Hitman: Blood Money
You find yourself at a bustling Mardi Gras festival. All around you everyone is enjoying the party atmosphere. However, you're not there to mingle with the crowds and go dancing in the streets, you're there on an undercover mission to foil the assassination of the American Secretary of the Interior who is making an appearance there. By sneaking around, altering disguise and terminating a trio of suspects silently or 'accidentally', you, a bald headed hit man known only as Agent 47 can earn some major bucks. Hitman: Blood Money is the fourth Hitman game of the series, and whilst a flurry of new additions do not enhance the game play much beyond its predecessors, admirable level design and further signs of imagination mean Blood Money provides a welcome addition to a franchise trademarked by its intrinsic sense of surreptitiousness.
The Hitman series' storylines have always molded themselves into and around the game play well, and Blood Money is no exception, with a tale that explores many of the deeper issues surrounding cloning. Granted, it's not the lightest of topics, but the way it is told via the game's cut scenes means that you'll soon be intrigued - especially since they often provide useful snippets of information with regard to upcoming missions. Simultaneously, Agent 47 finds himself being hunted down by a hit man from a rival organisation. Through the writings of a newspaper journalist, Agent 47's history as a silent assassin is traced, providing clues to the underlying bounty upon his head as well as explaining some of the scenarios which you play through.
There are over a dozen missions in all, each dotted across America in an impressive range of locations. One moment you'll be infiltrating a rehabilitation centre to assassinate a target, then wandering around at a porno king's mansion in the Rocky Mountains and the next you'll be employed to cause mischief at a Mardi Gras festival. Each level's objective or objectives involve you having to kill an individual or individuals. This is easier said than done when you throw into the mix trigger happy guards and police, locked doors, and civilians who love to do nothing more than to blow your cover.
Ideally you want to complete each mission without being detected at all, which means relying on strangling tools, poisons and staging accidental deaths in order to avoid drawing blood and covering your footsteps. In a change to previous Hitman games, Agent 47 is a lot more agile; both in terms of the responsiveness of his basic gymnastic movements, but also in that he can now shove, punch, head butt and knock individuals unconscious. He can then inject a lethal toxin before hiding any trace of his activities by using interactive scenery such as trunks. Or, alternatively he can keep them alive and use them as a human shield, for instance. Agent 47 can also now also throw knives and other sharp objects as well as hopping into cupboards and wardrobes to avoid unwanted attention. Accidental deaths can be caused by simply pushing guards off balconies, or something more complicated like placing explosives atop of a pulley which, when detonated, releases a heavy weight plummeting down onto to the bonce of an unsuspecting guard. While these new skills add a little more variety to each stage, they are non-essential additions, some that merely provide you with extra merit and cash at the end of each stage.
Playing Hitman as it's supposed to be played is when the experience is at its most gratifying. With the help of a GPS-style map which displays the location and movement of every individual (on Normal and Easy difficulty), you can spend some time studying the movements of guards and your targets etc., in order to discover the best route to take. Silently strangling a guard, stealing his clothes and disposing of his body just metres from a comrade really does get the heart racing when you wonder whether anyone's heard you. Similarly, when you realise you're in the clear, and have killed your target, it's difficult not to feel overcome with an intense fear as you grit your teeth, feeling totally on edge in case you're detected, as you make for the exit.
Disappointingly, as in previous Hitman games you can sometimes just blast your way through levels using a variety of (upgradeable-between-missions) handguns and rifles. Your notoriety (another new feature which determines how easily you might be rumbled in subsequent levels) will take a real battering, but as long as you don't die in the process then there's nothing to stop you. Such mayhem won't help you on the harder difficulties when you need to earn greater amounts of money to upgrade and stay on top of a more aggressive AI, however. Nevertheless, this all wouldn't be so easy to achieve on any difficulty if the enemy AI had a bit more in the upstairs department. While their predetermined, undisturbed paths and mannerisms are great - they go for cigarette breaks, chatter to each other and the like - when they're alerted to your presence they'll just run blindly around a corner into your waiting gun sights. On a related note, no one is suspicious of you running around at full speed, even if such momentum in some environments such as the level set in a theatre, for example, might seem totally out of place.
Presentation-wise, Hitman: Blood Money is the most impressive of the series yet. An improved graphics engine does a delightful job of showing off detailed textures in both the characters and the wealth of interactive scenery. Further depth is added by Blood Money's gorgeous lighting and shadowing effects that have been tweaked throughout to suit every level (useful to hide bodies in) and compounding the feeling of stealth throughout. In addition, even in the busiest of levels with a lot of onscreen action, the frame rate remains constant, with only one or two minor blips. In fact, the game's graphical prowess is let down only by some off-par rag doll physics notable in collapsed enemies, and again when there are dead bodies in numbers, just 'clipping' over each other instead of stacking up properly - a problem that you think might've been solved after three previous games.
In terms of in-game ambience, creators of Blood Money Io Interactive, have done a fantastic job of immersing the player. The multiple levels of audio realism are present throughout, from the breathlessness of a choking victim to the aural chaos caused in a group by the firing of a weapon. Additionally BAFTA award winning composer Jesper Kyd provides a soundtrack that further enhances the player's experience, presenting itself in perfect tandem to onscreen events and always suiting the mood down to a tee.
Played in the spirit in which it is intended, Hitman: Blood Money proves that even in the series' fourth installment it still has the means to impress with its gameplay, freedom of exploration and high production values. Although there are still one or two little annoyances, there's no doubting that there's more than enough here to satisfy even the most experienced of contracted killers.
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