Great stealth games are hard to come by. Names like Thief, Deus Ex and Splinter Cell represent some of the leading series in the genre and are at the top of my favorites as well. One series that I never got a chance to fully explore was Hitman, which I was always curious about. So when I saw that Hitman: Contracts was available for Mac on the Pirate Bay (yeah I’m one of those people), I had to download it. One GB later I was loading up some old-school sneak and strangle.
More so than other genres, stealth relies heavily on the abilities of the player character and the recognition and intelligence of the AI. Let’s start with Agent 47, who in this game, is a pretty slick killing machine. His controls are smooth and a selection wheel for environment interaction makes it easy for 47 to quickly select actions and items. Gun play is a little stiff, but functional enough to be enjoyable and realistic, and, in a nice touch for stealth gamers, the degree to which you use those guns affects your end of mission ratings. Players can choose to be a silent assassin or a mass murderer based on who and how they choose to incapacitate, adding an optional level of difficulty to an already satisfyingly challenging game.
One of the biggest tools in Agent 47’s bag of tricks is the ability to take clothes from the environment, and downed enemies, to blend in and the AI does a good job of reacting realistically to your character. A bell hop may get chewed out for talking to the bartender during his shift, but a bodyguard can influence him to leave his post for a quick break. This mechanic of course must ignore the glaringly obvious hole in logic, which is that 47 looks absolutely nothing like anyone else in the game. A fact that really damages the plausibility of the tactic when we’re asked to believe that 47, the man with an albino melon you could price-check, plays the role of an Asian mobster in a kimono.
While it begins brilliantly (with 47 escaping a mental hospital as secret agents swarm the building), the storyline, in general, is a weak point of Hitman: Contracts. As the name suggests, Agent 47 must complete a series of contracts taking out important targets. It’s standard assassin fare, but the game provides almost no background to explain why these people need to die, and the cutscenes, while moody and atmospheric, do a terrible job of tying the story together between missions. Some missions are awkwardly introduced (who is the dead guy with important documents in front of me?) and the end goal for 47 in his rampage is never made clear. Apparently, my confusion stems from me not playing the earlier and later games in the series, which the missions and story intertwine with. Tying a narrative together over multiple installments is a time-honored way to present a story, but each chapter needs to still be able to stand on its own. You can watch a random episode of The Wire or any of the Batman movies separately, without any knowledge of other parts of the story, and still enjoy the plot. The same cannot be said for Hitman: Contracts, where characters are representations from 47’s past and are viewed through his memories, leaving the first-time player disconnected and confused. The emphasis here seems to be on creating a dark and moody atmosphere rather than a compelling storyline. Contracts features slow pacing, brutal violence and a detached central character, but to leave no doubt that this game is gritty and dark, the developer decided to sprinkle in some rain.
I’m sorry, did I say some rain? I meant a whole lotta rain. I’m talking monsoon season in India, suicide season in Seattle, and PacMan Jones in a strip club levels of rain. That’s right, taking a page from the personal rain machine in The Truman Show, agent 47 must complete EVERY SINGLE MISSION* in the rain! Oh, and it’s authentically noir, so they’ve all got to take place at night too. The unchanging weather is a shame, because there are some great levels and missions in this game that could really benefit from a change in the atmosphere. The hotel mission and the Meat King mission stand out as some of the better stealth genre levels I’ve ever played, offering multiple approaches and strategies for picking off targets, including pretty clever uses of the surrounding environments (saunas are dangerous). Unfortunately, these levels are sandwiched in between some rather dull and repetitive maps. Apparently, IO Interactive cut some some corners in the name of nostalgia by including levels from previous Hitman games, with little changes from the originals. They even repeated levels from within Contracts, and this, sadly, was the final straw for me.
Moment of Unfinishing
Level 11: The Lee Hong Assassination, where I discover that Level 11 is the exact same map as Level 9. Diablo and Halo are examples of games that have been criticized for repeating similar level designs and templates, yet, rarely does a game bring you back to the exact same level twice. But, here I stand, one level before the final mission and I’m looking at a map of a level I just played, with the exact same weather and the exact same enemies. On top of that, Agent 47 has been running around the same gray, lifeless Chinatown district since level 8. Level’s 8-11 all have the same depressing artistic style that really brings out the worst in the games blocky graphics. Bringing the player back to an earlier location can sometimes be a good tool for pushing the narrative, especially if things have changed since a previous visit, but, this level of world building is usually reserved for RPG and adventure titles. With Hitman: Contracts, the repeating level design smacks of laziness and a lack of commitment from the developer. Hell, even a little sunshine or changes to the street scenery may have been enough for me to want to finish. However, with the repeating levels and enemies, and a complete disconnect from the overall story, by the time I was in position to snuff out the big boss I just didn’t care anymore. Apathy may kill, but it can also, as Hitman: Contracts proves, save lives.
*Ok, so it snows in one level…