With everyone's focus on implementing online functionality and making games bigger and more movie-like, the once-burgeoning stealth sub-genre has become a little more than a footnote in today's games. Sure, it's mentioned, as in, "Uh yes, we have stealth, yes we do. You can um, sneak around stuff. Just after the flame-thrower and rocket launcher levels you can tip-toe out of the nuclear reactor-hailstorm nail-gun-cyborg monster boss throwdown.
You got the part about flame-throwers, right?"
If hurling millions of bullets per second at aliens has got you down lately, and you're bored of first-person Vietnam war games, than IO Interactive's new Hitman: Contracts will be like a cool breeze on a hot summer day. By that, I mean a cool summer breeze with a Garrote around your throat, but you get the picture. Hitman: Contracts, the third game in Eidos' series, is by no means a revolutionary step in the stealth genre, in fact, it's only a little more than a basic upgrade from Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. But the pure exploration of stealth gameplay is relatively unmatched in any game on any system. IO has once again created a strategic game of ploys, guises and choices, tailor made with a genuinely brilliant sense of pacing, intelligently designed levels, each layered with dozens of ways to beat them, and enormous sense of style and delivery.
IO Interactive's title is a vaguely named game for a reason. I'm not certain how good that reason ends up being, but thought was put behind it. When I first heard the name, I thought it was going to be a collection of random levels, like a "best of" game. It turns out that's not far from the truth. The story begins with Agent 47 limping into an apartment with a serious body wound and need of a doctor. During this period of pain and suffering, Agent 47 flashes back to missions he once completed, and you get to play them out. Some of them are indeed levels you have played before, or close to them, anyway, including the first level wherein our bald killer escapes from the hospital in which he's just murdered his maker. A little Biblical, perhaps. The level is from Hitman 1 and players must get out of the complex before getting caught. Seems like a well disguised repackaging of goods, no?
The answer is not all that simple. Agent 47's flashbacks, and his pain, grow more and more intense, and each one transforms into a former mission, predominantly ones you've never played before. The story is told in this scattered, hazy fashion with a concrete sense of pacing and logic, but also with a purposely hidden motive, which brings Agent 47 back into the present and progresses into the future. I'll spare you the story, but the story, it turns out, doesn't really play that big a role in this effort. I had figured IO would dig deeper with this Hitman, but that's not the case.
That's the distinct feeling I get from Hitman: Contracts. I figured after two years, Contracts would be this massive improvement in every manner, the way that Hitman 2: Silent Assassin made a distinct leap from the first Hitman. But I was wrong. IO Interactive has remained focused on what it does extremely well, which is to design fantastically elaborate levels, giving players countless ways to beat a level. And the rest is an all about enhancement. The developer has added new weapons (pillows, syringes, shovels, meat hooks, etc.), and new ways to kill, especially with regard to close combat attacks. It's also embalmed the whole game in this dark, disturbingly moody haze, giving gamers a distinct look at the seedier side of life, whether it's messed up biker gangs, genuinely sick meat-packing people, or deranged hunters looking for a more humanistic thrill.
The new weapons work well enough, but they don't distinguish the gameplay above the previous title enough for my tastes. The pillow and the meat hook are the best of the bunch. The pillow works in a number of ways. Players can simply suffocate an enemy, or they can take a handgun and shoot though it into someone's face. The syringe is also relatively neat, but the visual effect isn't effective. The meat hook just looks like it hurts a lot; so as a professional hitman, that's a good thing. You always gotta make your mark. The shovel and the rest of the closer combat weapons don't really make that much of a mark, however. The range of hand guns, automatics, and sniper rifles is fleshed out well, though it seems that the expansion of weapons is less important than the way in which you kill people.
The meat and potatoes of any Hitman game, however, are the levels themselves. Since you can save anywhere and a good helpful map helps push you to the next point of gameplay, players can look around, trying things over and over. In fact, if the Park Level (with the subways and clock tower) was one of the high points of Hitman 2, players are really going to like Contracts. Nothing in my opinion is as startling good as that level, but that's partly because that quality of design is now expected in a Hitman game. But IO's levels are all solid like that one. They're all thorough and deep, well-designed with many, many choices. With any particular subject on any level, there are a handful of paths to choose. Poison? Garrote? Needle? Silencer? Pillow? The beauty of Hitman is that after each level, the gameplay drives and challenges you to try it another way. A level that might take 30 minutes to beat could end up taking two hours, just because of its open design. That's excellent design. Every level in Contracts is strong, though not one of them is a knock-out punch.
The AI is tougher, too. The AI is designed to be highly suspicious of you. The awkward but functional meter on the left-hand side of the screen tells players how high or low an enemy's suspicion is. When it's black, they sense something's strange, when it's red, they are on the cusp of being on to you, and if you stand and let them stare at you for more than a few seconds, you're cover will be blown. So, IO is purposely pushing players to keep moving, and that keeps players honest.
An honest Hitman, that is. That's the thing about this subtle yet bloody assassin series. It's not an action game in the proper sense. It's designed with great forethought, planning, and tuning to be a stealth game, in the most pure sense. So yes, while you could run out and slaughter the enemies like Rambo, you're missing the point. You'll also miss a whole lot of the game's depth and coolness. Actually, running around like Rambo is indeed possible in this game, but it's not well rewarded (you still get name grades at each level's end -- mass murderer, professional, etc.), and you always feel like you've missed something important.
The thing about IO's game is that while it's fluid with choices of how to kill an enemy, it's rather rigidly designed to be played as a slow-paced game. Although the level design and subtle sense of choice never stops seeping in, the basic mechanics of the Hitman series are in desperate need of change. Agent 47 looks perfect walking in his slow, poised gait, but as soon as you start running, he looks awkward. As soon as he moves any faster than a conscious walk, he slides and shifts with a mechanic that's hard on the eyes. The same awkward mechanic is applied to many of his motions, which literally haven't changed much since Hitman 1. And I mean he slides like he's playing ice hockey. Like he's gliding on ice when he's in thick snow, or hard concrete -- it looks wrong. Many of the weapons function in the same way. It's as if IO is short on animations, so it fudges the animations, sliding baldy over to an enemy to kill him. The Garrote is a perfect example. It's a rigidly designed weapon that can only be used to kill an enemy while he or she is standing still. You cannot apply this weapon well to a moving person, or to a sleeping person. It doesn't work well at all.
In the end, the best parts of Hitman are perfectly exemplified in Contracts. So are all the things that need improvement. There are brilliant levels, smart AI, an amazing array of choices to execute your plans, and some funny dialog, too. And the replay value is essentially unrivaled as a single-player offline game. But the control mechanics are old and limited, and the animations aren't created well enough to hide this old control scheme. The game is also designed to be played slowly -- s-l-o-w-l-y -- and I mean with real swagger and methodical purpose. But every so often I just want to play it faster, and I want Agent 47 to be there with me, moving smoothly and beautifully, running well and fighting well in speedy action. Perhaps the rigid panhandle camera is the part of the culprit, too. All I know is, while this game fulfills my need for silent killing, it doesn't meet my modern demand for smarter controls, a broader-based play style, or my unyielding desire for better camera angles. There's also a realm of possibilities for this series, too. Multiplayer doesn't seem out of the question, nor do a few co-op levels or even online play.
So, if you've seen Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, then you won't notice too many differences in Contracts. The PC, Xbox and PS2 versions might all play the same (with slight differences to the control systems), and for the most part, they look similar, but there are enough distinctions to give players a head's up on the PC and Xbox versions.
The multiple resolutions on the PC obviously give it a boost, making use of the game's extensive addition of reflections, whether they're in pools or water or blood (wait to you see the Meat Packing level), or drizzling beads of water. The Xbox looks nearly as good, so there are no worries there, and the PS2 version, to be fair, definitely holds its end. Although I didn't mention it in the gameplay section, the other big difference between the three games is that the PC and Xbox version allow for many saved games, whereas the PS2 version provides a measly three save spots.
The cutscenes provide a movie-like sensibility to the game, pushing the rather vague story forward with pretty scenes of the always sharply-dressed Agent 47. Everything about the Hitman series has always been presented well. Agent 47, plain and simple, is a bad-ass. And when the artwork isn't depicting his baldness in sleek, deadly form, the well-designed cutscenes, loadscreens (which are short and sweet on Xbox and PC, slow and annoying on PS2), and menu screens make up for it.
The biggest improvements appear not only in liquid form (i.e. water), but in lighting (and therefore shadows), weather effects, and the level of detail and risqué quality of the characters. You'll constantly see Agent 47 with shadows lining off his side, but you'll also see shades of light affecting his appearance, depending on the height of the sun or the light source, wherever it is. It's pretty impressive to see the realtime lighting shade him at sunset, or when he walks though darkness into a well-lighted area.
It's important to pay attention to IO's character design too. Agent 47 doesn't look all that much different, but the cast of characters and NPCs he sees is deeply impressive. Mostly, the roster of characters shows off a decadent world of sex addicts, killers, dope fiends and psychotics. Whether it's messed up butchers, deranged old hunters, motorcycle gangs or opium whores, this game is filled with focused glimpse into the seedier side of life. For instance, you'll see in the Meat Packer level people chilling in opium dens, high off their asses. You'll see in this same level, prostitutes performing lap dances, grinding against masked men in the back rooms, and doing other suggestive things. It's not just in this level, either. Showing a darker, harsher world is by no means a bad thing. In fact, IO's decision seems more realistic than anything, giving players a seemingly better insight in what a hitman's life is really like.
Jesper Kyd's soundtrack is entirely different than any of his work on previous Hitman games, yet it's distinctly his own, and it's both impressive in what he does and what he elects not to do. The music is moody, dark and surreal. It's often not really a song at all, just eerie waves of sound, and electronic drums slowly pounding. The Meat Packer level is amazing, at least to me, because the music recalls early '80s electronica and it's so, soooooo good. Each level provides a different style or music, since each takes place at a different time or place, so don't expect to hear the standard classical orchestrated music from the previous two games. This one is different. Also, oftentimes, there is simple silence, and as I play more games, I find that sometimes silence truly is golden.
Another interesting note is that Agent 47 talks in this one. He doesn't talk a lot, but you hear his voice enough to get a better sense of his uh, personality. It works, too. The voice actor who plays Agent 47 is a deep-voiced man with a clear, distinct tone and he speaks the way I would have expected him to sound.
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