Respect is often defined as the act of showing consideration or esteem. We often use the word in the sense of holding a high opinion. Equally, people use the word respect as a backhanded comment. When faced with a notion or item that we do not comprehend or like, but feel that we should, the word is thrown around like “1337 speak” on a message board. It is a polite way of masking viewpoints differing from the norm.
I felt both definitions of the word when playing Hitman: Contracts. The revered action/shooter series has won over its fair share of critics and players with the emphasis on stealthy game play. The exploits of assassin Agent 47 exude personality and style sorely lacking in the genre. The graphics and sound may not stimulate the senses, but the explorative game play and challenge gloss over the rough patches. While this particular genre doesn’t tingle my spidey-sense, I admire the workman-like qualities Contracts radiates. The emphasis on strategy is intricate, with an ample assortment of weaponry and outfits at your disposal to complete the job in numerous ways. This is a thinking-man’s shooter, and more power to the devotees.
The story of Contracts is south of basic. At the start, Agent 47, having been shot by an unknown assailant, drags himself into an apartment seeking medical attention. The shock causes our follicle-challenged hero to hallucinate, flashing back to previous events. While we visit- and revisit- past episodes, we also witness another stranger save the life of Agent 47. The mysteries of the attacker and heroic protagonist slowly unfold over the course of the game. The hodgepodge of new and revamped levels make Contracts feel like a distraction to tide fans over for the looming Hitman 4.
Aesthetics have never been a main focal point in the Hitman series, and Contracts is no different. To the developer’s credit, the visual quality has improved slightly from Hitman 2. While Agent 47 sports decent detailing, most characters are composed of simplistic polygons and textures, giving off a somewhat blocky appearance. Other characters and objects- cars, weapons, etc. – are passable, but could be done on a PS1. The diverse cast does represent the sleazier aspects of the sordid world. The full-motion video suffers from slightly muddy textures. Animation is still stiff and jerky, not changing from the previous game. Some moves and weapons are hard to pull off because of the inflexible character movement. When 47 lunges forward, an invisible gust of wind pushes him forward until his limbs spring to life. Watching him break into a run is laughably Steven Seagal-awkward. Coming to a stop, which is often, looks like 47 is wiping out on his skateboard. The much-lauded “rag-doll” physics- a staple of the Hitman series- allow for interesting death animations, but little else. This leads to tragic situations that could be avoided. The frame-rate isn’t silky-smooth, but holds steady in most situations.
The expansive stages are more impressive. The sprawling maps accurately characterize the environments, from underground opium dens to decadent hotels and white-washed laboratories. The amount of detail in each level is remarkable, as is the sheer size. Weather effects are decent, with impressive snow and rain showers not hampering the frame-rate. Unfortunately, there is little interactivity within the levels. Little touches like blood trailing from dead bodies, footprints in snow/blood, or even the splash of raindrops on Agent 47 would have been nice. Lighting effects and shadows are improved over its predecessors. Hiding in dim-lit corners is effective in eluding your enemies, and different light sources affect character appearance subtly. Unfortunately, a few nagging issues arise with the level structures. 47 can get stuck in tight corners with no way to escape, resulting in restarting a level. Collision issues include characters appearing through walls and other bodies.
The acoustics of Contracts fare a bit better. The soundtrack, scored by Jesper Kyd, is moody and immersive. Each track fits the level like a glove, and nicely creeps in during tense moments. The wide range of songs encompasses different genres, including (electronic) orchestral and bass-rattling electronica. The quality of sound effects is more mixed. The explosion of gunshots and other artillery are precise and distinctive. However, certain effects sound like they were ripped from a sound effects CD. The closing of a door should not sound like the opening of a bank vault. Voice acting is par for the course, with an equal amount of good and cheesy line reads. The inclusion of different languages is a nice touch.
Control setup is upgraded from Hitman 2. The dual-analog system of movement and aiming is back, with the left-analog stick now also controlling movement speed. The right-analog also controls the camera in full 360-degrees. Carried over from past games are functions for: crouching, precise aiming, sneaking, different aiming angles (for certain weapons) and the ability to lean around corners. For the most part, the basic operations work well. However, there are some frustrating moments with specialized weapons in combination with the stiff animation. It takes practice to effectively use items like the fiber wire and the syringe. You’ll also spend a bit of time monkeying with the camera to find a good position. The left-analog lacks sensitivity, with character movement consisting of tip-toeing and flat-out running.
Those familiar with the Hitman series will feel at home with the game play of Contracts. Little has changed from its PC debut four years ago, which is an annoyance and a blessing. The covert-minded game play is intact and improved, but weighed down by several aggravations.
For those who enjoy the stealth aspects of action games, Contracts will test your mettle. Over the course of 12 missions, your assassin travels to exotic locales leaving a blood trail in his wake. Just like its predecessors, Contracts requires patience and works the brain matter to complete goals. Finishing the job is required, but doing so in the quietest way is encouraged. Of course, you can play Rambo and “storm the embassy”, but be prepared to be sliced open like Michael Jackson on his birthday. Keeping the enemy off your case leaves you to work on finishing your tasks. This is a hard task, as enemies respond to lingering footsteps and suspicious behavior.
Luckily, you have a host of weapons at your disposal. From the wire to sniper rifles, each can be crucial in determining your fate. Those wanting to earn the moniker “silent assassin” will earn their stripes with non-violent means (choking, stunning). Others that crave blood and gore can go nuts with guns galore, but stunt themselves from earning high marks and the resulting rewards. Along with the weapons is the ability to use disguises. Fallen enemies provide a treasure trove of duds for Agent 47 to use to infiltrate enemy strongholds. Assuming the full role of the costumed character is essential to getting close to your targets. Having common sense to know that a butcher doesn’t carry a silenced gun is an example.
Getting acquainted with your environments is vital for success. Objects like crates and dumpsters make excellent hiding spots, and dark corners are perfect for avoiding prying eyes. The ability to sneak and lean around corners helps keep you off the enemy’s radar. Spending time maneuvering through the spacious levels will give you a better idea of how to complete the missions.
The thought behind the sneak-based action is admirable, but the execution is not without its faults. The flaws in the game play reveal the unyielding nature of Contracts, despite claims of the opposite. The intelligence of the enemies is suspect. Some will open fire at the slightest inkling of mistrust, while others will run away for no apparent reason. It is hard to judge what reaction you’ll get in a situation, even if you do your best to stay quiet. In most cases, it does take a bit of effort to tip off a foe. Thankfully, you can sustain a good amount of damage, as well.
This is a trivial nitpick, but the game even limits your actions at times. Although you could be asked to perform an action, not being in the appropriate position follows with several jabs on the action button. Similarly, crouching behind objects also limits your shooting options. If you don’t have a clear shot, you can’t even fire your weapon. This avoids wasting ammunition, but I would like to choose whether I want to shoot.
Although you eventually earn upwards of 60 weapons, you cannot use them at the start of the missions. Thus, you start out with the same weapons kit for every mission. Finding the critical weapons often occurs in the later part of the levels, and does not carry over to the next mission.
The revamped levels from the first Hitman, and lack of cohesion, make this title feel like a collection of side-stories rather than a full-fledged game. Many of the early levels are new, but the later missions are spruced-up versions from long ago. The layouts and unfolding events differ somewhat, providing some new twists. While it is interesting to see old levels with a new coat of paint, they aren’t compelling enough to play through again, or for the first time.
For a game that flaunts its open-ended game play, Hitman: Contracts is surprisingly rigid. Although there are hypothetically various ways to carry out your missions, victory boils down to following one of up to three methods. And discovering the means is a long process of trial and error. Some are specific to the point of being overly anal. Accomplish a goal out of order, and the rest of the mission is most likely shot. Prepare to spend a lot of time replaying and memorizing the levels at length. Some patient players may see this as a rewarding challenge, while twitchier gamers will curse at the screen.
The persistent challenge of Contracts will keep you playing each mission repeatedly. The three difficulty levels- normal, expert and professional- provide a good challenge. With a set amount of saves per level, rationing your save points is a good idea. Attaining the “Silent Assassin” designation in each level demands hours behind the sticks. Earning the high mark unlocks special weapons to use in combat. Regrettably, there is not much in Contracts to will you to continue playing after beating the last mission. Aside from earning two additional weapons (which you’ll have to figure out how to use in other missions) there is zero incentive to play again. A bigger exclusion is multiplayer options, which throws out any death match or co-op sessions with friends. The vast levels practically beg for four-player action.
Hitman: Contracts is a game that knows its audience. The long-running series has built a reputation on its stealth-based action. And like its forefathers, visuals and sound take a backseat to the enthralling game play. Gamers that appreciate some thought behind their carnage will find a healthy challenge here. Contracts is more of an expansion pack than an actual sequel, but fans will find plenty to like. For those new to the action/shooter genre, it is a unique alternative to mowing down lifeless enemies. And for those that don’t care for such games, at least they can respect the thought and effort the developers put forth. At least I did.