Codename 47 was lambasted for wasting an otherwise great premise with frustrating gameplay and mission designs. Its sequel, Silent Assassin, ruffled some fans who preferred the completely amoral 47 seen in the first game over the repentant one seen in the sequel, despite being overall better refined.
Deciding that a thoroughly heartless and ruthless 47 is a lot easier to work with for the purposes of weaving plots further down the canon of the franchise, Io Interactive has apparently decided not to uphold the continuity in the story of the series, opting to mostly ignore the events in the second game and adapting certain story elements from the first.
This can seem very drastic to fans of the previous game, but the much more ruthless 47 in Contracts allows for more gameplay elements than either of the two previous games, which should be a convincing plus (though in the eyes of some fans, they do not compensate for what is a rather clumsy retconning).
Anyway, the premise of the game appears to continue from the ending of the first game, which is recounted in a flashback by 47 as he attempts to recuperate after having been wounded in his most recent job. The game starts with the aftermath of the murder of his former secret benefactor, using it as a rather harsh tutorial. On-screen text will inform the player about the basics of the game, but the game does not hesitate to punish any player that does not heed the instructions given, because the opposition in the tutorial level are none other than very heavily armed Special Forces, and if not these, lunatics who had taken advantage of the chaos to take up arms. If the player heeds the instructions, 47 gets to escape and thus the game can start proper.
If a fan of the franchise is expecting a coherent storyline here, he/she would not be getting any. 47, in his feverish state, will recount missions that appear to have next to no connection with each other (with the exception of those that are rehashed from the first game; more on these later). The player may even have the impression that these random flashbacks are little more than excuses to introduce scenarios and mission designs that are different from the previous and next ones. Whether these missions were conducted before or after the events of the first game is not even clear.
In fact, players of the first game may notice that some of the missions in this game have been recycled from the ones in the first game. Granted, many of these have been re-designed to be much better and more sophisticated in terms of gameplay, but they further strengthen the impression of a drastic retconning. Also, the re-designs do not iron out all of the complaints with the original missions. Also, the game does not mention the significance of these missions to the story in the original game, so only the series' fans would know this.
Furthermore, it would appear that the game designers are all too confident that players would receive the re-designs well. This shows in how they have forgone the better portions of the designs for the mission briefings in the previous game, namely the surveillance videos of the targets and their known behaviour; this is instead replaced with much lazier photos, though to somewhat compensate, there is actual voice-over for some of the mission briefings now.
Perhaps worst of all, every mission always start with a series of screenshots of locations of interest that is not even used to hide loading times; these may be handy the first time around or as a refresher, but they would eventually get tiresome. Moreover, some of these introductory sequences cannot be skipped, suggesting that the game designers have not even implemented the skipping input properly.
Maybe the most contentious aspect of the storyline of this game is that it would be used as the launchpad for the story of the next game and further additions to the Hitman canon, but the elaboration for these would be for the reviews of those subsequent entries in the Hitman series.
Anyway, the player character, Agent 47, appears to retain most of his gameplay qualities from Silent Assassin. He is still visually distinct from many other characters and still has capabilities beyond that of a normal human, including being able to take gunshots, even to the head, without much loss in combat performance. However, the intro of this game may suggest otherwise; it is more than likely that his fortitude has been designed so for purposes of gameplay expedience.
However, engaging in outright combat is not what the game is about. As in the previous games, the maps and missions are designed such that there are several ways to get to the target without violence, and many of which are much less risky than engaging in shoot-outs (though that is not saying that the gunplay in this game is poor). There are alleys, sparsely populated hallways and rarely patrolled corridors that the player can have 47 skulk through to avoid the eyes of wary guards (who still have the unnerving habit of staring at 47 whenever he gets close enough), or to hide bodies if the player is inclined to kill more than what the mission requires.
The player character is still able to kill or otherwise incapacitate any male NPC to steal their clothes, thus donning disguises that theoretically could allow 47 to get into otherwise restricted areas. However, it has to be mentioned here that it would not take long for the more understandably elite of guards to see through disguises. On the other hand, there are no more scenarios as in the second game where guards can become over-inquisitive and will proactively examine anyone who looks suspicious. There will still be checkpoints with guards who insist on pat-downs and thorough examination though, and these will almost certainly discover 47 for who he is.
It has to be mentioned here that mere clothes no longer suffice as disguises; some reminders in the mission briefings will discreetly mention this to the player (or rather, Agent 47). Where in previous games strolling into restricted areas while only wearing the right uniforms will get the player somewhere, 47 now needs to be equipped with gear, namely guns, that are exactly the same as those used by guards wearing the same uniforms. While this does seem to make the game more believable and also gives the player character an excuse to carry around a firearm (usually a two-handed one), it also makes it harder to switch to other items in 47's inventory or perform actions that require the player character to either stow away the gun or drop it (which is even more conspicuous) while in restricted areas.
In some missions, certain clothes are useless as disguises, such as one mission where the uniforms of medical orderlies are not useful. However, the game generally informs or hints to the player that these uniforms are not useful; in the case of said mission, the player is informed that the orderlies know each other very well and can easily pick out impostors.
As in previous games, where relevant, disguises with incorporated armor, such as the suits worn by SWAT team members, grant bonuses to the player character's durability. They also tend to allow the player to carry weapons while looking inconspicuous. However, when coupled with 47's beyond human toughness, this can lead to some gameplay imbalance if the player decides to solve problems violently and noisily.
It should also be noted here that certain convenient but silly designs about the disguise mechanic that caused disbelief in previous games are still here: all clothes for male characters of different sizes still fit Agent 47's very tall frame perfectly, and he still has the uncanny ability to neatly fold clothes without him being shown doing so, and then leave them lying around. Of course, this can be dismissed as the result of limitations in animations as allowed by the Glacier engine (more on this later), but this only highlights the age of the graphics technology powering this game.
Search and rescue objectives are not new to the franchise. However, they were rather underwhelming, because of the way that they are resolved. In the previous games, the people that Agent 47 has to rescue have been rendered immobile, but upon having been freed, they declare that they can find their own way out and they will do so, despite having been held captive in places with lots of guards. This game doesn't diverge from such convenient designs, unfortunately. Of course, one can argue that having former captives following Agent 47 around or having to guide the captives towards exits would be a hassle, but such convenient designs for the resolution of objectives can still cause disbelief.
Other objectives include retrieving items, which are more believable than hostage rescues. These often require more thinking on the part of the player, as these items are typically sensitive and stored away in restricted areas. Some of them are easily stuffed inside Agent 47's clothes, while others have to be carried around, making Agent 47 a lot more conspicuous. Of course, for the latter case, it may be more convenient to eliminate any guard patrolling an escape route, but there may be more fun to be had from timing haulage of these items. This is not new gameplay of course, but it is certainly a bit more variety from just stalking, killing or evading guards to get to the objective.
As in the first game, there are mission objectives where the player character must avoid killing certain individuals, which is perhaps a bit awkward considering that 47 has little compunction with getting rid of anyone in his way. In the first game, the blanket application of combat A.I. for any characters that oppose Agent 47 meant that these individuals tend to be just as hostile as angry guards. However, tighter A.I. scripting means that such individuals are less likely to get in the way and force the player's hand now. That is not to say that killing the target together with a bunch of guards in a straight-on fire-fight would not happen.
Despite having mission designs that are overall better, Contracts retains some flaws of the first game. One of these is that the player is not given enough ways to observe the movements of NPCs, despite the game's promotional descriptions saying that the player needs to observe them to figure out mission solutions. Some NPCs are cloistered away indoors, requiring the player to get inside and scout out their behaviour, in addition to having to observe the movement of guards while being outside earlier. (The game's map system, which will be elaborated more upon, does help by giving their positions away, but it does not show any other aspects of their routines other than them getting from one place to another.)
These designs would not have been a problem if the player can save as much as he/she likes, but the player can only do these on lower difficulty settings; the higher ones provide less game-saving opportunities. Of course, one can argue that the player can play missions on easier difficulties first to familiarize oneself with the level designs and the movements of important NPCs. However, on higher difficulty settings, there appear to be more enemies and more complicated patrol routes, thus requiring some more observation, and thus the expenditure of more time. Moreover, the difficulty settings cannot be adjusted mission-to-mission. Instead, the player needs to create a new campaign and start from scratch. Of course, this was the case in previous games, but considering that many other games at the time have since adopted much more flexible and user-friendly difficulty setting options, this is not a good design decision on the part of the designers.
More importantly, the game does not have separate game saves: any save in a mission simply overrides the last one. The game saves are lost when the player exits the game or mission, so the player cannot pick up where he/she left off if he/she leaves a mission before he/she completes it.
The lack of a flexible game-saving feature would have been acceptable if the mission designs are flexible throughout the game, but this is unfortunately not the case. There are some missions where certain objectives have to be accomplished in only one way if the player wants to do these missions as stealthily as possible. For example, a certain infamous mission involving a restaurant and the implication of certain triad gangs that would spark a bloody feud has an objective that can only be stealthily achieved in a very small window of time in the early minutes of the mission; failing to do so has one of the targets going into a very well-guarded compound, with little more opportunities to eliminate it stealthily.
One would wonder whether the mission designs are fixed. While this is true for most missions, certain missions do not have their designs set in stone. For example, there is a mission where an objective, which is an item that has to be retrieved, has its location randomized between two places, one of which will be its true location, while the other is bait that will trigger an alarm. In light of the complaint about an inflexible game-saving option earlier, objectives with random properties such as the above may compound the problem. Fortunately, there are built-in designs to reduce the uncertainty; using the aforementioned mission as an example again, there is an informant that will divulge on the true location of the item, and the player is informed of the presence of this informant.
(On the other hand, that the false location will trigger a very troublesome alarm means that the stealthy player will have little choice but to locate this informant, even though he is not an objective at all.)
There are not many of such missions though. Most of the missions would appear to orient around working one's way past the many guards with disguises and alternate passageways towards the target, picking up items along the way to help in the mission, but otherwise they are all possibly memorisable.
It has to be mentioned here that the player does not get to change Agent 47's loadout when playing a mission for the first time: he will always have to be equipped with the default loadout. To be able to change his loadout, the player will have to beat the mission once with the default loadout first. If a player has decided to accomplish missions in stealthy ways, then this would not be a problem. However, for players who prefer to have a powerful gun stowed away instead of the Silverballers would be thwarted.
If the player has to resort to combat, he/she will notice that there is a bit more weapons (all based on real-world guns) to use than in Silent Assassin.
Unlike the earlier Hitman games, violent solutions to the missions are much more acceptable now; there are no longer very severe penalties for completing missions violently (as in the first game), or any game content locked away until the player adopts and successfully execute stealthy methods (as in the second game). Instead, to expand the player's armaments, the player needs to make sure that Agent 47 completes missions while having guns that are not already in his armoury equipped on his person. This is a lot more intuitive and believable than unlocking items like it was in the previous games.
However, these collected weapons have special variants that cannot be obtained through looting fallen enemies in missions; there are also some guns that are not seen in the hands of enemies. These have to be unlocked by achieving good ratings in missions, which can only be achieved through stealthy means. Fortunately, unlike the previous game which unlocked guns that are not conducive to stealthy solutions, some of the variant unlocks in this game are silenced or suppressed – but not all of them. Furthermore, there is still a complaint to be had: to gain them, the player must score the highest stealth rating possible, "Silent Assassin" (which returns from the previous game). This rating can be only be achieved by not rarely or never using guns at all, which is an irony.
Speaking of guns, some of the weapons in the previous game return, such as Agent 47's favourite Baller pistols and very familiar weapons like the SPAS-12 shotgun. Some do not, such as the Uzi submachinegun, but these are replaced by functionally similar weapons like the Micro-Uzi. Sniper weapons are still available for players who prefer wet-work, and for those who prefer outright combat, there are always assault rifles and the M60 light machinegun.
(Some of the returning weapons have been made into "secrets", which can only be uncovered by finishing the game and doing some other things. To describe them would be to invite spoilers, but it should suffice to say that the significance of these weapons can be amusing to those who have played the first game and used them.)
Some of the new weapons are level-specific, such as the Chinese longsword in levels with Oriental themes. However, these are not functionally any different from any other two-handed blade weapons in the game; 47 wields them all in the same way, and there does not seem to be any appreciable differences in their damage such that the player would pick one over the rest. More importantly, these thematic weapons, especially the ones meant for close combat, are too impractical to use when enemies tend to be armed with guns.
However, despite how ungainly most close combat weapons are, the smallest ones are the most useful. While they are certainly poor in outright combat, they are easily concealable and can be used for stealthy kills. By default, 47 has the infamous Fibre Wire (which is actually a garrotte, only named differently so as to be trademarked and associated with the Hitman franchise. As in the previous games, the Fibre Wire is the stealthiest weapon to use for instant kills. However, as in the previous games, the killing animations are long and cannot be interrupted, meaning that if the player character is caught trying to garrotte someone, enemies get to shoot him around a little. Nevertheless, the Fibre Wire has the advantage of being a bloodless and noiseless manner of killing enemies, whereas the others always leave behind patches of blood that spook guards who come by or have the victim wailing in pain.
The Anaesthetic in the previous game has cumbersome animations that can only be performed when Agent 47 has positioned himself behind the target, thus exposing himself to anyone else who happens to be passing by. The Sedative Syringe in Contracts solves this issue by being more easily brought to bear to knock out the target. However, the Sedative Syringe forgoes the multiple doses that the Anaesthetic has for a single dose that only knocks out the target for a few minutes. Agent 47 only has one syringe, oddly enough, despite how small they are. However, it does have hidden uses, such as being usable on already sleeping characters to prevent them from waking up anytime soon.
While the player is free to eliminate the target by any means, almost every mission has built-in solutions that can be used to get at the target, such as poisoning meals that the target would consume, or exploiting hazards like the high temperatures in sauna baths such that the target meets with a fatal accident. These can be very amusing to enact, and also happen to be required in order to achieve the Silent Assassin rating.
To facilitate the player in guiding 47 to achieve his mission objectives, the user interface includes context-sensitive actions, which return from previous games. They are still text-based and have to be selected from a pop-up menu, so there is not much improvement as there is any setback.
Another returning element of the user interface is the suspicion meter, which informs the player of how much alerted guards are to the presence of any threat to the target. However, as in the previous games, they will perceive the "threat" as always coming from a "suspicious person", which always happen to be 47 and not any other person even if they have not been alerted to his presence in the mission location. This seemed rather contrived in the previous games, and is still contrived here.
Fortunately, the mechanic of suspicion in Contracts has retained the better designs in addition to the less satisfactory ones. Enemies still react believably to obviously suspicious things that the player character does, like running indoors for inexplicable reasons (at least from the perspective of guards), and especially brazen actions like brandishing a Fibre-Wire in plain sight is more than likely to raise alarms. The player still has to be careful enough not to make sudden moves when in places watched over by guards, who need little excuse to start shooting.
Although the enemies in this game appear to be a bit smarter in combat than they were in previous games after having incorporated squad-based A.I, scripts that were fast becoming the norm at the time of this game, they still have holes in their A.I. designs. To illustrate one example, exploiting the nearest chokepoints to funnel enemies may no longer works if the relatively more complex level designs in this entry of the franchise allow enemies to take alternate routes to reach the player; however, if there isn't any alternate route within a minute of reach, funnelling can still work.
One of the most frequent things that the player has to do is time the evasion of patrolling guards. As the game has a lot of obstacles blocking the player's line of sight, there is a map system to help the observation of the patrol paths of guards, civilians and the target.
At the default and lower difficulty settings, bringing up the map system paints icons representing the player character, civilians, enemies, policeman (who act like enemies, but whose deaths must be minimized like as for civilians) and the target onto a blueprint-like representation of the level. This does not put the game in a pause by default however, so the icons still shift positions as the characters that they represent move about. Certain features in their icons show their facing, just like in the previous games. Other useful icons include those for V.I.P.s and points of interest, which often provide clues or methods to get at the objectives, and the Agency's glyph, which contains special gear that Agent 47's employer has supplied specifically for the mission.
However, the map system does not show the locations of all NPCs at once. As the map is ultimately 2D in nature, there are multiple layers for the map to accommodate the multiple floors in the game. However, the more sophisticated a map is, the more layers there are, which can be cumbersome to deal with if the player wants to monitor the movements of multiple characters, such as guards and how their patrol paths criss-cross one another's.
It should be noted here that for any character that is at locations in between these layers, their icons will be in limbo until they move into the mapped layers. This can result in unpleasant surprises in maps with a lot of elevations, such as when the player character bumps into a guard that is moving down a flight of stairs.
The previous game had a compass that informs the player which of the cardinal directions that Agent 47 is facing. Contracts has removed this, which is not exactly beneficial to user friendliness as the player now has to bring up the map just to figure out for certain the facing of the player character, which can be tedious. Perhaps this design decision was intended to reduce the clutter in the head's up display, but the compass could have been visually re-designed to be less intrusive instead of being removed.
Although Contracts can be touted as a refined culmination of the earlier games, it still has issues, some of which are embarrassing. One of these concerns the recovery of ammunition. Learning from the second game, Contracts has the player character retrieving ammo by simply picking up spare weapons and magazines, and they will be automatically added to Agent 47's reserves. The spare weapons and magazines lying around should be removed from the game world, but the launch version of the game has a glitch that occasionally prevents them from being removed, thus allowing the player to exploit them for more ammo.
In the previous games, the player cannot so easily switch from the default third-person view to first-person view. Contracts allows that, which is certainly an improvement in convenience. A player can make use of the third-person view when moving around so as to monitor 47's relative proximity with NPCs and the first-person view when things turn violent.
Graphics-wise, Contracts does more than its predecessors, but it would be far from competing with other games on the computer platform. The Glacier engine, which powered the previous games, has been updated to make use of the latest advances in texture packaging and simple-to-implement graphical effects, but it is still technologically nowhere near engines that were cutting edge at the time.
Rain occurs in just about every mission in the game, which is a visual difference over the previous games, which had few scenarios with rain. The rain is not just a filter effect, but also creates particle effects on surfaces in the game. This was nothing new in games at the time of course, but it does enhances the darker mood of the game compared to those of its predecessors.
The improved engine also allows for more believable modelling for environments, as well as better lighting effects than those in the earlier games. Character models also benefit from the improvements, though their animations do not seem more sophisticated than those in previous games: there are the usual motion-captured animations for NPCs' actions like eating, walking and such, so that they can go about their routines believably enough, as in the previous games.
However, Contracts retains the dependence on ragdolls, which all models turn into when they are slain. Considering the otherwise still believable and logical premise, watching assassinated targets flop and thrash around as the game fumbles over the collision scripts can damage the immersion.
There are other effects, like more believable blood sprays and a dramatic filter effect for the player character's death, but these only come into play when the player is not playing the game in optimal manners, i.e. not stealthily.
As in the previous games, the music in Contracts is mainly composed by Jesper Kyd, which is the person behind the Sumthing Else label (which in turn is the co-owner of the original soundtrack album of this game, other than the now-defunct Eidos Interactive). Having had to work with a much darker reimagining of the Hitman canon, Jesper Kyd had designed the music in this game to be fittingly dark and sometimes morose; the other soundtracks made by other artists are also similar in themes. Unless the current locale has music sources of its own, such as a macabre rave club that plays racy tracks, these sombre tracks are the ones that would play by default.
When the action ratchets up a notch, such as when 47 is at the risk of being discovered by his enemies, the music switches over to tunes that are the most suspenseful heard in the Hitman franchise at the time, which can be an aural treat (if a rather stressful one).
As in the previous games, most characters are given voice-acting; as befitting a game that has the player character trotting the globe, there are voice-overs in multiple, (usually) native languages for the NPCs. However, as in the previous games, the voice-overs for culturally different characters appear to have been provided by very few voice actors, thus causing disbelief when the player notices that NPCs, especially those with similar models, utter the same voice clip one after another, or even simultaneously. As for Agent 47 himself, he appears to be still voiced by the same voice-actor, and still sounds calm and composed. He does sound a lot more cynical than in earlier games now, which does fit into the darker re-imagining of the Hitman canon, but may seem snide to less-tolerant players.
In conclusion, Hitman: Contracts can be considered a very risky entry to the Hitman franchise. The re-imagining of the canon may have alienated fans of the franchise and the re-designs of old missions from the original game may not endear to those who are averse towards recycling of content, but the gameplay of the game is otherwise solid and the re-designs show that the game designers had indeed given more thought to improve the sophistication of missions in the Hitman franchise. In time, this very drastic reset of the series would prove to be a blessing in disguise – no pun intended.