Resume the role of cold contract killer Agent 47 and arm yourself for new ventures of meticulous planning and expert execution. Following the breakthrough success of the PC original Codename 47 and the mainstream popularity of its cross-platform sequel Silent Assassin, this third title in the Hitman series is designed to refine the stealth-action control scheme and revamp the graphical presentation, while maintaining the tradition of dark, morally ambivalent storytelling that has shown the efficient, mysterious protagonist to be much more than a mindless trigger-jockey.
As in the earlier games, a large part of the Hitman's work is in gaining the needed understanding about his target and surroundings. While a job may be finished with a single, split-second shot, a great deal of preparation often must come first. Proper surveillance can be invaluable, as understanding the movements and routines of each target means understanding the opportunities and risks of each job. Players will choose from an assortment of possible weapons, each appropriate for different situations. This third tale begins in Paris, where Agent 47 finds himself alone, trapped, and wounded. As usual, steel-nerved skill may be all that saves the silent assassin from his own swift execution.
Hitman: Contracts starts out with a close-up of a gunshot to the head. The victim's skull snaps against the floor and then sprays it with blood. Okay, so that's the tone it's going to take: something grim and unflinching. Winding backwards from the finale of 2000's Hitman: Codename 47, Contracts supposes itself a darker look at the greatest hits, if you will, of the assassin known only as 47. But don't be fooled. Contracts is typical sneak/shoot-'em-up action that relies too heavily on remade content and brittle gameplay. Although it was novel four years ago, games have come much farther than this.
There are a dozen missions here, including a seemingly interminable string of assignments in Hong Kong that account for a third of the game. Since this is supposed to be partly a remake and partly a prequel, half of the missions are levels from the first Hitman. This might be OK for Xbox owners who never had a chance to play the first game, but for anyone's who's played the first two Hitman games on the PC, this can't help but feel like a letdown.
Although these remade missions aren't exact replicas, the differences are ultimately minor. If you played the first game, these levels will quite literally has a "been there, done that" look, like when you're watching a TV rerun and remembering things as they happen. At times, it feels like the developers simply ran out of ideas, which is a shame, since some of the fresh ideas are quite good. The best of the new content is the infiltration of a stylish Arctic naval base and an atmospheric hit in an English manor during as clichéd a dark and stormy night as you'll ever see.
Although the early game promises a dark amoral journey as 47 recalls his life, it peaks early and then chickens out. The resolution of the second mission, in which 47 has to kill a grotesquely obese kidnapper, takes a startling twist at the end. It's grim and unflinching indeed. But for the rest of the game, you're dutifully avenging injustices and keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists. 47 is a mishmash of Charles Bronson, Rambo, and President George W. Bush. It's as if the developers weren't comfortable with an assassin killing for killing's sake, so they had to give him higher purposes like making the world a better place. This feels contrived and pointless, especially considering the game's silly bright red blood spurts and embarrassing attempts at sexuality. C'mon, IO, this is a post-Grand Theft Auto world. Let your amorality flag fly.
Hitman also suffers in a post-Grand Theft Auto world for its rigid scripting. Most of the solutions are some variation on "take the waiter's outfit and bring the food into the heavily guarded inner sanctum." There's a lot of trying on different victims' clothes to see what sort of options you'll unlock. You'll deliver whiskey and opium pipes, drop flammables down chimneys, turn off power supplies, stroll casually past unsuspecting guards, hire strippers to distract bad guys, and hide your guns in toolboxes, all punctuated by more costume changes than a Cher concert.
But it's all so heavily scripted that it rarely has the organic feel of coming up with a plan and then executing it. Instead, it's like figuring out the hoops you're supposed to jump through and then doing it over and over until you figure out the timing for the jump. There's a lot of trial and error to guess what the developers want you to do. It plays like an adventure game where you're using the mayonnaise and bread to pull the key under the door. To its credit, unlike an adventure game, Hitman lets you bust down the door if you want. At the lowest difficulty, you can easily shoot your way through most of the levels. But the fact remains that after Grand Theft Auto's free-ranging dynamic gameplay, Hitman now has all the spontaneity of King's Quest.
The first Hitman didn't allow any in-game saves. IO Interactive gives you a limited number of saves -- and you'll definitely need them all -- based on the difficulty level you choose, a contrived way to make the missions more difficult. The difficulty level also determines how much information you get on the overhead map and how effective you are in combat. Combat is also made easy by the A.I., which ranges from incompetence to blind stupidity. If you play through a level with complete stealth, you'll unlock more powerful weapons. However, these aren't available until you replay a level, something there's not much point in doing with such rigid scripting. Also, you can't use these weapons if you decide you want to try the game at a higher difficulty level, which will reset all of your progress. This is a major blunder that robs the game of what minimal replay value it might have had.
The graphics are suitably moody, but they have a soft fuzzy look as if you were watching the game through the sort of soft focus lens used to shoot aging movie stars. The number of character models is minimal, so you'll often be able to find your targeted victim because he'll be the one guy you haven't met a hundred times since the start of the mission. Like the A.I., character animations are stiff and unconvincing. You'll see a lot of sloppy things like 47 climbing a ladder with his sniper rifle case still in his hand, colliding it through solid surfaces because the developers couldn't even be bothered to come up with a solution for how to animate certain activities. When the gunplay starts, Hitman loosens up a bit, with ragdoll physics, hearty weapon effects, and environmental damage tricks to liven up the action. But here's where the A.I. really hurts the game, as bad guys literally line up to be shot.
In the final analysis, there's not enough content, gameplay, or finesse here to recommend this latest installment in the series. If you enjoy adventure games, with a liberal sprinkling of action and a failed pretense at a darker tone, you might like Hitman: Contracts.
People who downloaded Hitman: Contracts have also downloaded:
Hitman: Blood Money, Hitman: Codename 47, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, Max Payne, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, Call of Duty 2, Half-Life 2: Episode One, DOOM³
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