Given one of the initial salvos from Hitman: Absolution's marketing cannon was a trailer in which its iconic bald-headed assassin brutally slays a squad of women dressed in rubber nun costumes and suspenders, it's perhaps no surprise that the finished product has a nasty streak a mile wide. Hitman embraces grime, violence and misanthropy, relishing in gruesome scenes starring awful people with awful motives.
Perhaps that's so that the titular Hitman, the chromedomed Agent 47, can wind up seeing positively heroic by comparison to all this darkness, despite being a paid killer himself. Even so, the outright nastiness of the game's cutscenes is at odds with the more playful, sillier world of the game proper. Disguising himself from his foes by wearing silly costumes, creating a distraction by making policemen disco dance, assassination via poisoned sushi - 47's ally in taking out his targets is farce as least as much as it ruthlessness. All the close-up throat-slitting, lascivious strip clubs and drawn-out beatings in the between-mission cinematics seems to have arrived from a different game entirely.
Speaking of which, long-term Hitman fans may be taken aback by just how different Absolution is the more puzzle-like earlier games in this series. This is a third-person action game at heart, as were the others, but it moves towards cover-based stealth (or, if you like, all-out gunplay) and largely leaves the experimentation, exploration and hiding in open sight of its predecessors behind.
There's not much in the way of figuring out the best, most discrete and cleverest route into a heavily-guarded stronghold here, though some sillier and more elaborate methods of avoiding detection remain.
Mostly, though, it's about crouching behind walls waiting for the enemies to pass by safely. The harder (much harder) difficulty settings require a great deal of observation of enemy movement patterns and thus save the game from accusations of stupidity, but in either case the elaborate multi-stage plans, setting of traps and exploring of large environments is pretty much gone.
The result is a game that feels more like the most recent Splinter Cell, Conviction than the rightfully revered Hitman: Blood Money. There's always a choice of evasion via hiding, stealth take-downs of the roving guards or open violence with a large assortment of weapons, but most of its levels are about getting to an exit alive rather than devising a strategy to get in and out unseen.
Even what's arguably the most appealing feature, disguising yourself as people you've killed or knocked out, is now restricted by an 'Instinct' meter which enables 47 to temporarily cover his face, otherwise he'll be rumbled. It's about as a ridiculous as it sounds. Instinct also allows him to see through walls, identify vital items and chain up multiple simultaneous gun kills.
It's magic, basically, which feels fairly out of place among the stealth and the grim'n'gritty tone. It does open up a few new playstyles, especially for those who prefer open gunplay, but it feels like a contrivance.
A few levels harken back to the more free-form and organic old days, offering multiple ways of taking out 47's target, but half the time he doesn't even have a target. Just a door to reach. 'Hitman' isn't an entirely appropriate name, then. It's not a bad stealth action game and it certainly allows an awful lot more variety of playstyle than your average blockbuster release, but it does feel as though what once made Hitman distinctive has been thrown out in favour of more mass, action-centric appeal.
It doesn't help that the game is draped in a ridiculous story that messily mixes conspiracy, sci-fi and unconvincing Tarantino-aping. The plot is something to be endured rather than enjoyed - doubly so for existing Hitman fans, who'll find it to be yet more proof that Absolution doesn't entirely get Hitman. Even those who've never played a Hitman game before might well find Absolution to be a confusing halfway house between stealth and action, flitting frustratingly between ingenious open settings and tedious linear crawls.