IGN Review of Hitman: Blood Money
IO Interactive made its mark on the videogame world with the first Hitman game in 2000 and planted a flag with Freedom Fighters in 2003. The world, especially Europe, loved Hitman, and rightly so. IO has designed a stealth game that, while suffering from some easy-to-notice flaws here and there, boasts some of the most distinguished and well-honed level design in any game of its kind. Perhaps equally important, IO gave birth to a long-lasting, brooding iconic antihero with Agent 47.
With the third game in the series, Hitman: Contracts, IO hit a lull, as the team was simultaneously working on Blood Money and creating the newly fangled engine on which this new game was built. Contracts looked good enough and explored a dark, devious theme that hadn't been done before, but it played like all the others. This fourth game does several things to improve the series, both from a presentation and a playability perspective.
The results are solid -- the new notoriety system functions smartly, the upgraded currency system encourages players to be pennywise, and the text-sensitive controls and up-close fighting systems make this often very un-accessible stealth game more forgiving. The newly added features don't, however, alter the fundamental experience much beyond Contracts. So while fans of the series will notice all the new features in subtle ways, the gameplay is essentially like playing any of the previous games in the series. In other words, IO built a lot of good features around the core play, which was tinkered with and enhanced a little, but it basically left the 47's fundamental game alone. What we're left with is a good, familiar game of Hitman. It's more accessible, looks better -- significantly so on Xbox 360 and PC, anyway -- and is worth your hard earned money if you're a patient and obsessive stealth gamer.
IO's new game is an endeavor based on many little things that work comprehensively. The story is more intriguing, because it finds Agent 47, the ultimate assassin clone, being hunted down by a rival organization and hitman, while following a narrative that traces Agent 47's work via a reporter and an inside man bent on tracking him down. You'll want to see all the cutscenes since they reveal crucial information on yours truly, and they exhaustively -- and in a real-world manner -- explore the political and global issues around cloning. The CG dialog is refreshing and intelligent and doesn't just paint a nice pastiche. Similarly, the series has always relied on CG cutscenes, which have looked drastically different than the actual gameplay up until now. IO's rebuilt game engine features better lighting techniques and character models and the work shows up well on all systems, especially the PC and Xbox 360 versions, which appear unhindered by technical limitations.
The most dramatic changes in Blood Money, however, don't revolve around the story, but Hitman's actions and the systems around those actions. First, the training level is up-to-date. The first level is essentially a training level, which narrates your actions through a real-world level. Many other games have done this before, and now Hitman does it and does it well. The next things you'll notice are contact-sensitive controls, more kinds of control, and added Agent 47 nimbleness. Using a three-button system appearing on-screen, you'll find that doorknobs, items, secret stashes in drawers, and guns all are contact-sensitive. Run by an object that's useable and the right button is lit in the corner of your screen. This technique is done well and thankfully it makes controlling Hitman a little more natural without being too obvious. The only area that's a little wonky is climbing out windows (it's a little sticky and can be confusing in a quick situation).
The additional accessibility from better controls works on different levels. There are always situations in which Agent 47 must do things in a hurry. The more accessible control system makes performing simple acts -- like opening a door or picking up a briefcase -- less painful. The game still fundamentally functions like it did before, but the smarter interface works more intuitively most of the time. Opening a garbage can or a garbage truck, for instance, to dispose of an unclothed dead man, is not only new to Blood Money, but it's an action that can be handled relatively quickly and efficiently. Believe it or not, throwing a coin was one of the harder things we had to figure out, as was handling multiple items simultaneously. It's all do-able, of course, and this Hitman makes these simple things easier to do. But IO hasn't abandoned its former self, so if you've played Hitman before, you'll instantly feel comfortable with this. If you have never handled Hitman before, you might take a chance with this one.
IO worked on a lot of systems that revolve around your actions to tie the game into a more cohesive whole. Weapons carry over from one level to the next now, but they have a series of upgrades, some with as many as 11-12 different kinds. They range from bigger, more powerful bullets that can blast through doors (which is new), to silenced modifications to bridges and expanded clips. You'll handle rifles, sniper rifles (the Dragunov), handguns (SilverBallers), automatic rifles, shotguns, and more. The weapons function exactly like they did in the past, by pressing and holding a button to check inventory and by pressing the same button to unholster or holster a weapon.
While Hitman always has been known for its stealth techniques and level design, it's been a frustrating action game. This is generally true of true stealth games, but IO has generated a few interesting additions that infuse new action into the series. This is a good thing because it partially solves issues from past titles. Using contact-sensitive techniques Agent 47 is a little more agile in hand-to-hand combat. By pressing the weapon button with nothing in your hands, you'll punch, head butt, or shove enemies around. Only a few hits will render them unconscious. Compared to the previous three games, this comes as a relief. Agent 47 can now climb more surfaces -- up gutters, trellises, and waist-high objects like boxes and garbage cans -- and he can perform jumps, from one skyscraper porch to another with the press of a button. These actions offer players a slightly more platform-style game, which lends greater variety to Agent 47's previously narrow set of actions. They don't significantly alter the chess-like stealth-logic built into the game's heart, but they do tweak it enough to make you notice.
All of your actions now funnel into the new cash economy, which again, works on a subtle level. In previous Hitman games, you could recklessly kill, slaughter, or maim your way through a level without major consequences. You could literally blast through some levels and run to your escape. Your rating would be crap, and you might be almost running on fumes, but you could do it. Now, all of your actions affect cash income, assassin rating (which is the same as before, including Killer, Silent Assassin, Thug, etc.), and Notoriety. Cash income is significant because it affects your ability to upgrade weapons, buy intelligence, and control notoriety. IO has made it easy enough on the Rookie and Normal difficulty settings to still play pretty recklessly with some afterthought about money. On Hard and Pro levels, however, not only is the AI more aggressive but you'll really need that money to keep up with the AI. You'll want to buy better upgrades for the obvious reasons -- silencers, wall-piercing bullets, etc. And you'll want to pay off officials, be they civilians who've seen you (for less than 15 points and $50,000, the chief of police for 40 points, $100,000, or to acquire a new identity for 100 points, $200,000). For the Xbox 360 version, you'll earn Achievements. These rewards revolve around beating levels, completing the game on increasing difficulty levels, and fully upgrading weapons, among other things. Other Achievements focus on using only one weapon or minimizing kills, for instance.
You'll be rated on more of your actions than before. Mission performance includes the noise you make, the level of violence you execute, mission completion time, and as aforementioned, notoriety. The account balance is tied into the performance, tallying primary and secondary objectives, the amount of damage control required by the agency to clean up after your mess (large or small), suit retrieval, custom weapon retrieval, and finally, your mission earnings and total account balance. For those folks who love to earn higher rankings, special weapons and upgrades and, on Xbox 360 more valuable achievements, money plays a significant role in each level.
If you've played the previous games, the artificial intelligence should be familiar. All significant body guards, police, and higher-level enemies notice you right away. They track you, but they don't do anything, at least in the beginning. You have two meters, a health meter on the far left and detection meter just right of it. When the health meter is empty, you're dead. When the detection meter is low and green, you're being a good, stealthy assassin. When it's in the middle and yellow, beware, and when it's red and filled to the top, you're in trouble. But while the NPC AI function very much like they have in previous games, their actions are more consistent and logical. For instance, when you go to a door guarded by two security cops they'll warn you away, instead of just whipping out guns and shooting you down. The AI gives you more chances to test boundaries without instantly chopping your head off. This gives the player more breathing room and is more encouraging to both noobs and experienced players to try new things. The notoriety system comes into play here, too. If you've earned a high notoriety ranking and people are familiar with your face, you're more likely to be spotted by general civilians, perhaps cramping your style and certainly leaving you fewer options.
There are occasions when the AI doesn't react on a global level, however, and this is where the game feels weak on Normal difficulty level. For instance, if you're at a party with multiple floors and if you've killed several people and you go hide, only the local, nearby guards in that level will come to investigate. There isn't a massive search party that coordinates around your actions. The local police or guards come by, check out the situation and call for a coroner to haul away the body. If nobody saw you, then you can walk away pretty easily. The game still plays very much on the same level as it always has, instead of using more sophisticated levels of ranked AI, and this causes it to play very much the same as in previous games in the series. Later in the game, however, enemy hitmen -- or at least what I thought were enemy hit-women -- come into play. On a later level, I walked into a room with a prostitute with whom I, to my surprise, engaged in a cutscene where she proceeded to inject me with a needle and kill me. When I replayed the level to see what the hell happened, the cutscene ensued again, but I was able to spring free from her trap and shoot her dead. She was either sent to kill me or to kill the same target. There weren't too many situations like this, so it wasn't a completely random thing, but this kind of element created a far more intriguing level of depth.
Finally, the voice work done for Agent 47 and a few other high-level characters is excellent, while the mid- to lower-level voice work is a mixture of hilarious caricatures or silly one-offs. The music is, as per usual, very well done, as Jesper Kyd and the IO team have created some intriguing orchestral pieces that react to the game's pace and more significantly, the level of danger you get in.
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