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Hitman: Absolution hands-on: Contracts, crowd control and the perfect kill

"Forget any worries you may have had about 47 going 'casual'"

The magic of Hitman games has never been the scripted story. It's the sense of exploring and experimenting in the levels. Every mission feels like a new toybox, full of people to play with and areas to explore. Anyone can burst in and go nuts with a shotgun, but carrying out the perfect kill required careful thought, planning and experimentation.

It's this knowledge that has lead IO to believe that it's found the one multiplayer mode that won't annoy its fanbase. It saw that once fans had mastered Blood Money, they started to create their own missions - challenging each other to complete imagined extra objectives. In Absolution, it's built that into the game, with a Contracts mode enabling you to set hits for other players to complete.

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We're shown a playthrough of the dark Library level in which Agent 47 has to evade the police, as revealed at this year's E3. This time though, the scenario is different: instead of merely escaping, you have to assassinate a chubby policeman called Sergeant Meyer. Evading the cops at this stage isn't difficult, but wiping out a guy being watched by two men in the centre of the Library isn't so easy. Killing a nearby officer and stealing his clothes, we sneak up behind Meyer and prepare to close in.

We're in this for the money: completing Contracts successfully earns you a stack of cash to unlock new things with, but the quantity you earn is related to performance. The mission we've been set requires us to kill Meyer without being seen, but in a close-up and unpleasant way. Distracting the two onlookers with an object thrown to make some noise, we dash up and grip him firmly by the windpipe, placing two silenced bullets straight into his spine. Silent, up-close and messy: contract completed.

IO will be providing new Contracts each week, but most of them will be assassinations invented by players. Jumping into Create mode allows you to produce new Contracts to share with your friends, or anyone else on Xbox Live who fancies giving your challenge a go - but you aren't just picking targets from a list. The only way to create a Contract is to do it yourself first.

Playing through the level as you would usually, the game will create a contract based on the criteria that you enact yourself. Each Contract lets you mark up to three unsuspecting targets (by looking at them and pressing Y) before taking them out yourself in the way you want other people to. Guns are easy, knives are harder and a fire extinguisher is just plain nasty.

Expert execution
The specifics of how people choose to plan the kill remain entirely up to individual players, but if they want to get the most money from your contract they're going to have to jump through exactly the same hoops as you - killing the right people in the right order, and then making their escape through the same exit you did. There are plenty of evil criteria that you can include to make your contract really tough, but only if you're able to set the first clean record.

Effectively you're looking at a custom leaderboard that allows you to create your own assassination missions. Cash earned from contracts can buy new weapons, upgrades, and disguises which you are able to take into the start of any mission in the mode, giving you a better chance of nailing the next big score.

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Once you've sent your Contract out into the wild, it's only a matter of time before someone beats it - nailing all of your required criteria more efficiently than you did on the original playthrough. While some of the requirements are set in stone (see Kill List, above) there's plenty of room to try out different things. Killing a man with a knife needn't be cosy - throwing knives will work just as well.

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