After the first few levels of "Hitman: Contracts," the third game in this shooter series about a Yul Brynner lookalike genetically engineered to wipe out bad guys with extreme prejudice, fans will experience a bit of deja vu.
Just four years after the original "Hitman: Codename 47," Eidos has redone most of the levels in a more elaborate, moodier and gloomier format. The trouble with remakes, however, is that you always know what to expect.
You know you're going to find (and kill) the German terrorist Franz Fuchs while he's showering in his four-star hotel room. You know the bomb he created is hidden upstairs in a dentist's office.
So much for surprise. But although the mystery of the original game is mostly missing, the detail and increased options available in "Contracts" somewhat makes up for the loss.
The appeal of the "Hitman" series was always its open-ended style: There were myriad ways of whacking your targets. You could sneak in armed only with a garrote, find a disguise and kill your mark without arousing suspicion. Or you could just barge in like gangbusters, machine-gunning anything that moves until you killed the right guy. Most levels offered numerous methods for slaying any given villain, whether it was poison, sniping, crawling in through a window or bonking him with a golf club.
In "Contracts," there are even more "sneak" options, with a plethora of ways to distract police, security guards, party guests and others by triggering blackouts, hiding bodies and clearing crime scenes.
The "Contracts" story, such as it is, occurs at some point between the first game and the sequel - after Agent 47 discovers he's part of an army of killer clones (which came at the end of the original), but before he retires and seeks redemption as a humble gardener at an Italian church (which is where the sequel picked up).
The hitman is feeling reflective, and the player guides him through his flashbacks.
Among the new levels, our chrome-domed guy infiltrates a biker strip club to kill a blackmailer and collect some compromising photos, sneaks into a military base to destroy a submarine armed with "dirty bombs", and rescues a hostage while killing two wealthy men at a castle-like mansion.
Apart from its glossy style, "Contracts" suffers from a gritty sadism that the previous games lacked. Yes, you were always playing a guy who killed people for a living, but "Contracts" takes the brutality to a level that quickly becomes distasteful.
The first level, which is a new one, takes place a slaughterhouse where a grotesque character named "The Meat King" is throwing a party among the rotting animal carcasses. You're there to kill him and his attorney and rescue a kidnapped girl, but the girl is found dismembered in a scene too revolting to describe.
Was it necessary to have every door, every wall, every hallway splattered with smeared blood? Were the gore-soaked torture devices necessary? Instead of having fun killing make-believe troublemakers, the opening salvo of this game annoys with its depravity.
Subsequent levels are easier to take, but there is still a sick streak here that was previously missing. Why must you poison an innocent horse in the mansion level? If you don't, the animal's fussing alerts guards when you draw near. Was this evil detail necessary?
In earlier games, there was always the possibility of killing innocent bystanders if you felt like playing like a maniac. Instead of making it an option, "Contracts" seems to revel in the slaughter of innocents.
It may sound hypocritical, but that's not what Agent 47 stands for.
"Hitman: Contracts" ($49.95) is available on PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC formats. Two and a half stars out of four.
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