Everyone's favorite bald-headed assassin is back for his third outing in Hitman: Contracts, a game that's especially recommendable to fans of 2002's Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, because the gameplay and a lot of the visuals simply haven't changed in this latest installment. Danish developer Io Interactive created a memorable character and some impressive technology with its original Hitman game, but not till the sequel did the gameplay live up to the graphics. Given that Hitman 2 was such a huge improvement on the original, it's inherently somewhat disappointing that the new Hitman: Contracts is really just a rehash. It's more of the same, replete with everything that was good and everything that wasn't so good about the 2002 game--only it's now 2004, and some of the issues that were more easily overlooked then tend to stick out this time around. Nevertheless, Hitman: Contracts still features some tense and exciting stealth action gameplay, as well as a good sense of style and some interesting, open-ended missions.
Most of Contracts takes place as a series of flashbacks. It's not terribly clear at first, but you soon gather that the assassin known only as 47 has sustained a grievous injury on one of his assignments and now lies at death's door. What may be his final memories are only of his past jobs--brutal, high-risk assignments--which, incidentally, are reminiscent of missions (in many cases) from the first Hitman game. The original Hitman: Codename 47 was released on the PC back in 2000, and it suffered from serious issues with the controls and overall design. So in a way, it's nice to get to play some of these old missions as they probably should have been played the first time around. On the other hand, those who've stuck with the Hitman series from the get-go might not entirely appreciate the déjà vu. Anyway, close to half of the missions in Contracts are completely original, whereas many of the later missions are "remixes" of levels from the 2000 game, including that game's early missions, which took place in Hong Kong. Additionally, there are later missions, such as one in which 47 must eliminate two brothers who are up to no good at an international gathering in a posh hotel, and another one in which he must disrupt a Russian arms deal that is going down aboard a ship. To be fair, these refurbished missions don't seem any older than the new ones, and they actually contain some new twists not found in their original incarnations.
The new missions are certainly diverse and are quite interesting, offering ample opportunity--in the classic tradition of the Hitman series--for you to craftily make your way to your target to take him out, undetected, via some elaborate scheme (which typically involves the use of lots of disguises taken from killed or unconscious characters, as well as the use of poisons or poison substitutes). However, there are also ample opportunities to instinctively shoot anything that moves, if the aforementioned strategy fails. The first mission in Hitman: Contracts takes place in the asylum in which the genetically enhanced 47 was made, in the aftermath of 47's killing of his maker at the conclusion of the first game. The building is surrounded by SWAT teams, and 47 must either try to face them all single-handedly or find some other means of escape. Subsequent missions take place in locations like a fetish party, which is reminiscent of the blood rave from the movie Blade; an impressive British manse, where aristocrats have gathered for a hunting party; a cold Russian outpost, where a submarine lurks with deadly cargo in its belly; a gathering of fascist bikers in Rotterdam; and more. The game's settings are all drenched in rain (or snow) and are otherwise thick with film noir atmosphere that suitably fits the theme. The international locales come across well, too. Characters all speak in their native languages, though 47 has apparently been too busy murdering people to have picked up on any foreign languages over the years.
Depending on which of the three difficulty modes you select when you begin play, and depending on whether or not you try to take a stealthy approach, you can either breeze through the linear series of missions in less than 10 hours, or you can possibly spend twice as much time doing so (or more). So there's some replay value to be found here, but this is still a single-player game that doesn't necessarily have much long-term appeal. The truth is that the default "normal" difficulty mode is too easy. In it, 47 begins every mission with a silenced hardballer pistol, which can instantly and quietly kill anyone. However, 47 doesn't even need to be discreet, because he can sustain lots of damage and can easily slaughter dozens of enemies (and civilians) using the automatic weapons he'll scavenge from his fallen foes. It's comparatively much harder, and much slower, to take the stealthy route, so it's tempting to take the path of least resistance to just blast your way from one finish line to the next till you've reached the end credits. Unlike in previous Hitman games, very few missions in Hitman: Contracts outright require you to be stealthy. Your intended targets typically won't flee the area, even if you've murdered all their henchmen, and in some cases, you might end up killing them in a wild firefight without even realizing it.
On the other hand, the highest difficulty level in Hitman: Contracts is going to be too tough for most players. It doesn't show you any detail on your tactical map, and it doesn't permit you to save your progress in the middle of a mission. Furthermore, 47 can easily be killed by his enemies due to their increased power and accuracy, so this mode is very unforgiving. Yet, Goldilocks-style, the "expert" difficulty mode is just right. You can't open fire as wantonly as in normal mode, because your enemies have a pretty good chance of killing you. And you only get a couple of saves per mission, so you'd best make them count. This setup naturally inclines you to take a stealthy approach to, therefore, experience these elaborate missions for all they're worth. However, most gamers will logically gravitate toward the normal setting first to stomp their ways through the game, thus missing its finer points. Unfortunately, you cannot switch between difficulty settings on a per-mission basis. If you want to play on expert mode, you have to start from the beginning.