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Hitman: Contracts (PlayStation 2) artwork

Hitman: Contracts (PlayStation 2) review

"Only once you finally access your unwitting target is brutality essential. Be it a 7.62mm NATO round to the heart, a poison-loaded sip of vintage Springbank, or just a silk pillow held over the breathing passages, it's that moment of perfect catharsis - when the ragdoll body slumps and the objective status politely flicks to completed - that the Hitman series has always been defined by."

While the Hitman series has always been as inherently violent as its professional-assassin concept would suggest, it actually asks for a great deal more restraint than games generally do. Eschewing the usual gung-ho tactics for subtlety and wit is generally the most effective way of navigating the throng of armed guards and pre-occupied civilians that stands between you and your all-important mark. Only once you finally access your unwitting target is brutality essential. Be it a 7.62mm NATO round to the heart, a poison-loaded sip of vintage Springbank, or just a silk pillow held over the breathing passages, it's that moment of perfect catharsis - when the ragdoll body slumps and the objective status politely flicks to completed - that the Hitman series has always been defined by.

Unfortunately, previous titles have shown that while IO Interactive can nail most of the fine details, they struggle with the context. For Contracts, it's the bigger picture they've applied themselves to.

As such, they haven't changed the man for this third iteration - the bald, barcoded one they call Forty-Seven feels as staccato and methodical as he did last time, sneaking and jogging and shooting in third-person with the same smooth precision. The job is done with the same sometimes-planned blend of careful stealth, cheeky cosplay (enemies are more rational in their suspicion than those of Hitman 2, thankfully), and, if you just can't be bothered, charging through with powerful firearms.

This means that the flaws in these details - such as the unreliable scripting, or the near-kamikaze enemy AI, or the clunky map system - have gone unrectified. All-out combat still feels far too easy, 47's massive health bar allowing him to absorb endless bullets like a well-dressed Terminator.

A shame, but a familiar one that's far easier to bear when taken alongside that glorious bigger picture - specifically, level design. There was a faint schizophrenia to the mission rosters of the previous games; the jobs that saw 47 walking civilian-packed public buildings and bustling city districts were outstanding, while his espionage-themed assaults on terrorist strongholds were rubbish. With Contracts, IOI seem to have finally grasped this. The tidy storyline - 47 reminisces on hits past as he lies in a crumpled, bullet-riddled heap in a decrepit apartment - is a perfect excuse for a set of 12 individual missions free from the kind of muddled story arcs that bogged down the other games. It's also a license to remake a few choice moments from the original Hitman.

While it's easy to see this as sheer laziness - it probably is - it's difficult to be disappointed, mostly because nearly every one of these missions is brilliant. Only one (set in a grim Siberian nuclear facility that recalls the worst of Hitman 2's awful Middle East levels) disappoints; a bland trudge that lacks the well-structured objectives of the others and the sense of direction and purpose that the rest of the game fosters so well.

Remade alongside the original's superb Hong Kong campaign (now soaked in the streetlight-orange storms that run through Contracts' glowing visuals) is 47's visit to a Budapest hotel, a glorious adventure that exemplifies the series at its best. With two unsuspecting international terrorists to be murdered, a chemical bomb to be retrieved, a hundred busy dignitaries to be avoided, and a seemingly-endless range of assassination methods to be discovered (shoot him in the shower? poison his drink? suffocate him in the sauna?), it's as sprawling as it is intricate, as open-ended as it is beautifully atsmospheric. It's testament to Contracts' quality that the fresh hits can stand up to this classic. Bluff your way into an S&M party to shoot a corpulent psychopath in the bowels of a slaughterhouse; sneak into a barn to snipe a wealthy kidnapper lurking in his well-guarded mansion; infiltrate a rowdy bar to garrote a violent biker drinking with his cronies.

More so than ever before, Contacts is a medley of rich atsmospheres and disparate experiences, enriched by the sublime soundtrack and made possible by the robust engine. Finally, the context is as good as the details. One hit you might feel like Travis Bickle, wandering the lonely corridors of a quiet warehouse, capping scumbags with a .50 Magnum. The next you'll be Jack the Ripper, stalking the rainy English countryside with a bloodied knife.

A kill can be depressingly quick (silenced .44 to the forehead, body falls), or sickeningly long-drawn (12 gauge to the kneecaps, victim crawls and screams until you unload an Uzi clip into their chest); awkwardly fetishistic (sneak-up-behind-him foreplay to limb-jerking wire-choke release) or uncomfortably voyeuristic (spying on a showering maid through a keyhole before bursting in with a meat hook).

Contracts is the most variably-paced, wildly-unpredictable Hitman yet, but whatever it throws at you, it's always bound to be brutally, guiltily pleasurable.

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Staff review by Daniel Forbes (February 19, 2005)

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