When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be a paid assassin. Consider the perks: great hours, lots of travel, the appealing contradiction of anonymous notoriety, and enough money that you never need to worry about a 401(k) plan. Of course, my psychotherapist eventually talked me out of it and into wage slavery, but I've always secretly thought he'd make a pretty good human shield.
Now entering its fourth release, Eidos' Hitman series appeals directly to our covertly shared fantasy of becoming the silent assassin, traveling the globe and offing unsavory characters for obscene amounts of money. Hitman: Blood Money oozes the sleek stylishness of the previous games while adding a lot of diverse content in terms of locations, and a variety of imaginative ways to successfully complete contracts.
You once again fill the shiny leather shoes of Agent 47, the no-nonsense assassin whose gleaming baldness isn't something you'd ever mention to his face. Returning players should be fairly familiar with the gameplay mechanics, but regardless, they'll have to join the newbies and be gently led by the hand through the first training level in an amusement park. It turns out the only thing more derelict than the park's rides is the owner's sense of moral decency. Your client wants the last thing this human trash sees to be a picture of a child who died on one of his rickety rides. This first fairly linear level introduces you to nearly all of the key moves including disguises, distractions, human shields, manipulating lights, garroting enemies from above, and concealing and disposing of their bodies. Veterans of the series will get to try out some new abilities include being able to hide in closets, and throw knives, and steal CCTV footage of your exploits to retain your anonymity.
From here on, the game really starts to shine taking you to all sorts of exotic locations such as a Chilean vineyard, a heaven and hell themed nightclub, a Deep South wedding banquet, a Las Vegas casino resort and a Parisian opera house. Each of these levels is imaginatively realized in a very distinct manner almost without a hint of repetition. They are large, complex spaces that take some time to explore so that you can capitalize on the available resources, hiding spots, and weak spots in the defense. Some levels, like the superb New Orleans Mardi Gras, are densely populated with NPCs milling around and making your job a lot trickier. As in previous games, you'll often need to find, or else violently persuade their owners to part with various well-fitting disguises to allow you access to certain locations. Seeing the sober Agent 47 in a flamboyant red chicken suit was one of the highlights of my day.
Hitman: Blood Money plays best as a third-person stealth action game and you'll certainly get the most rewarding experience by being as silent as possible and doing your utmost to make every death appear as an accident. The designers obviously live by the creed that there is more than one way to skin a cat and to this end, they have incorporated a fantastic range of accidents waiting to happen for your victims. Pyrotechnic shows gone awry, tripping down the stairs, unexplained falling chandeliers, and poisoned foodstuffs all await the unwary target. The screen will sometimes split to reveal important events happening in the game world which also often hint towards one way of hitting your target. To get the most out of Hitman: Blood Money patience is the name of the game. Of course, if this is the name of a game you hate playing, you can always go in guns blazing, toting a veritable battery of accurately modeled firearms. These guns can be upgraded at a cost before the start of every level with the addition of larger clips, silencers and laser sights and you can also expand your arsenal by bringing home new weapons from each level. The game allows the option to switch to a first person perspective but it tends to play pretty clumsily this way in comparison to other dedicated first person shooters on the market.
At the end of every mission, a dynamically generated local newspaper informs you and the general public of your deeds and a debriefing will assess your performance in terms of how subtle your hit was. You'll get more cash and a better rating for enacting stealthy kills, and if you managed to remain undetected. The game's reward system means it's much better to bide your time, observing people's movements, and resorting to professional weapons such as poison, and strangulation by fiber wire. If, however, your mission was the accidental equivalent of a rodeo in the pottery barn, you'll end up generating notoriety which carries through to the next mission making you more suspicious. You can pay for enforced widespread local amnesia to reduce your notoriety level but the closer you are to America's most wanted, the more it will cost to hide your tracks. In truth notoriety is mostly cheap to repair and so this new gameplay feature actually affects very little.
A live GPS map system makes it easy to keep tabs on NPC movement and better plan for your kills. Unfortunately, the AI remains fairly starved of convincing intelligence making it relatively easy to carry out your job. On the plus side, they will eye you suspiciously, especially if you follow in their tracks too closely. But slip out of range and they'll suddenly forget about your existence. They won't even consider it very strange when a hulking bald guy with one hand behind his back enters the same bathroom stall as them. In some places the AI logic is just bizarre and serves to interrupt the otherwise realistic flow of gameplay.
That said, the process of silently observing enemy patterns, and planning for their most vulnerable moment is extremely satisfying when pulled off correctly. There are four different difficulty levels which increase the challenge by restricting the number of saves you can make, whipping the AI into shape, and making money something worth having and saving. It's quite possible to die once you've been outed and Agent 47 will do so very dramatically in slow motion through a blood-soaked filter. The frustrating save system means that you'll have to play through each level in one sitting as you cannot exit the game and resume where you left off midway through a mission.
The game's artists do justice to the diverse locations from the nostalgic rusty brown tones of the dilapidated amusement park to the ornate luxury interiors of a Mississippi riverboat. The graphics are sharp and detailed with some excellent angled lighting effects for mood and atmosphere. The character models look a little rough cut in places and there are some clipping errors that make some of the action scenes look untidy. In addition, the typically sparsely clad females in the game all seem to fall into one of two character models, both of which resemble the heavily mal-proportioned fantasies of a pre-pubescent teenager. Agent 47 has a wide range of interesting and well-executed animations such as climbing drainpipes, jumping between and shimmying along ledges, and hopping through windows. Sadly, most of these require no additional manual dexterity on the player's part and mostly exist as eye candy.
The story unfolds between missions and is somewhat convoluted, jumping incoherently between different times, and involving some nonsense about cloning, rival agencies, and a conspiracy that goes all the way to the Whitehouse. It's not particularly engaging, especially if you haven't been paying close attention to the Hitman universe, but the game does rescue things somewhat with a rather clever and intense ending.
A great soundtrack adds layers to the game's atmosphere. Who knew that the delicate choral tones of an aria or lo-fi electronica tunes would be the perfect accompaniment to precision executions? Some gory crunching, crushing and splitting sound effects add to the realism as does the perfectly fine voice acting. Patient gamers and stealth aficionados will find plenty of new material and enhancements here worth their time and money. A consistently high quality of level design and sufficient scope for replayability is let down by some untidy spots in the AI, and sometimes awkward character control, but these certainly shouldn't detract you from taking a look at what is arguably the best game in the series so far.
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