PREVIEW: They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Unfortunately, my first impression of Hitman: Absolution - the first instalment in the much-loved stealth assassination franchise in six years - wasn't good.
A mere 15 seconds into the first level the game crashed my PlayStation 3, requiring a complete system restart. I rebooted, only for the exact same thing to happen a second time.
Thankfully, the third time proved a charm. Which is fortunate because when Hitman: Absolution works, it's a really great game.
You once again take control of the ruthless but follically challenged master assassin known as Agent 47.
The story involves a betrayal, a promise, some detestable psychopaths and a sisterhood of BSDM nuns.
It's ultraviolent and schlock-y stuff, a low-rent mixture of David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino. But it's got a good sense of humour and some very clever dialogue.
Of course the story's not the focus. The Hitman games are all about giving players the freedom to hunt down and execute their targets in creative and elaborate ways.
You could choose to blast your way through every mission but it's a lot more satisfying to slip through totally undetected, through creative use of disguises and distractions.
Like its predecessors, Absolution rewards patience, precision and skill rather than big body counts.
It does introduce some changes to the Hitman formula though. For one thing, its emphasis is less on the meticulous preparation of the earlier games and more on improvisation.
Series purists may baulk at the changes - including some clearly, er, "inspired" by Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell - but they do make the game more accessible for newcomers.
And thankfully they don't at all diminish the game's incredible replay value.
You'll find yourself playing missions over and over to experiment with ever-more awesome ways to achieve your goals and then perfect your methods to achieve ever-more awesome scores.
And once you're finished with the excellent and very lengthy campaign, there's a contracts mode that lets you design and share your own hits and play those designed by others.
All this fun is underpinned by stunning graphics, a dynamic soundtrack and solid performances by Deadwood's Powers Boothe, Dexter's Keith Carradine and Kill Bill's Vivica Fox.
There a few problems: the enemy artificial intelligence can be patchy and the checkpoint system is wretched.
And then there are those stability issues. In addition to those initial crashes, I experienced at least a dozen more throughout the campaign, including one that corrupted my save files.
I also experienced some gameplay glitches and bugs, but hopefully these issues will be ironed out with some post-release patches in the coming weeks.
OVERALL: Stability issues aside, Hitman: Absolution is a great game that every stealth fan should pick up.
* Available now on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
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