They say bald is beautiful, but thanks to legendary chrome domes like Kojak, Yul Brynner, and the Hitman series' Agent 47, bald is also badass. Those other famous baldies may have sailed off into the great beyond, but 47 is certainly alive and kicking (for now, at least) in his newest game, Hitman: Contracts. We've spent some time with the latest Xbox and PS2 builds of the third Hitman game, and we must say the sordid exploits of Agent 47's past have left a substantial mark on us. If nothing else, Contracts represents a definite tonal shift from the previous games in the series.
Unlike the last two Hitman games, which had you playing as Agent 47 through distinctly linear narratives, Contracts has a much more unusual and interesting premise. The game starts off with very little setup--we see 47 stumbling into a room, clutching his bloodstained midsection and fighting for balance. He collapses to the floor, his face inches away from his trusty silverballer pistol, and this final shot before he loses consciousness segues seamlessly to an almost identical shot from an event in 47's past. In this case, it reveals the moment he killed his "father" (that is, the scientist who genetically engineered his existence) and escaped the asylum that held him. Each of the missions in Contracts is set up in this ingenious manner--after playing through a flashback mission, you'll get another glimpse of the ongoing events in the present as 47's predicament evolves. Each time, after a few moments, you'll be "playing" another one of 47's memories.
The inventive way the storyline unfolds in Hitman: Contracts isn't the only thing that's new about the game. If you've played the previous games, you know that while their subject matter--the dirty work of a contract killer--was pretty grisly, their visual style and overall presentation were perhaps a little pedestrian. Not so in Contracts, which features easily the most stylized visual production of the series. The primary reason for this is a simple change of aesthetics--the game makes extremely appropriate use of lighting and color to create an evocative atmosphere in each of its levels. The use of colors is so memorable, in fact, that after you play the game for a while you'll begin to mentally refer to various parts of the game by their predominant coloration rather than their setting or objectives.
Contracts also features some content that's a lot more macabre than what you've seen in the last two Hitman games; this goes along nicely with the film-noir-like visual makeover the game has received. In one early mission, 47 is dispatched to a meatpacking plant to rescue a kidnapped girl and assassinate her kidnapper, a tremendously obese meat production magnate, and the lawyer who recently cleared the meat mogul of the kidnapping charges. The venue is the man's meatpacking warehouse, and the setup is a late-night S&M party in celebration of the legal victory. As you infiltrate the party and search for your targets, you'll see all kinds of oddities--guests wearing disturbing masks and bondage gear à la Eyes Wide Shut, blood smeared across the walls of a room where an impromptu rave is happening, even people gyrating and performing unmentionable acts in a corner. And when you come upon what's happened to the kidnapped girl...well, let's just say we haven't been quite so disturbed by a video game in some time. Visually and thematically, Hitman: Contracts has the most character of the series, and that character is decidedly sinister.
The mechanical aspects of Contracts haven't really changed much from Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. Each of the missions has a slew of objectives that generally involve offing one or two important people and completing a particular task, such as retrieving an item. In pursuit of your goals, you move 47 around from a third-person perspective, trying as hard as possible to complete your missions stealthily. The less you call the attention of undesirable characters to your business, the easier it'll be to get the job done. However, you'll have a decent fighting chance if you decide to just gun your way through things--like Silent Assassin, Contracts makes 47 a capable fighter and gives him a massive arsenal throughout the game. In addition to the expected heavy weaponry like pistols and assault rifles (and there are tons of these), you'll gain some nonlethal weapons like a stun gun or a syringe that will incapacitate but not kill your opponents. Of course, the good old fiber wire is still available for quiet strangulation--if you can manage to sneak up behind someone unnoticed, that is.
It's a little ways off from release, but Hitman: Contracts looks fantastic on the PS2, with the Xbox version surprisingly trailing behind a bit in visual quality. The game uses a superb soft focus effect, which gives many of your surroundings a noir-like, hazy look that fits perfectly with the dream state in which the missions occur. Coupled with the aforementioned excellent use of color and lighting, this filter makes Contracts stand head and shoulders above its predecessors from a visual standpoint. The soundtrack is also of a much more understated, ambient nature that both fits in with and helps create the game's dark, uncanny atmosphere.
Our first glimpse of Hitman: Contracts has left us quite impressed by the direction Io Interactive has taken the franchise. It's not a revolutionary new game; it's simply the most solid refinement of the Hitman concept to date. The gameplay that was tightened up in Silent Assassin is married here with a more cohesive world and a style and atmosphere more consistent with the subject matter, and the result is what will most likely be the best Hitman game yet. We look forward to playing more of Contracts, and we'll bring you more on the game when we do.