Review by PsykotikIV

"It could use a little refining at this point, but the Hitman formula still manages to satisfy"

47 is dead.

Or at least that's what this fourth installment in the Hitman series seems to indicate, as his still body and distinct facial build are clearly visible in the title screen's depiction of his funeral. Such is the story of Hitman: Blood Money: an elaborate series of flashbacks depicting the lies, conspiracies, and assassinations that would ultimately lead to Agent 47's apparent demise.

For those new to the Hitman franchise, Agent 47 is an genetically engineered assassin-for-hire working for the International Contract Agency, an organization responsible for coordinating a network of assassins like him. As an assassin he is cold, calculating, and efficient, able to infiltrate the most tightly guarded of organizations and kill the most high-profile of corrupt politicians, shady businessman, and even other assassins without leaving a single piece of evidence that could be used to trace him. This is the main allure of the Hitman series - the sense of power and reward that accompanies the role of the invisible killer, though you may opt to take the violent run-and-gun approach if stealth "isn't your thing".

At any rate, the game gives you plenty of opportunities to pursue either route. For the stealth-inclined, you have your basic maneuvers such as running, walking, sneaking, and conversing with others for information, and then you have more advanced techniques such as throwing items, dragging corpses in order to dispose of them, and lockpicking. Of course, the central gameplay mechanic of the Hitman series has always been the ability to dress up in the clothes of those you have killed, which works so well in the context of this series because it not only allows you to access rooms an average citizen normally would be prohibited from accessing, but it also enables you to pose as certain figures involved with your targets - say, a businessman preparing to negotiate with the one you were assigned to kill.

Obviously, you can't just kill someone, hijack their outfit, and expect to gain access to every room in the game. For one, each disguise will only allow you to access a certain subset of rooms in the level - janitor outfits will get you into the workers' quarters but not into the target's private suite, a bodyguard will be able to get closer to the target without drawing suspicion than a policeman, etc. In some cases, the guards deny you access to certain rooms entirely unless you allow them to search you for weapons and confiscate any firearms in your possession, in which you either forfeit the weapons or find a way to get past them. Furthermore, the rooms are well-guarded, and the armed guards will pay close attention to anyone who acts suspiciously - if you disguise yourself as a bodyguard, for instance, you can hold the pistol he was assigned in public and not draw a single eye, but take out a shotgun, sniper rifle, fiber wire, or any weapon he wasn't supposed to have and your disguise is blown. The same applies to scaling a wall, running through the halls, or even getting too close to someone...though, oddly enough, the AI seems a little passive in this aspect from time to time, as darting in front of a guard or standing behind someone for an extended period of time doesn't seem to arouse suspicion as much as it should. Despite this flaw, though, there's a very involved system in place here that can have veteran gamers busy wrapping their heads around the mission at hand, and it just makes the killing process all the more satisfying.

As for that killing process, there are a number of ways to accomplish your job. You have two syringes - one containing a long-term sedative and the other containing a fast-acting poison - that can be used to quickly and quietly subdue your targets, and you also have access to a fiber wire used to strangle unsuspecting enemies from behind. You also have some silenced firearms, which allows you to dispatch enemies from long-range without a noise - though it seems a little silly that the local guards and guests don't become aroused by a large bloodstain on the floor. Your tools aren't limited to subduing enemies directly; an indirect kill, such as placing a remote bomb inside a briefcase being delivered to your target or injecting poison into his meal and serving it to him in that wonderful outfit you got from the chef currently taking an indefinite break in the local dumpster, will accomplish a similar effect. New to Hitman: Blood Money is a mechanic in which the game rewards you for making your kill look like an accident; the simplest way to do this is to push someone off a balcony while no one's looking, so that the incident comes off as an attempted suicide, though there are a number of other inventive ways you can achieve this, such as rigging a large, heavy fixture with a bomb and then detonating it to fall on the target from far away. It's a subtle addition to the series, but just knowing that there's always a method to kill without alerting anyone to even the fact that what took place was a murder pushes you to go the extra mile and find that method, if only for the satisfaction that you found it.

If you're more of a gunman than a hitman, though, the game also has a number of loud, hard-hitting firearms you can use to clear rooms packed with guards at a time, ranging from machine guns to shotguns. However, the game encourages you to minimize your presence for a number of reasons, the first being that 47 obviously can't take too many hits. Granted, he's not quite as fragile as Solid Snake in the opening level of Metal Gear Solid 1, but even with a machine gun he still goes down quite easily against a mob of armed guards. Then there's the new Notoriety system, a 0-to-100 measure of how many people have witnessed your actions (and lived) and how diligently the enemy is searching for you specifically, though you can just pay money to decrease your Notoriety rating through bribes or new identities, which, quite honestly, makes it more of an annoyance than a substantial in-game factor. Finally, and unfortunately, pure gunplay in this game just isn't (and really never has been for this franchise) very fun. Not only does it seem trivial to run-and-gun your way through a game clearly designed for stealth, but despite 47's lack of endurance the enemies tend to go down even faster than he does, since they don't make much of an effort to dodge your shots or use the environment for cover-fire - they just kind of shoot at you while backing up and calling for more numbers.

Whatever path you decide to take, you're given a limited amount of save states per mission, so you'll have to carefully decide when to save so you don't back yourself into a corner that forces you to restart the mission. You're also given a map with markers on it indicating the position of every enemy, key point, and innocent on the map, though these details gradually disappear as you increase the difficulty setting. Once you beat a mission you will receive a cash reward whose size increases if you kill efficiently or complete optional objectives and decreases if you kill innocents or leave evidence. This money can be used to purchase firearms as well as various upgrades for these firearms, such as silencers, wall-penetrating bullets, or reduced recoil; it can also be used to purchase intelligence during a mission in the event that you need extra information.

Where Blood Money really succeeds is the sense of style present throughout the entire game. The missions take place in a diverse series of large, beautifully detailed environments full of little features that really make looking for a way to orchestrate the perfect kill a very satisfying experience. In a new twist, completing a mission now generates a newspaper article that carefully and convincingly details the crime that took place on the day of your mission, as well as any witness accounts and traces of evidence; though it doesn't impact the gameplay, reading through the writer's report of your kill and his confusion towards the police force's complete inability to identify the killer is oddly satisfying. The whole experience is further strengthened by a wonderful orchestral soundtrack that does a perfect job of setting the mood for the current scene, be it triumph, fear, or desperation.

Overall, Hitman: Blood Money is a solid game. Yes, the AI is riddled with holes that make exploiting the game a little easy at times, and the gunplay could be a lot more satisfying than it is, but the stealth mechanics are well-developed, the level design is creative and complex, and the game oozes style from start to finish, making it a rewarding experience for those who are willing to put up with some of its faults.

Summary
+ Interesting plot
+ Beautiful visuals
+ Great soundtrack
+ Great sense of style
+ Well-developed stealth mechanics
- Not-so-well-developed gunplay mechanics
- AI is prone to moments of stupidity
- Notoriety is more of an annoyance than a significant factor


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/12/06


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