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Certain games used to have the feeling that you’d need to scrape the shit out of the disc tray once you ejected the game. Those games barely exist anymore. Instead there’s a lovely sheen on everything as if the Face-Tune Instagram filter has been slathered over the characters and environments. The closest we’ve gotten to the grit and grime of the mid 00s lately was The Witcher 3 and A Plague Tale: Innocence but these were fantasy and medieval stories, respectively, so the mud and the blood and the shit came with the territory. Where are the Hitman: Contracts, Condemned and Kane & Lynch games that were unafraid of getting down and dirty in the name of atmosphere?
It’d be easy to write this semi-serious plea off as nostalgia and it partly is but there’s more to it than me pining for a by-gone era. Take the recent Hitman games for example. The change from filth-encrusted sex clubs in Romania to gated American suburbs, Parisian mansions and Miami race tracks was fairly quick but some of the muck was hard to scrape off. The first few Hitman games, especially Contracts, had you not so much in the underbelly of Europe’s criminal underbelly but in it’s clogged bowels. Even that game’s fanciest level, set in a Hungarian hotel, had a crime scene in the basement drenched in darkness, shattered glass and blood. But that wasn’t even close to the game’s most repugnant level.
“The Meat King’s Party” is pretty disturbing from the get-go as it has series stalwart Agent 47 begin the mission in the back of a meat truck, an unconscious butcher and a meat hook at his feet. The low dub of Euro-trance will draw you out of the truck towards an abattoir owned by Campbell Sturrock, a grotesquely fat Scotsman and the self-titled “Meat King” of Romania. What’s worse is that Sturrock is hosting a fetish party in his abattoir so not only must you wade through pig’s blood and corpses to get to him but also through men and women in gimp masks and BDSM gear. Of 47’s three objectives – the first two being kill Sturrock and his lawyer – the third is the worst.
In a yellow lit room Sturrock’s brother Malcolm can be found butchering the corpse of a young woman, the daughter of the client 47 has been sent to rescue, all while romantic Christmas music plays. The thing is Campbell’s brother isn’t a target even though he’s the perpetrator of the horribly brutal multiple murders that have taken place in this place. While the Hitman games have always had you kill people who had committed heinous crimes they’re also games about being a consummate professional. Killing Malcolm isn’t part of the contract and even though justice will be done it means you won’t get the coveted Silent Assassin rating. Agent 47 may have the moral high ground over those he kills but he’s no hero either. It’s brutal and disturbing but it’s also unique in a way games haven’t been for some time.
Much of Hitman: Contracts aspires to this level of grit and grime and although it never gets filthier than “The Meat King’s Party” there are plenty of other moments where that crusty energy is felt. “Beldingford Manor” has you sneaking onto an English country estate to assassinate a nobleman and his son who hunt people for sport. Directly after that comes “Rendezvous in Rotterdam” that has 47 infiltrate a Dutch biker gang in order to retrieve some especially dirty blackmail photos, kill the bikers’ leader and the agent that was sent ahead of you but failed to retrieve the photos. Although Hitman has never forgotten the core roots of its gameplay – though it has strayed – Hitman: Contracts remains the game with the best atmosphere.
Contracts has you start off where Hitman 2: Silent Assassin began; with the massacre of your clone brothers at an asylum in Romania. It’s sequel Blood Money begins in an abandoned amusement park used by some pretty dated black gangster stereotypes. The difference is clear from the jump as Blood Money was more obviously leaning into its edgy, tar-black satire. Although the villains of the Hitman series have always been pretty cartoonish Blood Money was a real leap forward and Absolution took that ball and ran with it. Still, cartoon characters they might have been but the targets of Hitman’s various open-ended missions still did some pretty fucked up stuff and that didn’t end with Contracts.
One of the first mission in Hitman: Blood Money – “Curtains Down” – is a prequel to the final mission in Contracts. 47 is in Paris to kill an opera singer, the US Ambassador and a police detective; all of whom are running a child sex trafficking ring together. Executing pedophiles in creative ways? Sign me up! But that’s about as down and dirty as Blood Money gets, except maybe the mission that has you kill a South African white supremacist. Absolution would have its moments as well like the mutant Luchador in the illegal backyard wrestling ring and the team of killer nuns sent to murder Agent 47 but any traces of the down and dirty environments cultivated by Hitman: Contracts would be gone by the time 2016’s Hitman was released.
Hitman: Contracts wasn’t the only game to make you feel like you needed a shower after completing a level but it was the best one. The Kane & Lynch and Condemned series would come and go but Hitman: Contracts remains well-remembered. It’s not that these environments have been lost as corruption filled horror games like Outlast and Amnesia can attest to it’s that an increase in graphics quality has made it harder to make these games look like they were soaked in a bucket full of shit and used needles.
2016’s Hitman and 2018’s Hitman 2 embraced these improvements. Developer IO Interactive created levels that seemed drawn from an upper echelon of the near future. There were no more inhuman serial killers or operatic child molesters just insanely rich and evil people that needed killing. These new games look great and they’ve certainly taken the Hitman series to a place with a cultural veneer that feels like a better fit for Agent 47. Still, it can’t maintain the sense of dirt-encrusted danger of those earlier games. Never mind dying in a place like the Meat King’s abattoir, I wouldn’t even want to be caught there. The high rises, high-tech hospitals and leafy suburbs 47 now finds himself in are fine and although he feels like he belongs there that does eliminate some of the challenge and danger from the world if not from the gameplay.