Five minutes. That's the amount of time I spent peering through the keyhole in a hotel room door while watching a bellhop (dressed only in his underwear) and a female hotel guest have a conversation. It was obvious that I was bearing witness to a seduction of some kind. After five full minutes of watching and waiting, my patience finally paid off: the half-nude bellhop and the woman went into the bathroom together for what I can only guess was some hanky-panky. I made my move, quietly entering the room and pilfering the bellhop's abandoned uniform.
I did a lot of waiting in Hitman: Contracts. I did a lot of walking, too. That's pretty much the whole game—waiting and walking, walking and waiting. Sounds dull when I put it that way, but I'm telling you, never before have these two seemingly banal acts been fraught with so much simmering tension. Simply walking down a hallway in Hitman: Contracts is in my opinion far more thrilling than the car chases/shoot-outs/space battles that permeate other videogames. Forget Sam Fisher; for true stealth action, I vastly prefer cueball killer-for-hire, Agent 47.
Hitman: Contracts, the third installment in the series, doesn't really break any new ground here. This is still a methodically paced third-person action game starring a black-suited man with a barcode tattooed on the back of his head. Gamers who didn't cotton to the previous games probably won't cotton to this one either. The graphics, while serviceable, haven't been improved in any remarkable way. On the plus side, accessing the map no longer requires multiple button presses, and it's now easier than ever to switch from third-person to first-person mode (click the right control stick). Unfortunately, the game's control scheme still doesn't afford me the kind of fine-tuned finesse I feel is necessary for being a professional hitman. In fact, all too often it feels like Agent 47 is moving around on rollerskates. Forget about sneaking up on a target and using the fiber wire; it's still just as much of a crap-shoot as it was in Hitman 2: Silent Assassin.
But why split hairs here? The terrific Hitman-style gameplay is still in full effect. Each level in Hitman: Contracts started me off with only two things: a list of targets and a map. How I eliminated those targets was entirely up to me. Indeed, IO Interactive deserves much credit for once again bravely creating the closest thing gamers have to a truly organic virtual experience.
The best levels in Hitman: Contracts—the Temple Bath Hotel comes to mind—are teeming with life. A housekeeper running a vacuum cleaner is constantly touring the hotel, traveling from room to room, often popping out of rooms when I least expected him. (In a clever touch, I kept him out of my room, and away from the body of a dead policeman, by simply hanging a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door knob). Bodyguards patrol the halls at regular intervals. Some guests roamed the hotel, while others stayed put in their rooms. The hotel is a living, breathing entity, with its own routines, schedules and rhythms. Learning those routines and schedules, tuning into those rhythms, and finally figuring out how I can fit into those rhythms in a convincing fashion, is essential for survival.
The gameplay in Hitman: Contracts, at times, can feel like on-the-fly improvisation. During an early level, I found a bottle of laxative, but wasn't quite sure what to do with it. I located a pot of soup, figured, What the hell? and dosed the soup with the laxative. To my surprise, my target arrived, and the cook promptly served him a bowl of the doctored soup. My target ate calmly for a few minutes, but soon doubled over in pain and hurried off to the bathroom. I followed him, and while he was still sitting on the bowl, I put a bullet in his head. Objective met. Problem solved. Most videogames make me feel like I'm listening to a story being told, and that I'm participating in the narrative in some marginal way (Splinter Cell comes to mind). But these improvisational qualities of Hitman: Contracts work to make me feel like I'm the one who's in charge of the narrative. No longer am I a relatively passive participant in the story; instead, I have become, in some capacity, the storyteller.
When I initially walked into the lobby of the Temple Bath Hotel, I did what any guest walking into a hotel lobby would do: I went to the front desk, signed the guest book, and checked in. (Treat the game like the real world, and more often than not if will respond like the real world.) The concierge handed me my room key, and I took the elevator up to the third floor and went to my room. Just before unlocking my hotel room door, I found myself thinking, I really hope my room is nice. And it was nice. A little small, but nice. I checked out the bathroom, even went out on the balcony. In other words, I did what I always do whenever I check into a hotel. In this moment, the line between the fiction of the game and the reality of my life, while not entirely erased, at least faded for a few brief seconds. All videogames are really nothing more than mirages, fictions created through graphics and sound that require gamers to be able to "suspend our disbelief," as writers say. And the mirage of Hitman: Contracts is one of the most effective mirages I've seen in a long time.
Make no mistake, this is a dark, grim videogame. I shot people in the head. I suffocated people with pillows. I poisoned an old man's milk. I dragged dead bodies down hallways and hid them in closets. Most humiliating of all, I stripped the dead of their clothing. Yet, I never questioned my actions, never felt especially lousy about what I was doing, the way I did when I clubbed people to death with a baseball bat in Manhunt. Hitman: Contracts cleverly employs a moral relativism that says, Yes, I'm a bad person, but my targets, the guys that I'm killing, are much worse than I am. True, there's violence here, but it's violence that almost always has a dramatic purpose and dramatic implications. Going on a wanton kill-spree, leaving dead bodies everywhere, only served to get me killed. Sounds odd for me to say this, but Hitman: Contracts, if played properly, is a fairly non-violent game. Over the course of an hour or two of gameplay, I might kill just one or two people. As in previous games in the series, Hitman: Contracts encourages "clean" hits—get in and get out while killing only the intended targets—by rewarding gamers with the coveted "Silent Assassin" rating (as well as a bonus weapon) at the end of the mission.
But Hitman: Contracts is ultimately worth playing because its one of only a few videogames on the market that does not lead me from point A to point B and just flat out refuses to do any of the hand-holding that gamers are accustomed to. Instead, Hitman: Contracts gives me 100-percent credit for being an intelligent, autonomous, free thinking human being, one who's capable of taking charge of the game's unfolding story line. And what do you know? When left to my own devices, Hitman: Contracts proves that I'm quite capable of spinning one hell of a tale.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.