The stealthy death dealings of Agent 47 return for yet another gory outing in Hitman: Blood Money, and this time the hard-hitting franchise also makes the next-generation crossover via Microsoft’s Xbox 360. So, beyond the obvious aesthetic draw of the 360’s power, how well does the latest Eidos and IO Interactive series addition perform in terms of evolving and improving a tried and tested assassination formula?
The Hitman games have always delivered solid and believable content in both gameplay and narrative, and Blood Money ramps up that quality through intriguing level designs, a compelling storyline, and instances of perversely involving player interaction. Blood Money’s plot structure revolves around mission-based flashbacks that trace the deadly actions of Agent 47 across a number of chronologically ordered ‘hits’. Explanatory plot-defining cut scenes stagger the re-enacted missions, and are played out between an intrigued journalist and a wheelchair-bound and heavily scarred individual who’s steadily feeding him clues as to the possible identity and whereabouts of the notorious and near mythical Agent 47. Apologies must be issued for the relative brevity of this review’s narrative description, but to reveal more than such a basic outline would taint an otherwise commanding storyline that will certainly add extra fuel to the fires of player immersion.
Aesthetic presentation is considerably stronger than in previous Hitman editions, and the obvious performance power of the 360 is certainly evident - though its influence across the game’s visuals is initially laboured, only gradually gathering momentum after a few completed missions. Sadly, the next-gen visual flare is dulled somewhat by moments of inexplicable jagging and also incomprehensible collision detection that sees NPCs annoyingly moving and shooting through supposed covering objects. For the most part, though, level construction is superb, character detail is excellent, ambience and atmosphere are, by turns, subtle and pressing, and the series’ trademark ragdoll physics are shockingly explosive and bloody. Game sound and music continues the solid quality seen throughout the Hitman series and, from the haunting chords of the title screen’s Ave Marie, it’s more than obvious that developers IO Interactive and long-time composer Jesper Kyd have once again invested mood and motivation into the score rather than merely tagging it on as hollow accompaniment. Character voice acting is typically well executed, and it’s also pleasing to note that David Bateson (resident voice of Agent 47) makes a welcome return to the Hitman fold amid the industry’s current ‘Hollywood’ tendencies. Peripheral sounds such as gunfire, atmospheric NPC chatter, etc, are all thoroughly believable and manage to add to Blood Money’s general level of tension.
Gameplay has always been the central factor of accomplishment inherent throughout the Hitman series, and Blood Money certainly lives up to prior releases in that regard while also integrating some fresh elements to expand the experience. Most notable of these new additions is a monetarily influenced ‘Notoriety’ level that amasses from mission to mission based on such attributes as efficient single-minded stealth over obvious mass murder, blown covers, civilians killed, alarms raised, times caught on security camera, etc. Following mission completions, the player is shown a list of stats relating to the aforementioned Notoriety and also a bar that fills from 1 to 100. The overall banked fee for the mission - determined by performance - can then be used to implement bribes to eyewitnesses and police officials in possession of evidence in order to keep Notoriety down, if so desired. Of course, higher Notoriety means that Agent 47’s bald pate and barcode-tattooed neck will be all the more recognisable as the game progresses, which helps promote a sense of quiet execution that strictly adheres to mission parameters. Banked funds can also be used to purchase tiered weapon upgrades and miscellaneous items, such as scopes, silencers, infrared laser sights, rifle butts, custom ammo, medicine, and lock picks. The series’ established way of weapon procurement is still in place, and anything carried from a mission or stored mid-mission in an ICA container (International Contract Agency) is safely stored for later selection via 47’s shadowy hideout.
In-game action in Blood Money is undeniably faithful to Hitman’s well-worn formula of considered movement, careful monitoring of targets, painstaking timing, and savage end results. It may not improve upon these elements with particular gusto, but Blood Money certainly holds true to their guiding success with some extremely taut moments of white-knuckle tension and gameplay-induced shock.
For example, one mission tasks 47 with eliminating a famous opera singer immersed in cast rehearsals for a wartime production while structural renovations are taking place throughout the opera house. Though there are many possible solutions for achieving success, the most twisted, deliberate, and close-quarter assassination possible here is also the most beautifully crafted, and the most emotionally involving. By monitoring the in-game map - displaying the real-time movements of the opera house’s occupants - the player can discern that the target leaves the stage and returns to his dressing room for a break after a certain number of rehearsals. Knocking out a workman, stealing his clothes, and hiding his body, will swiftly see 47 past attending guards and into the target’s dressing room. At this point, simply hiding in the wardrobe and jumping out and throttling the target with the fibre-wire (garrotte) when he arrives is a simple and quick way to a successful hit. But it’s not the most rewarding. Rather than entering the star’s dressing room, if Agent 47 instead enters the next dressing room down the corridor, he’s able to perform an incapacitation on one of the other stage performers who’s also returning for a break. This particular cast member is playing the role of ‘executioner’ in the wartime opera, and the attainment of his costume sees Agent 47 swiftly onto the restricted stage area and also onto the executioner’s ‘X’ stage mark in time for the next rehearsal. Once the target returns to the stage and the music and singing resume, the player merely stands on the ‘X’ and waits for the tantalising moment when the executioner is meant to shoot the condemned star, the music duly swelling to a crescendo and the accompanying orchestra dampening the sound of a real gunshot being delivered as the target slumps dead to the floor! Once the assassination is complete, the player then guides 47 calmly from the scene as watching stagehands, guards, workmen, and the mission’s secondary target openly applaud a truly authentic performance. It’s a staggeringly well thought out solution that adds invaluable longevity to the game while inspiring intelligent creativity in the player. And the game as a whole is full of these inventive assassinations. Yes, blindly running in with all guns blazing ‘might’ garner the same end results, but Hitman: Blood Money is not about the dumb immediacy of two-dimensional thinking so often found in first and third-person shooters, it’s about ‘becoming’ an assassin.
In that sense, Blood Money is certainly an excellent experience and duly promotes patience and lateral planning; however, it’s not without fault. The game’s NPC and enemy A.I. occasionally betrays signs of not being up to standard, and this is evident when attempting to progress unseen or unhindered. It’s not unusual to stand so close to a patrolling guard that a slight turn of the head would abruptly see bullets flying in all directions, only to have the guard blissfully ignore 47’s positioning. Similarly, tossing coins to dislodge statically placed guards and cause them to search out the offending noise also leaves a lot to be desired, as repeated attempts often lead to nothing and may well see the player reaching for a more ‘fatal’ solution. More than anything else, Blood Money’s missions are all-but impossible to play without making mistakes that see Agent 47’s cover blown and bullets being traded - which generally prompts a level restart or a last save reload. This means that levels can swiftly become trial and error escapades of slow progression and growing frustration until a definite solution has been uncovered, explored, and honed - which does tend to tear out the heart of the game where player reward is concerned.
Indeed, some may well feel their patience depleting very early on in the game, yet, when subtly-applied assassinations (like the one explained above) are executed to perfection it’s hard not to fall for the lovingly woven content. Ultimately, Hitman: Blood Money is a solid addition to IO Interactive’s steadily expanding series, and it provides a wealth of creative assassinations for those players willing to construct them across levels that require considerable thought process. It’s a visually and aurally appealing experience that’s laced with deliberately nerve-jangling moments of gameplay built on solid series foundations. The A.I. and stiff difficulty inflict surprising flesh wounds, but, apart that aside, Hitman: Blood Money strides gracefully from the shadows, pumps a single suppressed 9mm round between the eyes of an unsuspecting genre and slips silently back into the prevailing darkness.