Hitman: Contracts is the latest entry in Eidos and Io Interactive's popular franchise that puts you in the fast-paced life of Agent 47, a genetically engineered clone who was pieced together from the DNA of five different crime bosses. While the good agent comes fully loaded with the skills and predisposition to be a wickedly good killer, he's a little thin in the hair department. Thankfully, whatever shame or trauma he may feel at being a dead ringer for a bowling ball can be channeled into his job as an assassin extraordinaire. Unfortunately, whereas previous entries in the series have presented 47 as quite the skilled slayer, Hitman: Contracts puts a new spin on things by heading in a darker direction that's equal parts film-noir thriller and mystery. We recently got our hands on a near-final version of the game and are giving it a final look (before it ships later this month) to see how it's come together.
The game's story uses a pretty standard narrative device--the trusty "I'm going to die, so let me look back on my life" flashback--that helps free it from the linear structure of its predecessors. While the device is a pretty well-used staple, we have to say that Io has used it as an opportunity to give the franchise a pretty thorough stylistic makeover. As you can imagine, the seemingly random flashbacks help give the game a surrealistic structure, of sorts, that has you reliving what we imagine were probably good times for Agent 47. The flashback-level structure lets the game zip around to exotic locales, such as France, China, Russia, and England, so that Agent 47 can pick off assorted evildoers, like terrorists and crime bosses. Along the way, the disjointed narrative will fill you in on how the heck our boy wound up shot up and holed up in a cheap hotel room.
To match the surreal storytelling, Io has gone ahead and refined the game's already stylish look. The resulting makeover has allowed the game to have an even more dramatic look. The use of disturbing imagery and the effective use of color and light have resulted in a trippy look that's much more theatrical. The look is also complemented by Jesper Kyd's minimalist soundtrack, which helps sell the whole experience.
From a technical standpoint, there's been a decent amount of work done on the game's graphics, and while there isn't a massive leap in performance from the previous game on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, it does look much better. As mentioned, the use of lighting and color are the standout elements with regard to the graphics. The game's style doesn't lend itself to hyper-realistic detail, so the tweaks made to the character models aren't revolutionary. The environments make out a bit better thanks to the moody presentation and inventive designs. The whole experience is helped out by the inclusion of a number of graphical effects that impressively add a touch of surrealism to the game--by presenting some trippy filter effects. While the PlayStation 2 version we played a while ago was a few steps up from the Xbox, in terms of its visual quality, the latest versions of the game find both iterations much closer now. The Xbox game is looking much better and should at least match its PlayStation 2 counterpart when it ships.
While the visuals and overall style of the game have gotten a dramatic overhaul, the gameplay has received an equally potent tweaking, which is much more subtle. The core gameplay is still based on the solid mechanics used in Hitman 2. The missions will all be objective-based and will usually involve taking out one or two important people, then you'll typically be charged with finding an item or performing some other task. Of course, it's better to be stealthy in your missions, but you'll also have a fighting (albeit bloody) chance if you opt to "Rambo" your way through the game. To balance out Agent 47's lethal ways, Io has done some tinkering with the game's AI that's resulted in smarter enemies who are now more than willing to work together to take you down. The end result--while not offering the same level of marked night-and-day improvement as was seen when Hitman went from its original release to its sequel--makes for a solid evolutionary step in gameplay that actually feels good.
As it stands now, Hitman: Contracts is shaping up to be an engaging entry in the franchise that's definitely a worthy follow-up to Hitman 2. The game's inventive storytelling and refined style certainly offer a lot of potential for exploitation in future entries in the series. For the time being, though, if you're looking for some satisfying assassin-action, Hitman: Contracts may be just what the doctor ordered. The game is currently slated to ship for the PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox later this month.