By Marty Mulrooney
Exactly five years ago today (26th May 2006) Danish video game developer IO Interactive released the fourth instalment of their critically acclaimed Hitman series, Hitman: Blood Money. With a fifth instalment (Hitman: Absolution) finally in the works, now seems the perfect time to take a look back at Blood Money with a special retrospective AMO review. Please note: although this review is written specifically for the PC version, the PlayStation 2, Xbox and Xbox 360 versions all feature exactly the same missions and content, with the only difference being their slightly downgraded visuals and gamepad controls.
Blood Money is a great starting place for newcomers to the Hitman series, as well as a satisfying evolution of the franchise for seasoned veterans. The formula used in the previous games was certainly a unique, potent one, but here there is much more overall balance. The game begins with a flashback of an amusement park accident. There is practically zero exposition and very little time wasted. Agent 47 is a hitman, and that’s all you need to know. Your first mission: infiltrate the now abandoned amusement park and kill its owner, Joseph Clarence.
This opening level serves as a tutorial, gradually teaching the player Blood Money’s multiple gameplay mechanics. Agent 47 can run and gun with the best of them, but the true name of the game is stealth. You must try to remain undetected at all times, but not by merely lurking in the shadows. Instead, Agent 47 can take any killed opponent’s clothes, allowing him to wear them and infiltrate in plain sight as long as the body remains hidden. Furthermore, shooting isn’t always the best assassination technique. Instead, IO Interactive have essentially made the environment a very real, highly formidable weapon. If you can manage to make a hit look like an accident – such as a drowning your victim or a dislodging a chandelier down upon their head – it will pay off dividends, increasing your mission rating, payments and overall sense of satisfaction.
The majority of the missions are presented as flashbacks – Agent 47 missions that took place between 2004 and 2006 – revealed by former FBI Director ‘Jack’ Alexander Leland Cayne to an inquisitive reporter by the name of Rick Henderson. The missions themselves are varied and vast, ranging from levels spanning an isolated rehabilitation clinic, to a Las Vegas casino and hotel, to a New Orlean’s Mardi Gras in full swing. Each level has multiple objectives and targets. The player is able to choose which weapons to take on any given mission, as well as to decide in which order to complete their objectives. Depending on the difficulty level chosen, the player will be limited with regards to how many times they can save per mission, as well as defining the AI’s intelligence, the level of ‘Agency Assistance’ and whether the ‘Notoriety’ system is in effect.
Mid-game mission ‘You Better Watch Out’ is a perfect example of how, when Hitman: Blood Money works, it works damn well. Your mission – set at a mansion party in the Rockies – is to kill a senator’s son (Chad Bingham Jr., who got carried away and killed one of his lovers), eliminate the owner of the grotto (wealthy playboy Lorne de Havilland) and retrieve a video tape (which contains evidence of Bingham’s crime). The senator’s son can be disposed of in a number of ways. You can add aphrodisiac to his drink, follow him, wait until he has had sex and then push him over a railing or – and this is my personal favourite method – explode the Jacuzzi’s glass bottom, plunging him to his death. Of course, that could potentially result in innocent partygoers being killed too and isn’t very inconspicuous. Still, the rag-doll physics seem to make it all worthwhile…
Moving freely around the party itself can be tricky, with different uniforms allowing different levels of access. A party invitation will only get you so far. Sedating – or fibre wiring – a guard is a good start, although later I ended up wearing a Santa costume and then a bodyguard outfit to gain access to the owner Lorne de Havilland himself. The replay value for any given mission is immense, with a ‘Silent Assassin’ rating only attainable if no bodies are discovered, Agent 47 remains undetected and no evidence is left behind. Another cool feature at the end of each level is a newspaper that changes dynamically depending on how well you have played the previous mission. However, it soon becomes pretty obvious where certain words have been inserted and overall, it just doesn’t work quite as well as it should have.
Technologically, Blood Money remains impressive even in 2011. The graphics are superb, with the game engine capable of rendering vast levels with zero load times. Furthermore, scenes set amidst large public gatherings – an ‘Angels & Demons’ party, the previously mentioned Mardi Gras celebrations on the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana – display a staggeringly impressive amount of NPC’s. Admittedly, a lot of these scenes are just window-dressing – if you start shooting wildly into a crowd of people they don’t react realistically in the slightest – but if you play the game as intended, it helps to create the wonderful illusion of a living, breathing world. Also of note is the soundtrack composed by Jesper Kyd, which has a beautiful cinematic quality to it that always compliments the onscreen action. Franz Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’, which plays over the main menu, as well as a rendition of ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ by Swan Lee during the final credits, are also welcome additions.
There are, unfortunately, several issues that hold Hitman: Blood Money back from fully realising its intended vision. Especially on PC with the extremely precise mouse controls, it can become all too easy to simply blast your way through the levels and miss many of the subtle nuances that separate this game from most others and make it truly special. The first-person mode is also pointless and ends up becoming largely ignored. Furthermore, the behaviour of the AI enemies can be quite erratic at times, even on the higher difficulty settings, resulting in some odd moments that can quickly break the illusion of the game’s carefully constructed world. I often ended up taking no weapons on the missions with me at all as they proved largely unnecessary. It is strange that you can upgrade your custom weapons extensively, yet the game actively encourages you not to use them.
Despite these issues, Hitman: Blood Money corrected many of the previous games’ faults upon release and is undoubtedly the best game in the series so far. It has aged very well over the last five years and is certainly worth experiencing for a couple of quid. Sure, the storyline is pretty much just an excuse to string together a wide variety of missions and I did sometimes find myself wishing that the developers had focused more on Agent 47 as a character (as well as his relationship with Diana Burnwood, his controller at the Agency)… but the overall fun factor is sky-high. There is a dark humour running throughout that makes every fibre wired victim a guilty pleasure. This is a game that, when played as intended, displays moments of sheer genius. A flawed blood diamond.
8 OUT OF 10