Reviewed: June 29, 2006
Released: May 31, 2006
The Hitman franchise is one of those games you either love or hate. Those who don’t know what to expect from the series can often be mislead with ads and screenshots that might have you believe this is a traditional third-person action game, but in reality, being a professional killer for hire is a lot more about stalking, planning, and tactical prowess than shooting. In fact, a lot of times you won’t even carry a weapon. Remember, the skillfulness of a hitman is ranked on how close he gets to his target – or at least that is the lesson I learned from Leon.
Hitman: Blood Money brings back the world's greatest assassin, Agent 47, in an all new story setup as a series of flashbacks that highlight our killer’s exploits over the past several years. The hub to these events is an interview between a journalist and a mysterious disfigured man who has been hunting down Agent 47 during this time. As he recounts those events we get to actually play them.
Even more disturbing, other agency assassins have been killed in what turns out to be a huge conspiracy revolving around cloning and the next presidential election. Sensing that he may be the next target, Agent 47 travels to America where he attempts to carry on with business as usual while trying to stay alive and expose the plot against the ICA.
Blood Money has been in the works for years now. I saw it on the PC two years ago at E3 and was stunned by the 360 demo at this year’s show. The guys at IO have really stepped things up in visuals and gameplay creating what is easily the best Hitman installment yet.
While I have regularly enjoyed the previous Hitman games I did find them a bit linear. You could always tell what the designers wanted you to do and the entire game ended up being more puzzle than action. Blood Money really opens things up allowing you unparallel freedom to approach each of the 13 assignments however you see fit. It also provides for “thinking on your feet” so if things don’t go as planned (as they seldom do) you can improvise with great success.
With this new faster-paced gameplay comes a retooled control system that is context sensitive to the environment. When you get close enough to an object any of several options will appear next to the persistent button map in the top-left corner of the screen. This allows you to quickly pick-up, drop, drag, dispose, or hide items inside others with a quick and intuitive button press.
Walking and running around is handled with the analog stick, which has never been more important since your ultimate goal is to not attract attention. It’s usually prudent to walk – not run – especially when guards or other suspicious observers are nearby. You can always gauge your current attention level with the handy meter that resides next to your health bar. If it gets to high you might need to change clothes or location. If it turns red, you need to prepare to defend yourself.
The variety and size of the missions have also been improved and you will now find yourself going up against much smarter targets, sometimes even other hitmen that fight back with as much ferocity as yourself. Each chapter typically has multiple objectives, not always “hits”, but sometimes you might even have to protect somebody or retrieve an object or sensitive data.
There are several new systems in place that dynamically play out with the game and your performance. The first is your payment, which is based on how well you perform the mission minus any penalties. If you take a custom weapon into a mission and leave it behind you will pay a fee, as you will if you fail to leave wearing your stock black suit and red tie. Admittedly, paying $5,000 to not have to risk going back for your suit might seem like a fair price, but it’s the principle of the thing that compelled me to avoid such fines.
Notoriety is probably the coolest new feature although I don’t think it was fully exploited, or at least it was too easy to maintain your anonymity. At the end of each mission you are ranked on several criteria including witness, caught on camera, noise and violence levels, etc. This is converted into a number on a 100-point scale. For a scaling fee you can bribe witnesses, the cops, or even assume a new identity, thus lowering that number. Notoriety carries over across all 13 missions, so if you don’t keep that number low it makes it easier to get noticed in subsequent missions.
Security cameras also present their own unique challenges. You can try to disable (shoot) them before you pass by, or hug the wall to stay out of their range, but if you are captured on tape you’ll want to locate the security room and collect the tape to destroy any evidence of your having been there. Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to matter if you are in disguise when caught on tape. Agent 47 is pretty memorable in his trademark suit, but given all the opportunities for disguise, passing a camera dressed as Santa Claus should be fairly inconspicuous.
Disguises are cleverly integrated into the missions and allow you to gain access to populated areas otherwise inaccessible. Some levels ramp up the difficulty by having “zones” within the game and only certain characters can get into those areas without trouble. There might be indoor guards and outdoor guards, or an intern versus a doctor or in the case of the Heaven & Hell party, two very distinct guest lists and appropriate costumes. And then you have certain trump characters (like the magazine photographer) who can go almost anywhere without question.
Your best friend in Blood Money is the map. A tap of the left bumper bring up floor plans for every level and area in the mission including real-time updates of every person in the level. It’s all color-coded so you know where your primary targets are in relations to guards and random civilians. Points of interest are also called out as well as ICA drop zones and the exit. The game never explains how this map works, and it does give you a significant and often unfair advantage by allowing you to observe patterns and plan your strategy.
When you aren’t paying off people to keep your identity secret you can spend your loot on dozens of upgrades for each of the weapons in the game. It can cost millions of dollars to fully upgrade each weapon and not all upgrades can be equipped at the same time, so you can fine-tune, not only your weapon selection, but various features of that weapon before starting each mission. The agency will place larger weapons that you cannot sneak into some locations in special ICA drop zones within the level.
This all leads into my biggest disappointment with the game…well, not really disappointment but more puzzlement. I played the entire game using only my primary Silverballers pistols. The two times I did take my sniper rifle I didn’t even need it but was still required to leave with it to avoid a penalty. And on missions where you must retrieve a briefcase, keep in mind you can only carry one item so leave the sniper rifle in your hideout.
Realistically speaking, you could play the entire game without ever taking any of your own weapons into the level. Your standard bag of hitman tricks has poison, sedatives, remote-controlled explosives, and fiber wire, all of which are easy to use and gives you access to weapons that others are already using. And many levels can be completed with…ahem…accidents. It just seemed very unnatural to be spending millions of dollars on upgrades for weapons, some of which I still have never fired.
The newspaper between missions is also a fantastic new feature that really makes you self-aware of all your actions during the mission. It only takes a few headlines to figure out how to manipulate the media, so you can create the illusion of a gangland slaying or an “inexperienced hit" by intentionally priming the crime scene. Headshots create suspicion but 20 rounds into the body is just sloppy – the paycheck is the same. Hiding bodies is good during the mission but also creates extra intrigue at press time.
Reading the feature story will give you an uncanny recount of your recent activities including weapons used, bullet casings found, and bodies discovered. I was a bit disappointed (or should I be impressed) that the paper managed to report bodies that I had burned or thrown into the river. The paper should have at least labeled them as “missing”. The rest of the paper usually has some clever articles, a quote of the day, and an ongoing report for the presidential election that plays a bigger role in the story than you might think.
Another awesome improvement to the franchise is accidents. This feature is so compelling that I spent way too much time trying to make every hit look like a death scene from one of the Final Destination movies. And best of all, accidents are generally beyond suspicion, keeping that notoriety figure very low. The only downside to accidents is that the opportunities are pretty much given to you in that you don’t have to figure them out. Just walk by the appropriate object (usually highlighted on the map) and the option to set the trap is given.
While collateral damage is generally frowned upon, I found it quite difficult to simply knock out somebody. One hit too many and they were dead and bleeding. It was also hard to disarm somebody and then not shoot them with their own gun, often alerting other guards. And while observer AI is really good, they never seemed to notice blood stains on the floor, even if I did hide the body. Then again, having Agent 47 carry around a rag and stain remover might just be a bit too realistic.
On the subject of AI, the NPC’s in Blood Money are some of the best behaving personalities in the history of the franchise. If you are noticed in an off-limits area you may be asked to leave and even escorted out. If somebody spots a weapon they will either draw their own, or if unarmed, run of to find armed security. The same goes for discovering bodies you didn’t hide as well as you should. People even freak out if they catch you coming out of the closet – no Agent 47 isn’t gay, but he can hide inside things.
It’s fun to watch the events unfold in the map view. You’ll see the alerted gray icon run toward the yellow or blue security icons and then several of those will run back to the last place you were spotted and do a patterned search of the area. Then as your detection meter slowly decreases they will return to their normal posts and patterns. Even better, is you can watch, either in map or real view, the deceased bodies being dragged off in a body bag. It’s a bit surreal, especially during a particular wedding, to see the groom getting discretely dragged into the house through the side entrance.
The best thing about Blood Money is the freedom to explore dozens (if not more) possibilities in how to accomplish the mission objectives. After playing several of the missions numerous times and trying different tactics I checked out the official strategy guide and found that I still hadn’t done it the way they had, and often my solutions were more thoughtful and fun. You can also buy intel before or during the mission. I never had reason to do so, so I can’t personally vouch for how much help this might offer.
For the most part, Blood Money looks like a very pretty Xbox game. There are a few moments of sheer brilliance in artistic design and visual effects that are only possible on the 360 (or PC) but these appear later in the game. The Agent 47 model as well as other characters in the game could just as easily be from a less powerful console. There just isn’t that much detail in their construction or textures.
The power of the 360 really comes into play when you consider that many of these environments are packed with people. Mardi Gras alone has hundreds of dynamically scripted people partying in the streets; along with guards running their own scripted patrol routes. And if you want to see dynamic panic in action, just walk into the parade and open fire. Other levels like the Heaven & Hell party, the wedding, and the Christmas party at the adult magazine mansion come loaded with all sorts of clever characters doing their own thing.
Best of all, at any time you can become almost anybody in the game. Some of the best visual moments in the game are watching Agent 47 do his mission in a Santa suit or dressed as a clown with a big orange wig. He even makes a convincing garbage man. Unfortunately he never got to dress as a Vegas showgirl.
Each of the levels is stunning in their creation and subtle details. Environmental textures are nearly photo-realistic and the real-time lighting and shadows give everything a surreal look. Some particular “wow” moments for me was the entire suburbia level that looked almost “too real” and the fireworks and fountain show in Vegas. Mardi Gras was also visually stunning but that was more on a technical level, just seeing all those people interacting on the street.
Previous Hitman games have relied on pre-rendered movies, but the new game engine is now fully capable of creating stunning CG-quality movies using game graphics. These are told with thoughtful and cinematic camera angles that give the game serious Hollywood street cred.
Jesper Kyd returns for another epic score that combines the rich sound of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra with a few licensed tracks. From the opening operatic theme to the mid-game music to the closing credits, you will be listening in dramatic awe to the music coming from your Xbox 360.
Sound effects are rich and dynamic with a variety of weapon effects for each of the guns that change as you equip new mods. The fully loaded Silverballers sound like something from a sci-fi movie. There are all sorts of environmental sounds, weather, waterfalls, birds, and the crowd noises that can range from ambient party chatter to the roar of a Mardi Gras celebration going full tilt.
Dialogue is outstanding starting with a topnotch performance for Agent 47. He delivers his lines with the icy coldness of a stiletto in the back and there is so much idle chatter going on that you are compelled to eavesdrop more often than you normally would. Being in the right place at the right time might not only give you a valuable verbal clue, you might just get to provide some additional “pool services” to the lady of the house.
There are 13 missions in Blood Money including the opening tutorial level and quite possibly a bonus playable epilogue if you are clever enough to figure it out. Each mission can range from 20-60 minutes depending on how methodical you want to be. I have done the opera house mission so many times I can now complete it in just under five minutes killing both primary targets using only accidents. Regrettably, there is no bonus for doing these missions fast.
The amount of replayability is astounding. I typically play these games straight through but for once I was compelled to keep playing missions over and over saying to myself, “I wonder what would happen if I did that”, which usually opened more doors to that same question sparking more replays.
For Achievement Point seekers, there are 24 to earn for the full 1,000 points. You get some easy points for completing the tutorial and then there are others for finishing the game on each of the skill levels. I’m still annoyed that by winning the harder levels you don’t automatically earn the lower achievements. Why would I ever want to play on Rookie mode after beating it on Expert or Professional?
The rest of the achievements pretty much revolve around weapons, unlocking the various upgrade tiers and ultimately upgrading each weapon to the max. There are some insane secret achievements like killing exactly 47 people in the mission, but the hardest of all achievements is the Silent Assassin ranking which must be earned on each skill level for maximum points.
Hitman: Blood Money is easily the best in the series adding improved AI, stunning graphics, and persistent gameplay features like notoriety and weapon upgrades that carry over through all the missions. The new locations in the USA are also a nice change from Agent 47’s otherwise exotic getaways from previous assignments.
Blending thoughtful tactics with spontaneous actions that dynamically change with the current situation and plenty of moments of adrenalized, butt-clinching suspense, Blood Money is in a league (and genre) all its own. Whether you live in a white house of suburbia or the White House in D.C., no target is beyond the reach of Agent 47.