Being a professional assassin is far from the safest job on the market. Our hero, by the name of 47 gets intimately familiar with this fact during the game’s opening cinematic sequence. We see him stumbling into some small room, only to fall over. Did karma finally catch up with the seemingly invincible character? Well, Hitman Contracts starts off where the first game ended. You had just killed a nasty scientist, leaving a trail of dead hitman clones in the hallways. Somehow you have to make it outside. This might sound easy considering how you had just gunned your way past the defenses to get to this point. Unfortunately, the SWAT arrive, leaving you with two options; gunning your way past whoever gets in your way, or finding some way of getting past unnoticed. Ideally you want to be as stealthy as possible, but in reality the game throws surprises in your way, making it very easy to reach for your guns.
In that room you fell into earlier you start hallucinating about your past. You start seeing scenes from missions that you as a player might recognize from the first game, but also some brand new ones. Each time this happens you start playing whatever mission 47 was seeing, or hearing. Fortunately, even though some of the missions are the same, there are always some new twists and kinks thrown in for good measure. The overall atmosphere has definitely gotten gloomier and this time the villains are often a lot more nasty and deserving of death.
The butcher level, which you might’ve read about, is a good example of how the entire game works. Here you have to assassinate two people, among other things. During the mission you’ll pass through an opium lounge, see couples rubbing up against each other, making out, all while wearing conspicuous black clothing and masks. The fairly loud sound of techno music coming from the dance floor brings draws instant flashbacks to Se7ven, a movie I’m fairly sure the developers got some of their inspiration from. In order to finish the mission properly you’ll have to learn guard routes, interact with people and things, in order to set up a scenario that works to your advantage.
But what about the gameplay? I’ve always thought of the Hitman games as being consistent of a high quality, but they can get frustrating and force you to reload your savegames several times to get something done properly. The same applies to Hitman: Contracts. You can probably finish the game in a run-and-gun fashion without too much of a problem. 47 can now take a whole lot of shots to the chest without dying, and I think some players are going to exploit that. As I mentioned before there are basically two ways to play the game; being stealthy, or not. At the end of each mission you’re rated depending on how many unnecessary kills you did, how stealthy you were, and so on. If you only kill essential people using stealthy weapons (not guns) and avoid being detected then your rating should be silent assassin. This is essentially the optimal thing to achieve, and as a reward you’re given a special weapon. Hitman Contracts features twelve levels, some of which are from the original game. In each of these you
have a number of strategies to employ, even within one single style of playing. This means you can be stealthy and direct, stealthy and indirect (poisoning a drink that’s given to someone by a waiter for instance), and that’s probably the game’s strongest point in my book.
In Hitman: Contracts you don’t have many of the moves seen in games like Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, so how do you remain undetected? For starters you have a map which shows every person on the level (when you’re outside you can only see people that are outside, etc), every important area, and such. The map is important because it allows you to time your approaches. Since you can’t become practically invisible by hiding in some shadow you’ll need to learn guard routes, and basically figure out what the ideal route is, and when the best time to strike is. This actually works pretty well for the most part, but at times it can be a bit frustrating, making you reload again and again because you know so well that you can do better. And when you do finish a level the “right” way you do get a very good feeling of accomplishment. Playing the run-and-gun way is easy for three reasons; one or two headshots will almost always kill your opponent, you can withstand a nearly insane number of shots, and there’s usually enough ammo to last a short lifetime. But I will admit that it can be fun to just not care about what happens and be the cool assassin-guy who walks confidently and stops whatever foes that come in his way.
Besides the map you’re also able to change clothes. If you’re assassinating the boss of some random gang you might first kill a guard or something, drag his corpse away, and then put on his clothes. As long as you stick to areas where you’re expected to be seen and don’t do anything conspicuous you’ll usually get by unharmed. There are exceptions, like if you decide to stop right in front of a guard who then decides to examine you. In some levels you’ll even have to change clothes multiple times, but it can be a bit of trial and error to figure out who accepts you wearing certain clothes, and who doesn’t.
Unfortunately there aren’t a whole lot of new weapons in Hitman: Contracts, especially if you played Hitman 2. You do have a meat hook and some other cool ones, along with the already pretty impressive array of rifles, sub-machine guns, pistols, revolvers, shot-guns, knives, non-lethal takedowns, and more.
But there are bugs too. There are few things more annoying in Hitman: Contracts than when you’ve been playing like a champ for maybe 10-15 minutes, making sure you hide corpses and all that, and suddenly the game tells you your cover is blown – without anyone even being close. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does it effectively nullifies your effort to be a silent assassin.
The artificial intelligence is also a bit flaky. Your enemies usually don’t have radios to call the rest of the guards, so if you start shooting or do something “wrong” then it’s usually confined to the nearby area. Because of this you’re rarely screwed by having to shoot a couple of people. This is how it’s meant to work at least. There are times when you can shoot someone and whoever is close by won’t even notice it. Other times the bots can run in somewhat amusing ways, but I’ll have you know that there’s some real entertainment value in chasing the mistress of the old guy you just shot. But honestly, I’ve seen far worse AI behavior in other games, so it should be sufficient to keep you challenged while suspending the disbelief.
In terms of graphics you’ll find that Hitman Contracts isn’t enormously different from Hitman 2, but clearly a step in the right direction. There are some new post filter effects included, some nice reflective surfaces, and the renderer has been upgraded, which meant more polygons could be used. The performance is usually very good, even with the settings put on max. There are exceptions, such as when you’re overlooking a lot of objects, but that’s about the only time you’ll see the framerate dropping. You can also turn off a good bunch of the effects and so on, so you should be able to play this even on a not so new PC.
I would personally have loved to see what the game would’ve looked like with for instance bump-mapped environments, height-mapped characters, a proper physics engine (the characters have rag-doll physics, but that’s all), volumetric shadows on every in-game object (to hide in), and enough pixel and vertex shaders to keep the drool constant. I hope we’ll see something like that in the next game, because the game looks like it could’ve easily been made a year ago, or even earlier.
The audio is also better than ever. Jesper Kyd, who did the music for the previous games, put together a varied and high-quality musical score that stays true to the style used in the past games. A few other songs were licensed, so you’ll even hear some heavy rock and a form of pop as you sneak your way through the levels. Our pal 47 actually speaks a fair bit this time, but mostly during the cut scenes and when you start some of the levels. His, and pretty much every other voice in Hitman: Contracts sound perfectly believable. There are a couple of exceptions, but nothing major.
In my opinion Hitman: Contracts is a game for people who just want more. In some ways the game feels like an expansion, or maybe a half-sequel. It doesn’t have as many levels as Hitman 2, but they’re longer, and usually more interesting. There’s a lot of replay-value, since you can play a level in many ways, plus you have a menu where you can replay previous levels for a chance to become silent assassin, or just to goof-off. Unfortunately you have to first load a game, quit it, then press Start (new game), then press Current Game, and then finally choose the level. I also wish the game had some more weapons to choose from, because those of us who have played the previous games expected more. Graphically the game is an improvement, but not a radical one. The audio is as solid as it’s always been, but I missed more dialogue between the in-game characters.
Hitman: Contracts isn’t bug-free either, but it does improve if you apply the patch that’s been released.
At any rate, if you liked Hitman 1 and 2 then this is pretty much a must-have. If you’re just looking for a good stealthy game it might also be just for you, but if you just want to run and shoot stuff then there are better games out there for you.