Version tested: Xbox 360
Hitman is a divisive sod of a franchise. Apologists are quick to express their opinion that unless you play the Hitman games 'the right way' then you're missing not only the fun, but the entire point. The clue is in the title, they're fond of pointing out.
But, put any of the Hitman games in the hands of the average gamer who hasn't been schooled in 'the right way' to play it or given the well-honed 'pitch' by the developer, and the chances are that their experience will be very different from the evangelist. Sure, they'll start off with the best of intentions and try using the fiber wire against unsuspecting foe, swapping outfits and conscientiously hiding bodies. But then they'll inevitably keep getting caught. Out of frustration, more than anything, you'll probably blast your way out of trouble and quickly find out how effective it is. Like any other game, you'll work out the path of least resistance.
But if you're capable of resisting the temptation to completely ruin it for yourself, and bother to play the game like a Hitman then Blood Money is a superb realisation of that sinister premise. Like the very best games, it's a slow burner, often hiding its charms and subtleties from the player until you've invested the time and effort to understand how the pieces of the jigsaw fit together. At its best, Blood Money feels more akin to a puzzle, where there are many solutions to discover if you fit the pieces together in a way that suits you. The design is so intelligent at times that it feels quite unlike any stealth action title around, and a world away from linear fodder we're used to in Sam Fisher's world. Just like previous incarnations of Hitman, it's open-ended, crafted, atmospheric, beautifully rendered, and gives the player so many ways of approaching the central tasks at hand that the replay value is immense. If you're a fan of old school adventure games, you'll definitely appreciate the cunning evolution that's beating at the heart of the game: each assignment feels like a mini playground rich with possibilities for you to try out or ignore. It's your choice.
Granted, the formula hasn't been messed with too much since we last caught up with Agent 47. What has been changed, though, helps nibble away at some of the minor issues we had and contribute to Blood Money feeling a much more rounded, slicker affair. For example, the old over-the-shoulder view has been ditched, and replaced by the far superior central camera approach favoured by most third person games, while the previously rather rubbish first person view now feels indistinguishable from any other first person title, should you prefer to play it that way.
Agent 47's animations have had a complete overhaul, too, meaning we no longer have to put up with his bizarre 'puppet leg' movements that blighted the first three games in the series. In fact, the entire game engine has been given a noticeable overhaul, with varied, richly detailed internal and external environments providing an excellent setting for the game, with characters that look the part and move with a conviction absent from previous titles in the series. Vast crowds mingle realistically, security staff and members of the public go about their business in a believable manner. On the 360 it looks fantastic in widescreen high def - like the PC version on full detail settings with no frame rate loss or V-Sync tearing. Lovely stuff.
In terms of delivering an immersive environment, Blood Money does a brilliant job, helped in no small part by the impressive attention to detail in every new level (with each completely different from the last), coupled with a sublime audio ambience that goes far further than most games in immersing you into the task at hand. Whether you're strolling around a vineyard, attending a redneck wedding or mixing with the Vegas gambling crowd, it's an area Io has invested a huge amount of effort in, and its importance shouldn't be understated. As ever, Jesper Kyd's brooding soundtrack contribution adds a satisying layer to an already impressive mix; those with a decent surround set up and an appreciation for the best in gaming audio should prepare to be blown away.
In terms of general interaction with the environment, Io has gone for a context sensitive approach to allow 47 to react more dynamically and intelligently to his surroundings. For example, simply pushing the bald assassin against an open window will allow him to vault through it. Pushing against a negotiable gap between balconies allows him to jump across, and the same context sensitive approach applies to pipes, ladders, narrow ledges, you name it.
The same dynamic approach enables the player to perform a diverse array of manoeuvres in a combat context as well. For example, if someone's got their back to you, the game will let you push them if you hit the right trigger (to, for example, push them off a railing to their doom), take them as a human shield, or strangle them with the ever-useful fiber wire. If they're facing you there's a broader move set, including a vicious head-butt, punch, and the ability to disarm an enemy about to fire at you; it's a pretty reliable system that removes the need to learn combinations for the main set of moves.