Never a huge fan of stealth-based gameplay, I was tentative to play earlier Hitman titles. However, in recent outings, Agent 47 has become more capable of doing what I like far more: cold-blooded killing. Although some might enjoy sneaking around, it's the body count at the end of a level that brings a smile to my face. For those as strangely motivated as myself, or fans of the series' previous installments, Hitman: Blood Money definitely delivers on all counts.
As always, the focus of the game is Agent 47, and although there is some semblance of a storyline, it makes little sense for the vast majority of the game. What matters far more is the gameplay, which remains basically unchanged, if not a bit more frantic. As 47, you are still looking to complete score after score in a series of locations across the globe. Each successive mission gives you cash to purchase new weapons and items, which will help you hit your marks. Weapon upgrades allow you to put devastating additions on to some of your guns, while upgrading items includes purchasing longer remote detonators and Kevlar vests. Although you are given the opportunity to go on killing sprees, it is not in your best interest, as this tactic will quickly get you killed in later levels. As usual, stealth is the goal, something which is always easier said than done. Thankfully, the ability to save in-game is featured prominently in the title.
For veterans of the series, expect a healthy challenge, as later levels will make you rip out your hair until you resemble Agent 47. For anyone who has not played recent iterations of the series, start on the "rookie" difficulty level. You will thank me later. The harder levels can be so incredibly difficult that sometimes, it'll be more a source of frustration than anything else. Because it can get so difficult, the sense of accomplishment one feels when completing the higher difficulty levels remains unmatched when compared to similar games. The different levels take place in a variety of locations, all of which are fairly interesting. Problems arise as players progress, with each level becoming exceedingly ridiculous. Layouts are sometimes overly complicated, and although they do help to give a sense of scale and realism, the intended goal is to confuse players. I had to play a single level nine times before I could have any feel for where to go, and that was while using the map.
On harder difficulties, Bloody Money also sports a tracking feature. As you advance, the more hits you perform, the more notoriety you gain. So as you move toward higher-profile targets in the final levels, government agents will actually recognize you no matter what you do, so your sneaking skills had better be top-notch, unless you like to start from the beginning.
PlayStation 2 games will always be hurt by the graphical limitations of the hardware. Blood Money looks great at times, but too often, it straddles the line between mediocre and average, with only a handful of moments registering as beautiful. With the variety of levels visited and the gloss coat on some of the other iterations, it's a shame that PS2 fans must suffer through the anti-aliasing problems. The graphics and cut scenes are more than passable, and occasionally, they look really great for a five-year-old system on its last legs.
Controls on the PS2 version seem to have their share of problems. Although the controls are designed for ease of use, with the X, O, Square and Triangle buttons mapped to specific tasks from which you can choose, it seemed like options were missing for no obvious reason. More importantly, there are times in a gunfight when you are forced to scroll through the entire menu to pick up a single gun, leaving your corpse to be a piece of bullet-riddled Swiss cheese. There were also some muddy moments where the controls felt slow to respond, entirely exposing me or forcing me to hide my weapon and run away so that I could escape unharmed. These problems are not plaguing, as they seem to come and go at random. Sometimes the controls feel tight and crisp, whereas at other moments, I found myself screaming as 47 struggled to do anything but look idiotic.
The background music is fantastic, with a lot of the orchestral pieces similar to those featured in previous iterations. Never overbearing, the music is dynamic, exploding when you are discovered or making the smallest sounds as you slowly progress through a dark corridor. It helps the overall feeling tremendously, but for anyone familiar with the series, this should not be a surprise. Voice acting is also tremendous, another often-overlooked aspect of game creation, so it is nice to hear people who do not sound entirely silly, even if some of the scripts may be. Similarly, the levels are bursting with life, with parties taking place, or doctors in asylums giving orders for patients. Like the music, the additional sound effects are well done, making themselves actually unnoticeable at times, merely drawing you into the gameplay and surrounding world.
Gameplay is not always enjoyable, however. The A.I. is unbelievable and has sometimes ruined entire levels for me. For instance, in one level, I had killed a guard and stolen his uniform. Pushing through the level, I passed several other guards, none of whom noticed me. Now, let me interject that nearly all the enemies wearing the same uniforms look the same. So, wouldn't it make sense that this super breed of guard clones might have been able to notice that this skinny bald man was not their burly brown-haired comrade? Apparently not, unless for some reason, the game decides that you are doing too well. In that case, you are then found out magically by a guard or garbage man or gardener, and you'll suddenly have bullets flying at you from all directions. It really takes a lot away from the game to have an hour's work wiped out by A.I. that suddenly finds out who you are and attacks without any warning.
Hitman: Blood Money on the current-gen systems tends to be better suited for veterans of the series or those looking for something a bit less tech-heavy than a Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid. The locations look decent, if not a bit overwhelming at times, and the gameplay is solid, with the exception of a few hiccups. Newcomers can have fun, but the frustration factor is high, only rising as you progress. The sometimes-shoddy A.I. forces you to throw controllers at walls or unfortunate pets as the past 45 minutes of sneaking is magically erased by one "smart" guard. If you are looking for a fun time, rent it and play it on the "rookie" difficulty level. When completed, Hitman: Blood Money will give any gamer a headache and a sense of accomplishment. Looking for a true challenge?
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