When you kill for a living there are no rules, but when you make games for a living there are.
The original Hitman, despite being somewhat of a flawed affair, still attracted a fair bit of attention, if only because of its controversial subject matter. Hitman 2 faired considerably better, and with the aforementioned flaws corrected, was subsequently able to attract an even wider audience to its unique mix of stealth and all-out gunplay. With Hitman Contracts, Io Interactive presents a variety of reworked missions from the series' past, as well as some brand new missions to keep the loyal fans ticking over till the already-announced Hitman 4 makes its debut. Until then, Contracts is more of the same, with little added to the formula. Which, depending on how you look at it, is as much a blessing as it is a curse.
Like every other Hitman game, you're treated to a lengthy cut scene that puts the ensuing blood bath into context. The difference this time is we join the bar-coded Assassin as he makes his way to an apartment come hideout, mortally wounded and bleeding to death. As he settles into a chair waiting for whatever fate might have in store for him, his life flashes before his eyes. This is a rather clever plot device that nicely sets the player up for a trip down memory lane, whereby you'll be participating in 47's flashbacks to better days (by better days, I mean days where he was the one doing the killing, naturally). The first mission requires you escape from an insane asylum in the heart of Romania, surrounded by Special Forces who are very keen to get their hands on you. Naturally, it's here where you become acquainted with the changes made since Hitman 2.
One of the first things to hit you is the new sheen applied to the visuals. 47 and the several NPC's roaming the level are now all the proud recipients of some very nice lighting effects that go beyond the flat and unappealing lighting seen in Hitman 2. Moreover, the levels themselves are now more detailed, which maybe isn't surprising given that they are more often than not the source of this lighting. Still, there's a lot to be said for the environments, which are something of a stylistic departure from Hitman 2's predominantly open-ground affair: detailed and multi-layered buildings are the order of the day for the first couple of levels at least, which certainly supports the claustrophobic and tense atmosphere. From there on in, you're treated to the neon-lit streets of Hong Kong and the harsh winds and landscape of Siberia, all lovingly crafted to a degree of perfectionism usually reserved for tyrant film Directors.
The musical score is something else worth harping on about, with the now infamous Jesper Kyd lending his talents to the sonic content of Hitman Contracts. What really impresses about the soundtrack is that it isn't intrusive: you'll get a burst of music when it's absolutely appropriate, rather than a play list looping continuously throughout the level. The best example is moving through to the party area of mission 2, where the affluent young partygoers dance their little cotton socks off to a dirty trance beat (very nice). However, leave the immediate area and the music gets quieter... and quieter... until it eventually settles for being nothing more than a bass-laden murmur permeating the buildings structure. Pretty cool, yeah? The soundtrack is yet another component of the game that helps support the atmosphere, a task a great many soundtracks neglect to undertake.
So you know what's new and improved - time to dig into the meat of the game. Hitman Contracts hasn't changed a hell of a lot since the second game: you'll still be able to proceed with your objective by very different means. A stealth approach entails proceeding through the level whilst keeping a low profile. This will mean donning disguises, concealing weapons and generally restraining your no doubt murderous urges. If you're not up to keeping your guns holstered, then you've got as much freedom to blow peoples brains out as you want, though be aware that you are not invincible. In fact, Io Interactive have gone out of their way to remind you of impending death by slowing things down to a trickle when your life bar is near empty, as a sepia tone washes over the screen. It's all very film noir and if anything proves that Io interactive take a great deal of their inspiration from a whole cross-section of movies.
You'll also be pleased to know that the controls haven't changed much from Hitman 2, either. In fact, bar the visual and audio content, the bulk of gameplay content in Hitman Contracts wouldn't look out of place in Hitman 2. On the face of it, this lack of progression from Hitman 2 is a little disappointing: 47 still appears to skate around the levels rather than proceed on foot and the enemy AI is as erratic and prone to psychosis as ever. Of course, the biggest fault amongst them all lies with the way you're expected to proceed with your objectives. Whilst it's perfectly feasible to rush through each level completing objectives with little or no regard for stealth, the brute force approach is wholly unsatisfying and doesn't truly represent the ambition of the developers. The combat is far too rudimentary and can't be sustained as a singular approach to the game.
You see, Hitman is a far more rewarding game when you take the stealth approach, so much so you're awarded a higher grade for completing objectives with as little commotion as possible. This is a problematic game mechanic however, as the stealth approach requires a great deal of trial and error, and when I say a great deal, I mean working through each level at least a couple of dozen times before you know exactly how to approach it properly. This makes playing Hitman somewhat of a chore, one that many gamers simply won't want to endure.
Ultimately, a lot of noise is made about how there are multiple ways to approach your objectives, when the truth of it is there's usually only one true way to complete your objectives in a satisfying manner. This means the average gamer is going to work through the missions using a combination of stealth and brute force, but this in itself devalues the lofty ambition of the level design.
An ambition that simply can't be realised in this period of games design. Credit goes to Io Interactive for having the kind of vision that drives the industry forward, it's just a shame they don't have the tools to fully realise their vision.
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Trailer: Part 3 of 3 - "The Psychology of the Assassin" [320x240, 1600kbps]
Trailer: Part 2 of 3 - "The Psychology of the Assassin" [320x240, 600kbps]
Trailer: Part 1 of 3 - "The Psychology of the Assassin" [320x240, 600kbps]
Teaser Trailer [320x240, 600kbps]