Review: Contract Killer (Xbox Live)
It's another freemium Xbox Live title from Glu Mobile. Contract Killer has you earning money on the fringes of society, but the developers also hope you'll download the title for free and spend your own money to buy better equipment and advance in the game. Like any freemium title, it needs a careful balance, and Glu Mobile haven't quite hit the target with this one.
Version Reviewed: 188.8.131.52
Contract Killer has the outline of a plot, which boils down to picking up jobs from various underworld bosses (by tapping a map at their highlighted location and reading a paragraph of text), and earning money by successfully doing these jobs... jobs where you are asked to kill people.
But it's okay, because they're nasty people, and they deserve it.
Once you have been given a job, tap on the job's location on the map and after a little wait and a loading screen, you'll be presented a 3D view from a suitably sniper-like location. Scroll around here by dragging your finger, and when you spot a likely target, take careful aim by dragging, and tap the on-screen fire button. For added accuracy, if you have a telescopic site on your weapon you can zoom in and place the cross-hairs exactly where you want the bullet to land.
The game is a touch arcadey here, you don't need to concern yourself with breathing control, or squeezing the trigger (always squeeze, you never pull). Neither is there any influence on the bullet by the physical world... there's no wind to contend with, no gravity pulling the bullet into an arc, in fact the only issue is the range of your weapon, and the game engine has this as a binary "in range" or "out of range" on each weapon.
Don't expect simulation here, Contract Killer is clearly a 'resource management' game. The resource of course is money, which you earn by carrying out successful hits. Naturally you'll need to buy more ammo, better weapons, ammunition, and other helpful aids to get you through the game.
Here's where the freemium model kicks in. Yet again Glu have a freemium game which they say can be played without having to spend any real money to buy the in-game money which helps you buy the more powerful items in the game, such as the first aid packs to keep you alive during a level.
I'm glad they've said this, because it's proving to be really really hard to do that. So far I'm just about staying solvent, but it's proving difficult to build up the savings to buy a half-way decent sniper rifle because of the amount of health I need to replenish on each level, forcing me to buy more first aid packs from my earnings.
I'm not saying that Glu should be tailoring their games so people can play the whole thing for free, but freemium implies a balance. Contract Killer feels heavily in favour of the payment model - more than their other freemium Xbox Live titles - last week's Gun Bros, and significantly more than Bug Village. Perhaps they are using a "little / average / lots" AB testing with these three titles to see which maximises profits, and that's their right, but something feels off-kilter with Contract Killer's 'mium' part of freemium.
Which is a shame because there's a really good mobile game inside Contract Killer. The levels can be played in a very short time, and thanks to the mix of locations and the goals of each contract, you'll have a wide variety of experiences around the basic control system. That keeps it feeling fresh and different, which is good.
It's not long until you spot a few wrinkles in the game play that let the side down. The first is movement - there isn't any. Beyond "crouch down" you can't move around a level, to get to a better angle, to get under cover, or to get in range with a weaker weapon. Where you start is where you'll finish. I know they're keeping the game simple, but it takes away one of the few choices a sniper can make - there is no fire and move here, it's fire and... fire and... fire.
The second is a bit more problematic. The game asks you to look around, find a target, and then shoot them. Naturally they are ducking behind cover to try and hide while they reload (just as you have the option of doing with the crouch control). Yet there is no indication to you while playing where they are shooting from. You don't have any audio clue (as you would in the real world). There's no puff of smoke that lingers in the air, there's no clue where a bullet has hit you that might give you an idea where to look. Nope, you just have to roam over the game area, as if it was a grid, trying to spot the target. All while your life is being dinged away and you have to tap on the health pack bars and burn another five hundred in game dollars to keep yourself healed... frustrating is the word.
And if you fail, everyone comes back to life again and you can try the level again and again until you get it right - the only loss being any ammo fired (which means you need to buy more) and health packs used (which means you need to buy more).
This is where the balance falls down. You need to be either incredibly good at the game, with perfect memory and recall so you can replay a level with minimal expenditure... or cough up the money to have enough in-game cash to buy the actual weapon the level was designed for. Yes, you can play without paying, but it's a painful experience.
On top of that, Contract Killer has a few practical issues that make me hesitant to recommend it. The load times can be pretty long, and are getting very close to the point where I would say the waiting goes on for 'too long', and once a level loaded, there is only a tiny strip of text to say "touch anywhere to continue."
Then there are the lock-ups. Contract Killer is one of the least stable Xbox Live titles I've seen on Windows Phone, to the point that I am not surprised when the application dumps me back to the start screen, or simply freezes and will do nothing until the app is reloaded. On one occasion I had to restart my Windows Phone (and it's a testament to the OS that this one of the few times in over a year I've had to restart a handset because of a badly behaved piece of code).
It's frustrating because I want to like Contract Killer. Rather like the job it is based on, there's just lots of little things that eat away at the goodwill on offer until there is a cold, dark, core looking back at me that's hard to love. The freemium isn't balanced well, it's slow, it crashes, and for a contract killer you are put in in some seriously exposed positions that you would never choose in your right mind if this was real life.
I'd definitely encourage you to try the download yourself, but be warned, it's not an easy title to appreciate.
Reviewed by Ewan Spence at