I'm now joining BIGsheep in the Next-Gen cycle, so hopefully there'll be a few more reviews of recent titles. Anyway, first up from me is Hitman: Blood Money, the fourth in the series and I've got to say, I was very impressed with it.
First up, play this on Expert difficulty (the second from hardest, I think) or Professional (if you're super-good at gaming) from the start. Don't bother with Rookie or Normal because you'll be immediately disappointed and it will feel like nothing in gaming has ever progressed. Plus there are big spoilers in the easier modes which can be taken for granted (as in, hind-sight knowledge) when you tackle the higher difficulty levels. It's challenging but in the right amounts and provides you with enough breathing space to relax for a while before continuing the missions.
This being Next-Gen I was expecting fancy eye-candy and I wasn't disappointed. Okay, so the very first level you play shows nothing (it being a tutorial level), but consequent missions have you going to a winery, Las Vegas hotels, parties and other such social events/places. There was something in each level that pleased me, whether it was graphical splendure (and that's on an SDTV), or level design, or the little tricks and traps that allow you to distract and kill. In fact, the gameplay mechanics are quite a joy and really put a smile to my face when something I planned went accordingly. It's nice not to be restricted and to be frustrated time and time again because of one slight slip-up.
Of course, there is also a specific method of completing a level so that you gain the highest Hitman rating (depending on how violent you were and how much noise you made, and other factors) but each mission is quite easy-going allowing you to commit the kills how you want (just so long as you succeed the mission objectives). So you can kill everything in sight, or you can trapse around swapping costumes, or mix in both. In fact, it's actually easier to play the game properly than to wipe out all traces of life, and I suspect the developers did this on purpose. It's not impossible, but it will make things difficult later on as Agent 47 has a 'notority' rating that carries over from level to level (as well as money used for upgrading weaponry).
I've no idea if this is new to the series, but it is certainly welcome. Sure, it pushed you further into how the developers want you to play, but isn't the whole point of being a Hitman to be untraceable? It makes you think about the consequences of your actions, and not many games do that nowadays, especially between levels/missions. To immerse you further, the developers decided to include 'front page' news about the mission you just completed, providing some background story to the mission, but also an over-arching story that you don't really notice until the end. It's nice to see this little addition, and some of the stories are fun to read, but it doesn't add too much to the actual gameplay. Good idea, though.
I won't bore you too much with the game mechanics, just to say that you are provided information on targets which either need killing, protecting, or (in the case of items) stealing. You're allowed to take into each level a maximum of three weapons (one of each class) as well as some little passively active gadgets (in that you don't access them, but just work when needed). Weapons found during the missions can be used and taken home, and Agent 47's custom weapons can be upgraded into more efficient killing devices. So, in the missions, you just do what you have to to get the mission completed and then proceed to the escape point. Simple.
What really makes the game, and I'm sure you all liked it in the previous games but I didn't really play those, is that you can just meader around and investigate the going-ons of the place, just to be sure of what is possible and what isn't. You can take as much (or as little) time as you want to complete the mission and just enjoy the surroundings. Probably, you'll have a stab at a mission and notice little things happen as a consequence, brief windows of opportunity which will close when the AI sets about initiating its initial routine, and chances are that you'll give it another go and take the aforementioned opportunity. Or you might explore a little more and notive other things that will help. There really is so much scope for you to complete a mission that you could play it two or three times differently and still enjoy it. It's incredibly satisfying to watch your plan unfurl.
One thing I must mention was the impressiveness of the number of people on screen at once in the Mardi Gras level (as to be expected for such an event). Some of the levels really blew me away, if it wasn't the graphical nature, then it was the number of people. In both cases, they provided immersion, a real sense that you are in the bustling crowd, acting nonchalantly to get to where you want.
Also, there's a 'Tension' meter and does exactly as it says. It's not a means to let you know you've been found out and being tracked down to be killed, nor is it a 'suspicion' meter of the people around you. It really is the tension of Agent 47 because it can be at absolute maximum but you can still proceed to walk past guards and police without them shooting you on sight. Yes, they are more wary of your presence but only if you start running around do they start chasing you (well, in most cases, although you could be caught short without knowing why - chances are is that it'll be a guard/policeperson having seen you commit a crime but haven't been able to catch you. They alone will notice you, whilst his/her colleagues just look past you. Wonderfully implemented.)
And for all this, I forgave the little niggles that pop up every-so-often. Things like not being able to cancel a reloading of your gun (meaning that you're likely to take a pummelling whilst Agent 47 fumbles around), or your slow-motion death sequence (where you can still shoot to try and get out of by killing the enemies, but I'm not too sure of the specifics - it's like a second chance sort of thing). Poor animations for object interaction is also shocking (doors just swing open at a touch of a button) and some suspect velocity-impact code for ragdoll effects. Also, the ideas of hiding in cupboards and throwing coins to distract just aren't used enough or seem to be necessary. Maybe they are fundamental if you want the highest Hitman ranking per level, but otherwise it isn't force upon you - which, I suppose, could be a good thing.
But you really won't care too much about this because you'll be too involved in executing your plan. Yeah, the first time you see it you'll be like "what on earth?!" but it really, really doesn't matter. And this is quite possibly the best in the series (although it is the first I've ever completed), and what with the Xbox360 Achievements Points I've been playing it again and again to get the points and it's not a chore either. Mind, you might want to play it a few times over because it isn't all that long, and once you realise how to complete a level, each one can be done in under 20 minutes (one of which can be done in 5-minutes).
To be honest, for all its goodness, I don't think that I can highly recommend it. Certainly, if you like the series, you might want to rent it for the weekend, but there's nothing that really says you must forever own a copy. A real shame, but at least the next game has a good ground to start from.