincidental Tomb Raider parallel ever so slightly worrying.

It's going to be interesting to see how a) Contracts moves the series on, and b) whether we can stop leaping from its lovely shadows and hitting people with spades long enough to find out. Psychologically it's heading to a place only survival horror has visited, but here you're not the good guy and you're not weak. You're merciless and armed to the teeth. It's a powerful combination. So will it really just be the victims going stiff? Sex and death, baby. They frame everything we live for.

Hitman: Contracts will be out on PC on 30 April