[contains minor spoilers]
From the onset, the Hitman series was severely flawed. Despite showing hints of creativity at times, the first two games were rotten with awful firefights, linear paths, and security guards so vigilant that they could put the secret service to shame. Hitman and Hitman 2 wanted to be sneaky, but when by creating a world that was actively on the lookout for an assassin, it was hard to have fun. I'm not claiming that it's impossible to enjoy these games—Hitman 2 certainly has its moments—but it is impossible to play them and not feel hamstrung by either the narrow design or finicky alert mechanic.
With the release of Hitman: Contracts, IO Interactive has hit its stride, finally bringing the premise of playing as a dapper assassin to life.
The game's not perfect of course, but IOI has continued their upward trend of making better games. Just as Hitman 2 was leagues above the original, Contracts strides ahead of its older sibling... despite looking and playing exactly the same. The only noticeable aesthetic difference between the two is that Contracts is considerably darker, in both tone and style. Most of the stages take place at night and are drenched in bad weather, and rather than infiltrating mob estates and middle-eastern bunkers you're sent into a meat-fetish party and a biker bar with a naked man being tortured in its basement. Contracts is still in line with the franchise's playfully dark sense of humor, but most of the humor had been wrung out, the playfulness draped in blood.
What puts Hitman: Contracts easily above the other two games for me is that its alert system is finally manageable. No longer will guards burst into a murderous frenzy upon seeing you sprinting to your next location, providing some much-needed freedom that was denied in Hitman 2. Likewise, the threat meter will flash red only when you're dangerously close to being uncovered (likely from being dangerously close to a guard), giving a better indication for when you're about to blow your cover. It's a bit easier to tell where you can and can't go thanks to guards flashing the "stop" sign, and stealth mode is finally faster than enemy walk speeds—albeit fractionally. Add a lot of clever assassination opportunities on top of this system and at last you have a Hitman game you can ghost through!... or... at least achieve a Silent Assassin ranking on most of the missions without a guide.
There are, however, still plenty of kinks left in Hitman's stealth system. The most obnoxious is that as soon as enemies are alerted via a discovered dead body or panicked civilian, they'll be impossible to shake. Your disguises thereafter become suspicious over time, and then it only takes a momentary glance for a curious guard to deduce your identity. This stands in stark contrast to the guards' neutral behavior where they'll think nothing of you stalking them for half the level, nor will they care if you conga line their boss into the bathroom. I found that it was easy to achieve the Silent Assassin ranking on Normal because getting anything less would devolve the stage into one big firefight, and I've definitely had my fill of shooting dumbass AIs in this series.
The design of the levels can be pretty hit or miss, with the first half of the game being much stronger than the second half. This is due to two factors, the first being that the back end of Hitman: Contracts strangely consists of Hitman: Codename 47 missions remade in the Contracts engine. For the most part, it is kind of neat—the stages look and play much better, with some of the worst offenders scaled down (Lee Hong) or left out entirely (all of Colombia, thank god.) The issue with this is that the levels aren't all that fresh or exciting, as all of the old tactics (snipe the triad member, bomb the car, poison the soup) still work and are also the optimal ways to beat the levels quickly. For those that haven't played 47's origin story, this is undoubtedly the better way to go through these levels, but for me it was kind of a... been-there, done-that experience.
The other factor bringing down the latter half of the game is that your options are significantly limited, thanks in part to the constrictive design of the Codename 47 missions. "The Meat King's Party" and "Beldingford Manor" are two brilliant stages thanks to their quirky themes, nonlinear maps, and unique approaches to dispatching your targets. Contrast something like dropping a gas can down a fireplace for an explosive assassination with the majority of the Hong Kong missions, where head-shotting your target is the only "silent" way to subdue them. Lee Hong gets a special kudos for being an absolute pain in the ass to eliminate, as he's surrounded by guards all the time and will also randomly attack you with a supernatural premonition. Hitman: Contracts may not reach the sewer-stinkin' lows of its siblings, but it's still disappointing to have its first few hours be its unquestionable best.
The only thing Hitman: Contracts gets wrong with respect to the rest of the series is that it has a filler-story. The cutscenes are extremely well-done and moody, but Contracts tells of a paper-thin payoff that closes out with a cliffhanger. Plot-wise, Contracts is somewhere between a nothing-game and a teaser, but in every other respect it blows the other titles out of the water. It's logical, concise, creative, and best of all, an actual stealth game that let me complete my job with only one or two guards to add to the obituary pages. I had such a good time that I never once resorted to my starting silenced pistol, which is about the biggest stamp of approval I can hand the game. I'm curious to see how Blood Money will hold up, because thus far IO Interactive has been getting better and better.