Ten years ago Activision raised the standards for PC Gaming to console level in terms of presentation with the sublime classic Mechwarrior 2, paying particular attention to the music as well as the action. Instead of multiple formats, there were different versions relating to your type of graphics card, since we were still five years away from the two-horse race of 3D gaming we have now.
Six-figure sales followed and so did the mission pack. Then something strange happened: The fans cried out for more and Mechwarrior 2 Mercenaries was born. It wasn't Mechwarrior III- that arrived a few years later at a different publisher. However you were still playing new levels and the format was much more free-form, allowing you to take on campaigns in random order. It was one of the first non-RPG standalone mission packs blown up into a full game, with much success.
The reason for going back in time is that Hitman Contracts is the descendant of this approach to PC game development: Second game in the series exploding in sales, brilliant presentation, music, controls but when the third game arrived, it wasn't Hitman 3 but an extended mission pack.
The music is still excellent though. (You may hear this remark often throughout the review). Anyone frustrated by the first game's reliance on stealth and patience will be happy with the “reward” of being able to go into many situations with all barrels blazing if you so wish. The difficulty selection also determines how many saves you get per level, from practically none to almost normal by comparison as you go from professional to “play like Max Payne” mode. In professional mode that's when subtlety becomes a Splinter-Cell styled artform, such as strangulation as opposed to a feeding your target a Big Mac 10.
When publishers try to hype a game's gore content they're normally trying to disguise a rubbish game- thankfully not so here. Nevertheless in Contracts other than the blood you're used to from the first two games, you'll take a stroll through an abbatoir on one level. The killings then, intermingle with the blood already on the floors and walls from animal carcasses and if you're going to hype on violence, nobody's really going to be impressed with anything other than a BBFC rating- which Contracts doesn't sport.
In fact the graphics stand out not for gore but the similarity to Silent Assassin, the preceding game, even when some remade levels are given a lick of virtual paint and made more expansive. The Glacier Engine still has some great outdoor effects but expect a makeover for the fourth game unless Io Interactive takes the system-friendly Raven Software route and refines the engine until almost any machine could play it- and all without the need to pay licence fees to iD Software.
So: Splinter Cell's much better looking, but in Hitman Contracts your sole job is to work out how you neutralise the target as opposed to following a list of chess moves in Ubi Soft's classic, so you're allowed to sort out any way you like, from stealthy to ballistically saturated, offering something to every kind of third-person action gamer and not just the stealth aficionados.
Hitman Contracts gives Eidos the handy quarterly boost to sales and share price, seeing as in places it feels like Hitman 1.5. It buys Io Interactive, the games developer, some time to make the fourth game (which will be Hitman 3- as explained in the intro) the next major step. The trilogy has gone from surprise, to massmarket and cross-platform success, to this highly accessible remix. The fourth will be a title we await with interest. Hopefully Eidos will allow more than a year's development time for number 3.
The extra mark for this average game, is for that music. Jesper Kyd seems to be shaping up as the John Williams to Io's George Lucas, to the point where he can almost save mediocre sections of a game. Hardcore fans might want to try the demo first to ensure there's enough game to be had in HC, but if the music is a major selling point for you, the limited edition of the PC version has an extra CD with just the music which saves ripping it out in lesser-sounding .ogg format. The street price should drop in the fast approaching sales so you have the choice of cutting your teeth on Silent Assassin, or jumping straight into this if you're unfamiliar with the series.