Everyone's favorite bald-headed assassin is back for his third outing in Hitman: Contracts, a game that's especially recommendable to fans of 2002's Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, because the gameplay and a lot of the visuals simply haven't changed in this latest installment. Danish developer Io Interactive created a memorable character and some impressive technology with its original Hitman game, but not till the sequel did the gameplay live up to the graphics. Given that Hitman 2 was such a huge improvement on the original, it's inherently somewhat disappointing that the new Hitman: Contracts is really just a rehash. It's more of the same, replete with everything that was good and everything that wasn't so good about the 2002 game--only it's now 2004, and some of the issues that were more easily overlooked then tend to stick out this time around. Nevertheless, Hitman: Contracts still features some tense and exciting stealth action gameplay, as well as a good sense of style and some interesting, open-ended missions.
Most of Contracts takes place as a series of flashbacks. It's not terribly clear at first, but you soon gather that the assassin known only as 47 has sustained a grievous injury on one of his assignments and now lies at death's door. What may be his final memories are only of his past jobs--brutal, high-risk assignments--which, incidentally, are reminiscent of missions (in many cases) from the first Hitman game. The original Hitman: Codename 47 was released on the PC back in 2000, and it suffered from serious issues with the controls and overall design. So in a way, it's nice to get to play some of these old missions as they probably should have been played the first time around. On the other hand, those who've stuck with the Hitman series from the get-go might not entirely appreciate the déjà vu. Anyway, close to half of the missions in Contracts are completely original, whereas many of the later missions are "remixes" of levels from the 2000 game, including that game's early missions, which took place in Hong Kong. Additionally, there are later missions, such as one in which 47 must eliminate two brothers who are up to no good at an international gathering in a posh hotel, and another one in which he must disrupt a Russian arms deal that is going down aboard a ship. To be fair, these refurbished missions don't seem any older than the new ones, and they actually contain some new twists not found in their original incarnations.
The new missions are certainly diverse and are quite interesting, offering ample opportunity--in the classic tradition of the Hitman series--for you to craftily make your way to your target to take him out, undetected, via some elaborate scheme (which typically involves the use of lots of disguises taken from killed or unconscious characters, as well as the use of poisons or poison substitutes). However, there are also ample opportunities to instinctively shoot anything that moves, if the aforementioned strategy fails. The first mission in Hitman: Contracts takes place in the asylum in which the genetically enhanced 47 was made, in the aftermath of 47's killing of his maker at the conclusion of the first game. The building is surrounded by SWAT teams, and 47 must either try to face them all single-handedly or find some other means of escape. Subsequent missions take place in locations like a fetish party, which is reminiscent of the blood rave from the movie Blade; an impressive British manse, where aristocrats have gathered for a hunting party; a cold Russian outpost, where a submarine lurks with deadly cargo in its belly; a gathering of fascist bikers in Rotterdam; and more. The game's settings are all drenched in rain (or snow) and are otherwise thick with film noir atmosphere that suitably fits the theme. The international locales come across well, too. Characters all speak in their native languages, though 47 has apparently been too busy murdering people to have picked up on any foreign languages over the years.
Depending on which of the three difficulty modes you select when you begin play, and depending on whether or not you try to take a stealthy approach, you can either breeze through the linear series of missions in less than 10 hours, or you can possibly spend twice as much time doing so (or more). So there's some replay value to be found here, but this is still a single-player game that doesn't necessarily have much long-term appeal. The truth is that the default "normal" difficulty mode is too easy. In it, 47 begins every mission with a silenced hardballer pistol, which can instantly and quietly kill anyone. However, 47 doesn't even need to be discreet, because he can sustain lots of damage and can easily slaughter dozens of enemies (and civilians) using the automatic weapons he'll scavenge from his fallen foes. It's comparatively much harder, and much slower, to take the stealthy route, so it's tempting to take the path of least resistance to just blast your way from one finish line to the next till you've reached the end credits. Unlike in previous Hitman games, very few missions in Hitman: Contracts outright require you to be stealthy. Your intended targets typically won't flee the area, even if you've murdered all their henchmen, and in some cases, you might end up killing them in a wild firefight without even realizing it.
On the other hand, the highest difficulty level in Hitman: Contracts is going to be too tough for most players. It doesn't show you any detail on your tactical map, and it doesn't permit you to save your progress in the middle of a mission. Furthermore, 47 can easily be killed by his enemies due to their increased power and accuracy, so this mode is very unforgiving. Yet, Goldilocks-style, the "expert" difficulty mode is just right. You can't open fire as wantonly as in normal mode, because your enemies have a pretty good chance of killing you. And you only get a couple of saves per mission, so you'd best make them count. This setup naturally inclines you to take a stealthy approach to, therefore, experience these elaborate missions for all they're worth. However, most gamers will logically gravitate toward the normal setting first to stomp their ways through the game, thus missing its finer points. Unfortunately, you cannot switch between difficulty settings on a per-mission basis. If you want to play on expert mode, you have to start from the beginning.
As a shooter (both first-person and third-person perspectives are available), Hitman: Contracts can be satisfying. There's a huge variety of authentic weapons to be found and used, and killed foes lie in vivid red pools of blood. But the action just isn't particularly good by today's standards, because the enemy artificial intelligence is, frankly, terrible. Enemies will try to overpower you through sheer numbers, but they won't easily succeed, at least on the normal difficulty setting. You can position yourself at a choke point--say, behind a door--to just keep spraying automatic fire in the general vicinity of your enemies' heads. A very forgiving auto-aim system will make most of your shots hit home, from short- or long-range, and as a result, the bodies will quickly pile high as more and more fools rush to their deaths until none are left. Then you're free to casually complete your mission, unopposed.
The game has some other noticeable issues, which have been inherited from Hitman 2. There are some nice, scripted setups for you to take advantage of, such as when characters nonchalantly walk over to the restroom so that you can strangle them, hide their bodies, and take their clothes for a disguise. But the whole disguise thing still seems rather silly, even though it's one of the main gameplay elements in the Hitman series. The tall and broad-shouldered 47 can wear most anyone's clothes as though they were tailored for him, and the way his previous outfit magically appears in a neatly folded pile may be a hard pill to swallow for those unfamiliar with the Hitman series. The behavior of most characters just isn't very convincing. As you strut in your new threads, characters will just kind of mill about while casting sideways glances at you as you approach them, and they may even attack or panic if you get too close to them. Again, though, there's just no coordination or reason in the characters' actions, so you'll notice in densely populated stages that panicking civilians will just run around--back and forth--like chickens with their heads cut off. And you already know how the gun-toting bad guys fare...
Like its predecessor, Hitman: Contracts provides you with a very helpful tactical map, which you can access at the touch of a button at any time, though the action doesn't pause when you're on the map screen. Apart from the map, though, the game doesn't give you very good feedback about what's going on in your environment. You're supposedly trying to remain hidden and quiet as you sneak around, but there are no real indications of whether or not you're in a character's line of sight or within his or her earshot. There's an onscreen threat indicator, which turns red and starts fluctuating if you've raised suspicion, but it isn't terribly useful except to warn you that you're standing too close to somebody. Besides that, Hitman: Contracts still frequently displays messages to you as though you're omniscient. Suddenly, you're informed that a dead guard's body has been discovered or that guards are now looking for a suspicious man dressed as a chef, and other things of this nature. Presumably, 47 is learning this through the Agency, his mysterious employer who's able to contact him remotely, but these all-too-helpful messages still seem incongruous with the gameplay. At any rate, it's things like these, as well as the artificial intelligence issues, that ideally should have been tweaked in this new game.
As mentioned, Hitman: Contracts isn't much of an improvement from a graphical standpoint, either. In fact, considering it uses the same technology featured in the original Hitman game, it's a miracle it looks as impressive as it does. Many of the environments and ambient lighting effects are believable and great-looking, though the environments aren't very interactive. The original Hitman was the first action game to make ample use of "rag-doll physics," an effect that's recently become very popular, since it presents relatively realistic death animations. As a result, killed characters crumple to the ground in lifeless heaps. But the effect is still exactly the same as ever in Hitman: Contracts and no longer looks as remarkable as it used to. There are a few new effects, such as how gouts of blood spray into the air sometimes when bullets strike their victims. Also, when 47 runs out of health, the entire game temporarily goes into slow motion, while the color fades from the screen as he makes his last stand. The effect is supposed to be dramatic, but, actually, it's just confusing; you'll think you accidentally triggered some new special ability, but in fact, all you did was get yourself killed.
One disappointing aspect of the presentation in Hitman: Contracts is that it's missing Hitman 2's incredibly stylish surveillance videos of all the people you're going after. Here, all you get are static photos and flat text-briefing screens with some voice-over. Also, it's worth noting that the game has an obnoxious number of introductory splash screens--some of which you can skip and some of which you can't--all of which prevent you from getting started (playing) as quickly as you'd probably like.
The highlight of Hitman: Contracts' audio is a musical score by Jesper Kyd, the same composer who delivered the memorable musical score to last year's Freedom Fighters, the last game from the developers of Hitman. The music here is electronic, rife with synthesized bass and heavy percussion, and is much closer to that of the original Hitman than the orchestral score found in Hitman 2. Fortunately, it works extremely well with the game's gritty and stylish settings. It dynamically changes to fit the action and generally adds a layer of suspense and tension to the proceedings that works better than any other element in the game. The rest of the audio is good, and the multilingual voice acting, as mentioned, is a nice touch. Unfortunately, you'll hear some panicking characters repeating their lines way too often, which takes away from the realism. 47's calm voice, meanwhile, fits the character very well.
Hitman: Contracts is available for the PC, Xbox, and PlayStation 2, and each version of the game features the same content and plays to the relative strengths of each respective platform. The PC version is the best overall and offers the richest graphical quality (provided your system meets the relatively modest recommended system requirements) as well as the best controls, thanks to a standard first-person-shooter-style mouse-and-keyboard setup. Loading times are also fastest on the PC, though they're reasonably short on the Xbox and PS2 as well. The ability to save anywhere is present in all three versions of the game, though on the PS2, each save file takes up 500KB on your memory card, which is a pretty big chunk. The console versions of the game control well using a dual-analog setup, but you'd already know that if you played Hitman 2.
The third game in the Hitman series can be thought of as an expansion pack--or a supplement--to the previous game. There isn't much resolution at the end of Hitman: Contracts, so it seems safe to assume that the series is going to continue. Hopefully, then, for his next assignment, 47 will pack a few more tricks up his sleeve. For the time being, though, Hitman: Contracts delivers some time-tested and sometimes highly entertaining stealth action, which any fan of the genre might as well check out.