For a while it looked like Eidos was attempting to drag the Hitman franchise into the dreaded 'spot-the-difference' annual update territory. That was certainly the original plan, at least, with the latest Agent 47 game initially planned for release last autumn. That would have meant four Hitman titles hitting the shelves inside five years, and delivered within the kind of breakneck development schedule that made Contracts seem a little hurried in places. Fortunately, SCi stepped in, bought Eidos and held the project back fully nine months to ensure the game lived up to its rich potential.
Now scheduled for a May 26th release across Europe, we headed down to Eidos' Wimbledon HQ to run the rule over the recently announced 360 version of Blood Money (set for release alongside the Xbox, PS2 and PC incarnations) and came away mightily impressed with what we saw of baldy barcode's latest assassin adventures.
Nothing's ever that straightforward in the world of an assassin, and, as covert as you might imagine it to be, even Agent 47 has rivals. After all, it's a business, and a rival agency has decided to take out the competition in the best way they know how - by bumping them off one by one. Fearing he might be next on their hit-list, Agent 47 is forced to go underground and remove himself from the firing line.
No such thing as a free lance
Forced to go freelance and take out those threatening his life, much of the game's premise centres around earning cash for hits, as opposed to merely taking out each target as you did previously. As such, the amount of cash you'll stand to earn depends entirely on the manner in which you perform your hits. If you can pull off clean hits that look like an accident, you'll earn more cash and also carry less notoriety into the bargain. On the other hand, if you go around all-guns-blazing, people will start to recognise you, and make things harder for you in the long run.
New to the series, this 'persistent notoriety' carries forward into other missions and finally delivers a real incentive to play the game in a more careful, thoughtful manner, with actions carrying genuine consequences. Previous Hitman titles (certainly the last two) have made it very easy for the player to romp through it like almost any other third-person shooter, and perhaps didn't make most of the stealth mechanics, either, leaving it caught between two stools as a not-quite-brilliant hybrid offering with bags of potential. This time, though, your notoriety is measured in percentage terms and you'll be fully aware of it by the way people react to you. Walk into a hotel with high notoriety, and random guests will turn their heads and remark "aren't you that guy..." while you can bet that security will definitely know your face the instant you walk past. Of course, there's still a choice to play Blood Money exactly the way you want to, but the chances are you'll be worked that much harder this time. It's not going to be stupidly harsh or fussy, mind you, because even if you foul up there are ways and means to cover your tracks; for example you can bribe officialdom to reduce your notoriety or buy yourself a new ID entirely. We'd have thought a wig would do the trick just as well.
Hitman games have always been thoughtfully designed, but the attention to detail this time around is noticeably enhanced in just about every way imaginable. For example, Io has gone to the lengths of creating newspaper front pages dynamically based on how you do during the mission and reflecting your success or failures. Not only does the text list mission details like the body count, but the 'artist impression' picture will be more or less accurate depending on how many people saw you - cute touches that, again, reflect notoriety and your style of play.
Weapons of choice
Needless to say, the tools of your trade are all-important in Hitman titles, but Blood Money goes much further than previous incarnation by offering far more weapon upgrades, with players able to mod all of the main firearms in up to 15 ways. These take the form of silencers, scopes, weight reducers, recoil reducers, and even one that makes your weapon untraceable by metal detectors. Handy. But as useful as it is to zoom in and shoot your target in the back of the head from the safety of a balcony, the game really comes into its own with the various close quarter melee moves at your disposal. Of course, the old favourites like the fiber wire and injections provide the staples again, but Agent 47 can now incapacitate his targets with a nifty headbutt, use people as human shields, or even disarm and strip them of their weapon - all pulled off with superb, fluid animation. Another particularly handy new move is to conceal your weapon behind your back, giving you the ability to whip it out quickly and take down your target much quicker than previously. With so many new options at your disposal, an already choice-filled game gives players an even wider set of possibilities.
With an already impressive engine further enhanced since we last hit men, Io's latest now features the ability to render large crowds of people; and by large amounts, we mean absolutely hundreds of the buggers. In one level we were shown, the sense of wading through a bustling nightclub scene was unlike anything ever seen in a videogame, with revellers independently wandering around with a swagger or strutting their funky stuff. Admittedly there's not a great deal of genuine interaction possible with them (and if you look closely you'll spot the repeating character models), but if, for example you were to shoot someone dead or throw someone off a balcony into their midst, the ones closest to the incident scatter and flee in terror, with a rippling sense of panic spreading to people in the vicinity. At the very least it's a good demonstration of the technology.
Whichever level we were shown, the most evident thing about all of them was just how many different ways there are to go about achieving your objectives. Without offering spoilers, the classic Hitman premise of pinching someone else's clothes to fool the unwary is a particular favourite still, but it goes a lot further if you really want to get the best ratings. For example, you can inject poison into a bodyguard's snack to ensure that they're not around when you confront your target - or you could create a distraction by calling them from a van parked outside... or pretend to be binman. But, as you discover, some tasks require a multi-level approach as you work out that certain uniforms and disguises only give you a limited amount of clearance. Often, befriending someone becomes the key to success, or accepting a woman's drunken seduction techniques, or following an opera tour guide to blend in with the public, or even nicking a chicken costume and pretending to be one of the guys you've killed. We're not even making this up.
It's abundantly clear from the start that it's a game you're going to have to take your time with to really get the most out of, and accept that a bit of trial and error is part of the fun. At times, the pace is reminiscent of an old fashioned graphic adventure, and much of the fun comes from working out your own solution to what is essentially a puzzle. By no means does this slower pace make it boring or frustrating, though, because there's always so many cool things to try out along the way. One such cool moment occurs in the Vegas level when you enter the lift and discover you can dislodge the ceiling panel and climb up onto the top of it. Cue unsuspecting victim, cue fiber wire, cue instant silent death, and cue body stashed out of the way of prying eyes.
In fact, there are several cunning new ways to dispose of bodies, although most of them are pretty grisly (what were you expecting from Hitman?). Our favourite was throwing one in a rubbish disposal truck and cringing at the sound of crunching bones and squelching flesh, but there were plenty of others to endure, such as sticking them in a freezer, throwing them off balconies, and putting them in a dumpster. Nasty business, killing, and one that leaves a bloody mess if you're not careful - and clues for anyone that comes poking around looking for their missing pal.
With all these new elements to take into account, it's just as well that Blood Money offers a comprehensive tutorial to gently introduce players to everything - something that previous titles in the series neglected to do. As ever, the choice element of the game means that - tutorial or not - it will still be an exceptionally personal experience depending on how you choose to play it, but this definitely a key part of what makes it such an exciting prospect. Whether it works... well, that's something we genuinely look forward to finding out later this month.
As ever, PS2 and Xbox owners won't be left out in the visual stakes with a truly lovely looking game that pushes their capabilities in some style, but the PC and Xbox 360 owners evidently win out overall with some advanced techniques buffing up what's already there. In much the same way as the 360 version Tomb Raider Legend was the most visually appealing of the lot, Blood Money looks bloody gorgeous in high-def while still residing very much within that "tarted up in splendid ways but not really next generation" realm. We're not complaining, though, and could see that Io has done a lot more than merely output the game in a higher resolution and switched on the lighting and particle techniques.
Blood Money promises to be by far the most ambitious Hitman to land in our laps since the original came out on the PC back in 2000. By tweaking just a few crucial elements, Io has managed to take the choice elements from previous games, bolt on a few sensible extra mechanics and come up with what could well be this summer's most exciting action title.
Hitman Blood Money is coming to the PS2, Xbox, PC and Xbox 360 on May 26th. Check back during the week of release for our in-depth review, and be sure to visit EGTV to watch the many gameplay videos that have recently been released.