Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Hitman: Contracts (Xbox)

After the release of Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, IO Interactive started work on what would become Hitman: Blood Money. During development, however, they realized they wouldn’t be able to get that game out in time to please their investors. With less than a year left to deliver a game, and with the knowledge that only about 10% of Silent Assassin players had actually played the PC-exclusive Codename 47, a small skeleton crew began work on a “Hitman 2.5” that would both buy IOI two more years to develop Blood Money and allow console players an opportunity to experience some of the Codename 47 levels alongside some original content. The result was Hitman: Contracts, which launched in 2004 to general acclaim, though criticized for its similarities to Silent Assassin. Considering the troubled development, which included a nine-month crunch period and all-nighters in freezing cold, Contracts actually turned out pretty well, though its status as essentially a filler arc is nevertheless evident in the final design.

Likely due to the game’s development timeline, the story of Hitman: Contracts takes place between chapters of Blood Money, since we first see Agent 47 returning to an apartment in Paris while in critical condition after a botched assassination attempt. As he’s bleeding out, and later aided by an unnamed ally, 47 has hallucinatory flashbacks to previous missions. Cutscenes between levels show the progression of 47’s condition and recovery and act as creative transitions to each mission, including the remade Codename 47 levels. Notably, however, the last few remake levels abruptly transition into each other without going back to the apartment, though the intense development period more than likely affected this part of the story. Naturally, the final level has 47 finish the contract he started in Paris and leads into the next part of Blood Money’s story. While generally minimal, I can recognize that Contracts went more for maintaining a moody atmosphere than having a solid plot and it does work if the player can accept it as more of a transitionary game than a full entry.

The first mission, Asylum Aftermath, continues immediately where Codename 47 left off.

Contracts’ quick turnaround time also means that the gameplay is generally similar to Silent Assassin, though it introduces some notable improvements that helped establish and affirm the core identity of the series. Missions are now generally designed more like sandboxes, with multiple opportunities in each level for accomplishing your goals. 47’s sneaking speed is much faster than the relative snail’s pace of the previous game, which helps make Silent Assassin ranking far more achievable alongside the change that ensure that merely running in front of guards doesn’t make 47 suspicious. These changes alone make the game a lot more fun to play, though some missions still require specific timing for certain strategies to the point where you may have to consult a walkthrough, as I did, to help get the timing down if you want to avoid trial and error. For instance, in The Wang Fou Incident, stealing a driver’s clothes as in Codename 47 requires precise timing, since he’ll only urinate in the alley once throughout the entire mission as opposed to going on a reliable cycle. Similarly, getting a Silent Assassin rating in The Seafood Massacre can require going to specific spots on the map and performing certain actions in a specific order within the brief window of time before Police NPCs get into position.

Other improvements that help ease the gameplay systems include a map with additional icons that also distinguishes between living and dead NPCs, replacing the slow Anesthetic with a faster and longer-lasting Syringe and the introduction of the circular inventory system the series is known for. In addition, 47 collects new weapons for his weapon wall by simply picking them up once instead of having them on his person until the end of a mission. Enemies are a lot smarter this time, with squad-based AI that more heavily punishes mistakes, though the AI isn’t impossible to get around and still acts stupid on occasion. Although the balcony jump comes back in this game and has more than one use, it still doesn’t come up very often. Notably, 47’s missions don’t come with a pre-mission briefing and players must instead access them with the Back button (on the Xbox version).

At the time the game came out, it had the lowest number of missions in a Hitman game, with only twelve missions, six of which are new and six that are remakes of those from Codename 47. The original levels are a little hit and miss, with the two best levels, The Meat King’s Party and Beldingford Manor, sandwiching the interesting but tediously lengthy The Bjarkhov Bomb, which puts a huge amount of space between key locations. As for the remade levels, they feature different layouts and strategies from their original incarnations, which can help make those familiar with them think a little more on their feet while also giving console-only players a taste of the original game. Notably, the Slaying a Dragon mission can be completed using the exact same strategy and in the same amount of time, though now the player only has one sniper nest.

In a 2014 fan poll, Beldingford Manor was voted the best mission in the entire series.

Compared to other Hitman games, Contracts has a darker and moodier atmosphere, since every level takes place at night in the rain. This actually helps give the game a unique flavor and ties in well with 47’s physical and mental state in his Paris apartment. The graphics also hold up fairly well for a 2004 game, though I still noticed some clipping, like a guard getting stuck in the middle of a table, and pre-rendered cutscenes for whatever reason don’t have subtitles, even when subtitles are turned on.

As always, Jesper Kyd’s score knocks it out of the park, with tracks that fit the atmosphere of each level and generally capture the darker tone of the game effectively, with at least one track that wouldn’t sound too out of place in Silent Hill. The voice acting is also generally better than in Silent Assassin, with much less awkward delivery and performances that indicate the voice actors have grown more comfortable in their roles.

Hitman: Contracts may not feel as substantial as the other Hitman games surrounding it, with a story that’s more or less a filler arc for Blood Money, but the end result still impresses considering the rather short development time. There’s something about the darker atmosphere that helps it stand out from the rest of the series and it’s interesting to see where the series started really understanding what it wanted to be. If you can view it as the transitionary work that it really is, you’ll have a good time.

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