Ok time for some honesty, I've been out of this gaming lark for quite some time. Don't get me wrong, I've taken glances at some of the bigger titles but nothing has held my attention long enough to warrant a buy from this 'hard working' student. However, this period of frugality was not to last when, faced with a day at work with my father, I purchased a gaming magazine to give me some reading material. It was because of this magazine I was faced with the option of buying Hitman: Blood Money. I can't say my re-entry to the gaming world was a disappointment.
So, what's the game about? I'm sure you've gathered that the protagonist is again Agent 47, our favourite cloned slaphead who's deadly with just about anything to hand and completely amoral about it. In this newest incarnation the story is told from the former FBI director's perspective speaking to a journalist in the present day. The story he reflects on occurred a few years prior to that and it is this time frame we actually play through. The Agency was in upheaval, agents were being killed left and right and Agent 47 was still carrying out his duty as a ruthless assassin. It isn't long until 47 himself is expecting death and takes steps to prevent that, never shirking his responsibilities though. The ending is climactic and steps out from the pack as probably having the most interesting level layout and premise but I won't tell you what it is, I wouldn't want to spoil it.
Speaking of level design let's get into that, to put it succinctly it's excellent. You start in your trademark suit with your default tools of the trade-fiber wire, remote mine and detonator, poison and sedative syringes, an infinite number of coins (for distraction) and a set of binoculars-in an area of the level accessible to the public. The target is invariably either in a very public place with plenty of potential witnesses or in a very private place where only workers, bodyguards, police or someone else in a position of authority can get to. You are therefore presented with some choices, 47 can do what he does best and infiltrate the area by somehow obtaining the correct uniform or you can engage from a distance in some way... which is also what he does best. There is also the opportunity to make the death look like an accident or even like suicide and there's nothing more satisfying than finally executing your carefully laid plan and casually walking out of the building while everyone else moves forward as one, panicked group. Levels range from a vineyard in Chile to Mardi Gras to a pornographer's mansion in the Rocky Mountains and in most levels there's at least one way of making the death look like some sort of tragic accident. There are also multiple ways of actually reaching the target, for instance, in the level 'You Better Watch Out...' I found a way to reach a point to kill one of the targets through the building dressed as a guard but upon another play through I came across a completely different, and much more stealthy, way to get up to the top and of course there are more routes through the building itself.
Upon loading up the first level I was greeted with a tutorial level in a disused theme park. This level goes some way to explaining the skills vital to survival during the real missions. You'll be presented with opportunities to poison drinks, engage in hand to hand combat, snipe targets, hide bodies and try out other moves and, while you're not shown how to take advantage of everything you'll find in the game, it provides a very nice way of easing you into the distinctive playing style of the Hitman series. That is to say the use of context sensitive buttons. In this series the X, O and Triangle buttons for different purposes depending on where in the game Agent 47 is and what is surrounding him. For the most part this works quite well but can get slightly confused if 47 is next to various interactive items, although it's possible to sidestep this by holding the relevant button for a drop down list to appear, it does partly interfere with the flow of the game. The camera can roam a little but for the most part works very well and only gets confused in tight areas, in situations such as this it can be beneficial to switch to first person with a quick press of the R3 button, this also comes in handy for more accurate firing. Most advanced moves are automatic with 47 wilfully climbing up large steps, jumping over rails, shimmying across ledges, climbing up walls and through windows when you push the analogue stick in that direction, this works nicely most of the time but can get irritating if you slide slightly too close to a ledge only to find him jumping over it when you're trying to sneak up on someone.
There are various nice little touches in this game, for instance, upon the completion of a level you are presented with a front page of a local newspaper. Laid out in typical paparazzi style we have a main article in the centre, several small articles dotted around the side and adverts to fill the space. An interesting side note is that some of the smaller articles can give you insight into future levels or previous ones. For instance the widow of one of your victims was later seen in Las Vegas making a fortune at the tables. The articles that don't give you insight still try to entertain you with very unusual and dark stories, the kind of which you may expect to see in a somewhat twisted small suburb. The main article of this newspaper is obviously the hit you just carried out in the aforementioned level and the content of the article is dependent on your performance in the game. For example if you carried out the hit flawlessly making the deaths seem like accidents you can get the rating of “Silent Assassin” which, as the name suggests, shows that you remained anonymous by carrying out your work without witnesses. On the other end of the scale you can go in guns blazing leaving trails everywhere, which brings me onto another new element called notoriety. This is a measure of how well known you are, leaving witnesses, not using a silencer and other **** ups all add to your notoriety and the higher it gets the more likely someone is to recognise you in later levels until you get to 100 where pretty much everyone will be running scared of you. Fortunately there is a way to reduce your notoriety level and of course this lies in pushing money at the problem, more specifically we're talking buying the silence of witnesses, police chiefs or, if you've really made a balls up, a whole new identity. Obviously these come at a steep price so it's in the interests of the player to execute their business quietly.
Now, what sort of review of a Hitman game would be complete without a look at the various methods of killing? 47 still has his trusty Silverballers and the rest of his arsenal is not lacking. We have the W2000 sniper rifle, the SP12 shotgun, SMG tactical and M4 as custom weapons and there are a multitude of pistols, shotguns, machine guns and rifles that can be picked up during levels and taken back to 47's hideout and used in later missions. So when a good old bullet to the head is wanted, there are several ways to deliver it. These weapons can also be modified in various ways, there are five levels of modification each more expensive than the last and by the end of it your Silverballers can be upgraded to dual, maximum silenced guns with a laser sight, scope and extended clips capable of auto fire, it's hard to see where all those features would come into play delivering a single shot to the head but at least they look damn impressive doing it. Aside from ballistic methods of dispatching the target we have the ability to inject either them or their food with poison, and there are some scenarios where a more creative method of murder can be employed which is unique to that level, I wouldn’t want to mention them and make your lives too easy though. Of course the garrotte makes a comeback and offers a perfectly silent way of getting rid of the target and, with it being a default item, is always there as a backup option.
So what are the graphics like? Overall they're superb considering I played the PS2 version, 47 looks ruthless with his face in a constant grimace and his suit crisp and folded in the right places. Other characters are also detailed with bystanders engaging in believable activities, expect to see old people kissing, off duty waitresses smoking and hired bunny girls... entertaining, none of them aware of your plans. The environments are nice with little details such as ashtrays scattered about to make the place feel more used and less sterile and people milling about serve to give it some atmosphere. This can especially be felt in New Orleans during Mardi Gras with hundreds of civilians on the map in casual clothes and plenty of beads, truth be told you stand out a bit in your clean, sharp suit but what can you do eh? It is also noticeable that the crowd does not move as one, you encounter small groups of people acting of their own accord though in some levels dancers seem to move in unison, well choreographed or coders couldn't be bothered? You be the judge.
The AI is impressive but not without faults, as you walk past guards or employees it's occasionally obvious that they don't recognise you and so turn around as you pass to get a better look. An annoyance can be found when you attempt to enter a room which is, unknowingly to you, out of bounds and notice the attention bar sliding into red too late, you can stop and go back if you want but that doesn't stop the guards from shooting you in the face. If you're on the ball and realise your error before the guards do they may frisk you with a hand held metal detector if you're allowed to enter or tell you to get lost if you're not, it's surprising how far a simple waiter's uniform can go to disguising your completely bald head and barcode tattoo but it wouldn't be a very enjoyable game if we had to cart around a selection of synthetic masks too. If you do get discovered then the enemies react pleasingly once you get around the whole “they're trying to kill you” part, they'll move around as they're shooting at you and it's very obvious that the developers intended for you to act covertly as much as possible as you can be brought down in very few shots, this vulnerability isn't unbalanced though because you can take the bad guys down just as easily if you shoot in the right places (tip: the head).
A staple part of the Hitman series has always been the rag doll physics and it's not absent from this incarnation. Shoot someone in the legs and they will fly out from under them, shoot them in the chest and they'll buckle. Occasionally an unconscious body's leg will get stuck on a corner as you're dragging them which can make for some very unfortunate positions for them.
Overall Hitman: Blood Money is an excellent game, the levels are interesting and captivating giving multiple ways to complete the objective and multiple ways to get there. If you expect an action game you'll be disappointed and if you want to be able to just dive in for a few minutes you won't get what you expect but if you're after a game that requires thought and skill and more than one way to solve the problems you can't go far wrong with this.