When I die I’d like the life that flashes before my eyes to be filled with sweet, gauzy scenes of misspent youth – days at the beach, playing with my dogs, hikes in the White Mountains, and alcohol binge weekends with Britney and Beyonce. In Hitman: Contracts the character known only as 47 gets no such luxury. Perhaps mortally wounded he drags himself into an apartment and in his delirium experiences flashbacks of previous missions – that’s the game, those are the missions you play. They are unlinked to each other, and for the most part reminiscent of missions from earlier games. While ultimately you do return to the present, the overarching plot is a little thin, and the game amounts to something of a clip show for the Hitman, or perhaps a collection of greatest hits, pun intended. In any case, the basic gameplay of Hitman has changed so little over the three incarnations that I can really only recommend Hitman to someone who is looking for more of the same. If you pick up Hitman: Contracts hoping for a new and improved gaming experience, you’re not going to find it.
For those of you who have somehow missed Hitman up until now, the gameplay is relatively easy to grasp. You’re a hitman directed by some generic agency though intro voiceovers to carry out various hits. How you carry them out is entirely up to you, but the levels are very clearly and carefully designed to have a preferred method of solution. You’re supposed to sneak around, killing people in quiet bathrooms and darkened corners, putting on their clothing (which is always, incidentally, a perfect fit), and secreting closer and closer to your ultimate target. Contract killing is necessarily a patient business. A “suspicion” meter indicates the likelihood of your discovery and forces you to keep moving, keep your distance from guards and whatnot. The difficulty that I have always found in the past, and continue to find here, is that success requires a certain degree of omniscience, what targets of opportunity will present themselves, where and when. Frequently what would happen to me is that I would be doing OK, assuming the disguises I’m supposed to be, but then somewhere in the middle of the mission I’m discovered and the whole thing degenerates into a slaughterfest. If I play them over and over again, fine tuning my approach each time, I can often get them “right,” but as the type of gamer who generally finishes a level never to return, the urge to do this is kind of weak. Once you’ve completed the levels to whatever degree of satisfaction floats your boat, that’s it – Hitman has not in the past and continues to have no multiplayer component.
To complete your mission you have a number of weapons at your disposal. You of course still carry the pair of signature Silverballer handguns, but you are also trained to use a variety of rifles (sniper rifle in a briefcase, yahoo!), handguns, and automatic weapons. Also available are the tools of the trade for more silent killing such as garrote, poison, and the new meathook and pillow. The meathook is especially nifty, and will have you reaching for your own throat as you watch the graphic dispatch of your enemies. In fact, as long as I’m on the subject, the entire graphic level of the game seems to have been ratcheted up a notch. I’m not talking about the graphics in general, which are as far as I can tell largely unchanged from Hitman 2, but the whole mood and atmosphere of the game is very dark. Smears and puddles of blood, fairly graphic depiction of sex, and frequent drug use are just some of the glitzy stuff that you have to look forward to. Some of the people you’re offing dearly deserve it, and a slight queasy feeling is perfectly normal.
One problem that I encountered in the past incarnations that continues into the present is how the game handles actions. When 47 is in a location that allows him to interact with his environment, a menu pops up displaying his options at that point, and you use either the mouse wheel or arrow keys to scroll through them to the one you want, then a mouse click to activates it. The first part of my complaint is that, rich as the environments are, there is damned little that you can do with anything. You don’t search rooms, you can’t use any old object such as a chair as a weapon, and even moving objects to block a door can’t be done. The slaughterhouse mission has these giant meat-grinder-like devices which seem perfect to me for hiding bodies, but if there’s a way to feed a body into them I couldn’t figure it out. The second half of the complaint is that under pressure I find I’m frequently manipulating this menu poorly, dragging dead bodies when I want to change clothes with them or grabbing their clothes when I want their weapon. Time is of the essence and mine is running short. Finally, in missions where you have location-specific objectives to accomplish, like planting a bomb, there is no visual cue on the screen except for the action menu where you’re supposed to do it, so I end up wandering around more or less aimlessly waiting for the “plant bomb” action to show up on my menu. Good thing I killed everyone in the immediate area or someone might get suspicious.
I notice that the box claims a new squad based enemy AI, but I personally found the enemy AI far below par for today’s games, especially coming on the heels of Far Cry. You can easily attract enemies to you with a few gunshots, and then wait around a corner or behind a doorway to dispatch them with ease as they simply rush straight at you. Squad AI, lemmings – it’s such a fine line. On the normal difficulty setting (the lowest), the simplest approach, though also the least interesting, is to simply shoot your way through owing to the poor AI and the ability of 47 to suck up phenomenal damage. At higher difficulty levels shooting your way through becomes more difficult (your enemies do more damage), but they also become more suspicious so your discovery is more likely, and you are given fewer in-mission saves per mission. In short, I found it kind of difficult finding a good game balance between challenging and so hard that I ended up doing large sections over and over again.
The game shows a great deal of polish – simply wonderful music, good voicework, and good if not great graphics with only occasional clipping and camera problems. IO Interactive evidently spent the majority of its time creating and orchestrating these elaborate missions. If you’re into them, are interested in taking the time to figure the intended path through them, then they flow as smoothly as a well-directed movie. But between the overly tight scripting and the split-second timing required to pull it all off, I thought it was a little difficult to play the missions out the way they wanted you to, finding Hitman: Contracts instead played like an average first person shooter with excessive stealth elements.