Video game journalists have been reviewing Hitman: Absolution all wrong. They’ve been focusing on the game’s campaign, which, in my opinion, is only a very small slice of the murderous fun the title offers. Absolution’s single player, at best, reaches the same heights that Blood Money – the previous game in the series – reached, putting Agent 47 in the middle of open-ended levels with plenty of lethaltoys. At its disappointing worst it’s a run-of-the-mill action game that will have wondering whether your favourite slap-head has lost his trademark silky touch.
What I feel reviewers should’ve been paying more attention to, and where the game’s longevity lies, is in its Contracts Mode. It’s an online battleground that allows you to test your killer instinct against the best in the world by challenging you to complete user created ‘contracts’ inside maps from the campaign. What this involves, exactly,is mimicking the actions of the contracts creator, eliminating up to three targets with a specific weapon whilst wearing a particular disguise. You’ll get points for fulfilling certain conditions, such as not being seen and not missing any shots, as well as for eliminating the poor souls that have been marked for death in a timely fashion.
It’s everything hardcore fans hoped Absolution would be. In fact, it’s everything that is great about the Hitman series rolled into one gooey blob of assassination loveliness. Agent 47 isn’t that deep a character; you don’t get a meaningful sense of attachment and a yearning to learn about his childhood by stepping into his virtual shoes. What he is good at, though, is killing stuff. And in Contracts Mode, it seems that developers IO Interactive finally woke up to this fact.
They defenestrate (I learnt a new word today) any sense of story, leaving behind pure, old school score-chasing mixed in with sneaky-sneaky stealth and tense moments of magic. It’s addictive, competitive and really, really challenging. You’ll fail a contract 50 times before a successful session sees your reward money wired to your imaginary account (try out ‘The Last Samurai’ if you’re getting a little cocky), but you’ll still come back and fail 50 more times until your original dismal score looks somewhat respectable.
Of course, this mode is only as fun as its players is creative, so it’s a good job gamers have got their cranial juices flowing to come up with some real beauties. There’s tonnes of challenges in the contracts catalogue, some of which are lucky enough to get ‘featured’ each week, putting them on the mode’s front page.
I’ve spent a long time shooting, stabbing and poisoning my way through what Contracts has to offer, so I’m spoilt for choice when it comes to examples that best demonstrate why I love this mode so much. I may have choked unsuspecting guards with a morning star whilst backstage at a cage fight in ‘Medieval Method’ and brought out my inner sous-chef by knifing 3 of Chinatown’s finest street vendors in ‘Chop Suey’, but the defining moment, for me, came when I played through a contract called ‘Alvin’s Request’.
If you’re thinking chipmunks then, surprisingly, you’re on the right lines. You’re transported back to the mansion from the game’s opening mission, given a furry chipmunk suit and told to kill 3 separate targets, each in a different way. I pulled off the first knife kill with no problem, but apparently my disguise isn’t very inconspicuous and I’m soon spotted.
Panicking, I run through a hail of bullets to grab a fire poker (the second prescribed weapon) and lob it wildly towards my target, impaling him and alerting anyone who wasn’t already on my fluffy tail. The last guy has to be killed via an ‘accident’. Hmm. He’s standing awfully close to that open piano lid. If I can just shoot the piece of wood holding it open... and he’s now playing notes from the inside. Oops. That really shouldn’t have worked, and after a quick escape my score is abysmal, but I don’t really care.
The way that the online leader boards are set up just keeps you coming back for more: after each contract you can see how well you’ve done amongst your friends, your fellow countrymen, or every gamer in the world, and you can also check if you’ve beaten the national or international average score, too. There’s something immensely satisfying about trying to find the perfect way to complete the task before you, all the while watching your name inch it’s way up the online ladders. Internet points matter.
All of the gripes I had with Hitman: Absolution melt away, like a stick of butter on Agent 47s head on a hot day, when I sit down to play Contracts. The fact that enemies are far too willing to walk to the exact spot that you throw spanners to no longer annoys me – in fact, it’s a cheap trick that I’ll now use regularly. The blinding glare given off by Mr 47s pristine white shirt (too much Daz if you ask me) no longer causes my eyes to water, and there’s no more annoying cut-scenes-that-don’t-add anything-to-the-game to skip. This is what the Agent 47 was born to do.
Not all the praise should go to the devs on this one, because hardcore Hitmen were already doing this sort of thing in years past unofficially, with online scoreboards organised through unpopular forum posts and grainy footage of run-throughs posted on YouTube. However, with Contracts the devs give the players just the right amount of freedom – not too much that you get the usual deluge of rubbish that often comes with user-created content, but enough to make this very much a community-based project that everyone can feel a part of.
So, if you’re looking for the ultimate single player assassination sandbox, go and buy Hitman: Blood Money for a couple of quid. If you’re looking for a game that will have you figuring out the best way to shoot three men with one sniper rifle bullet whilst wearing a chicken suit well into 2013, then pick up Hitman: Absolution, use the campaign to learn the game, and then lose yourself in what is one of the best multiplayer experiences of the year.