Admittedly, I wasn't expecting anything out of Hitman: Blood Money aside from more of the same, only with better graphics and more of Jesper Kyd's masterfully composed soundscapes. At this point, the only way you could improve the Hitman experience would be to improve the AI a bit, play it on a couch made out of chocolate while listening to a mixture of Sunn O))) and Motorhead, and perhaps improve the story so that they don't dump everything in your direction towards the end. That's the point I was at before getting a hold of this game... holy shit, I *bleep*ing love this game! That's really the best way to sum it up – it's a game that manages to encompass the feeling of being a hired assassin by giving the player tools to work with and the means of using the environment to sneak around, skulk around the corners with nobody noticing, kill your target(s) and escape without anybody knowing. It does so with aplomb, crafting together a fine, fine experience for everyone to enjoy.
The way that the story is set out in this game actually suits the story itself. Instead of simply giving you a set up and then dumping a plot twist towards the end that contains about 85% of the story itself, it gives you a set up, an overarching plot that progresses, and then a plot twist towards the end. It begins with Agent 47 needing to whack owner of an amusement park because he's such a negligable piece of shit that he let the ferris wheel go out of control and kill everyone in it and was cleared of all charges. After killing his target, Agent 47 is given a lot of contracts from people who want his services. Unfortunately, there's a rival company known as The Franchise who want nothing more than to destroy The Agency with their own hired assassins. Guess what we may be finding ourselves doing? Sure, it's still not a fantastic story until towards the end, but the style itself suits the more fragmented level structure of the game by giving an overarching plot that drives the assassinations other than just being given targets to kill for some information.
Killing targets feels better than before. Although there are only thirteen missions versus Silent Assassin's twenty one, each mission is brilliantly crafted to simulate the experience of being a hitman. The first mission manages to explain the mechanics in a way that'll give you a very good idea of how to play the game. From roaming around undetected to using a coin to distract a guard or two while you either slip on over to the other side or strangle them with you good old fashioned fiber wire, you're given the basics in terms of stealth that'll be needed in order to navigate through future levels. Then you'll go through sections where you'll use new features such as human shields, melee combat and disarming, and from there, you'll get the gist of how the game operates. Afterwards, you're free to use what you've learned to carry out future assassinations. THIS is how you get people into your game – teach them about the mechanics in a way that'll give them an idea of how the game works while allowing room for them to experiment with the mechanics to develop their own playstyle. My relationship with this level is the same as Egoraptor's relationship with the intro stage in Mega Man X – I could write an entire review just discussing this level and how it does the right thing by teaching you how to play the game while giving you leeway to think about it, even experiment with it. But then I wouldn't be able to discuss the other levels and how awesome they are!
At first, it seems like business as usual – Agent 47 will need to get in and out of levels to take down targets. You can play through these levels any way that you wish, as long as it kills the target without getting you killed. If you Rambo your way through these levels, you'll find that there are holes in the AI. It isn't horrible and it's nice that they call for backup if you manage to give it away that you're not one of them, but when they fight you one or two on one, you can simply pop some heads and they don't do shit. Minutes later, they're all dead and you've lost maybe a little bit of health. However, you'll fall prey to the all new notoriety system. In between missions, you'll be graded on how well you perform on a mission. If you can accomplish your mission in a way that makes it as if you were never there, you'll be given a thick paycheque, but if you're killing people in plain sight and leaving bodies behind, not only will you not get paid as much, but you'll also gain notoriety. The more you have, the easier it will be for the public to see through your disguises. You can bribe a negligable amount of money to lower or even reduce it down to zero, so even though it may prevent you from purchasing a gun or a gun upgrade like bigger ammo clips and scopes as quickly as you'd want to, it's still easy to get rid of your notoriety. So it's a good idea to give you incentive to be an assassin with more subtlety than a French arthouse film, but with underwhelming execution, eh, to Rambo a level is most certainly an option, and half the time, it doesn't matter anyway due to the lackluster AI.
Okay, so you'll want to be a silent assassin; you'll want to be one with the environment, killing with precision and silence. Once again, the disguise system is paramount to your success as you'll take certain people aside, choke them and take their clothes to infiltrate your target's location. Now, depending on your notoriety, it'll either follow Codname 47 rules where they won't bother you if you're wearing the right uniform and have the right gun (if any) out in the open, or Silent Assassin rules where they can suspect and perhaps attack you if they see you. My guess is that they did it this way due to the fact that they couldn't quite iron out some AI flaws from Silent Assassin – remember when it would sometimes bug out and either recognize you despite you not doing anything to merit it or not get recognized at all? This system was the result of that and although it doesn't sound great nor realistic on paper, it does at least help out greatly during the process of skulking around to find and kill your target(s). While the levels aren't as big as what was found in Silent Assassin, the levels in Blood Money still manage to feel big enough to work in a game about being a hitman, and there are still plenty of things to scavenge as a means of killing your target(s). It manages to have a lot of variety so that you and your buddies who may be playing this game can experiment with and discuss various means of assassinating your target(s).
But then you learn about staged accidents via the usual experimentation process used in the other Hitman games, and suddenly, it goes from great to *bleep*ing brilliant. Although it's not an element introduced in the first mission, the elements that are introduced as well as the environment around you will allude to the fact that you can make a kill seem like a suicide. Push them out of a window to make it look like they fell off, poison to food to make it look like the chef poisoned the food or having an object fall on them as if they fell down on their own – with these options available to you, you can be even more of an inconspicuous hitman than ever before! I'm actually surprised that it took this long to implement such a feature, but better late then never, I suppose. Plus it can help you achieve the Silent Assassin ranking a lot easier – some would write it off as a cheap casualization, but I say it makes sense within the context of playing as an assassin who must dissolve into the darkness, analyze your target to predict their thoughts and movements, and to take them out before they and anybody else around you notices your precense.
Adding to the festivities are the excellent graphics. While they may not seem too different from what's found in Silent Assassin, it's the little things that give it that edge. Things like having a hundred something civilians wandering around the city without there being so much as a flicker in the framerate while having even more detailed textures – this shit was really impressive on the aging PS2 and Xbox systems and managed to impress people who played this on the Xbox 360 during its release in 2006, and even in 2013, I'm still amazed at how this game even runs at times. The animations are smooth, which helps to immerse you into the action, certainly without you going “what the *bleep* is up with his jittery movement and weird, stiff crab-like crouched movement” unlike in the previous games (especially Codename 47). The cutscenes use a slightly modified version of the in game engine, which leads to some slightly more detailed graphics and models that are rendered with an extra layer of detail to let you know that this is a cutscene that either begins or ends the mission. It most certainly shows an immense amount of improvement over its progenitors despite appearing to only have slightly higher graphical fidelity if you look at still shots. But I'd say that the variety of locations that you'll visit and how they're executed is what's the most impressive. Ranging from a vineyard to a cruise ship and then a casino – holy shit, there's a good amount of visual variety and given that there's a lot of detail put into each and every location, it feels like they're one with one another despite each contract taking place some time after one another.
Once again, the music is fantastic, managing to balance out droning ambient tracks with more full on symphonic and even electronica tracks at just the right moments. Whether there's quiet ambience during a sneaking section or louder symphonics during a firefight, Jesper Kyd spared no expense in composing a soundtrack that conveys the right feeling for each situation. Now, you may be thinking to yourself “hold on, electronica, in MY HITMAN GAME” - but you know what, it manages to fit in just as well as the symphony orchestrated music. See, electronic music isn't all Skrillex and “I'M A BARBIE GIRL IN A BARBIE WORLD” - it can either intensify a gunfight through use of harsher tones, or provide a droning ambience via quieter, more subdued beats, both of which are exquisitely utilized in this game with a-*bleep*ing-plomb. The sound effects also help to immerse you into the game. Before, the gunshots sounded... pretty lame and weren't really worth mentioning, but now, each shot has bite to it, and because of this, it's possible to let even the sound effects draw you in. Add some birds chirping, the crowd chattering and the thundering of a waterfall at appropriate places, and it's hard not to get sucked into this world. As for the voice acting, it's actually rather good. Agent 47 no longer sounds goofy; he does sound genuinely badass in that cold, calculated kind of way. Diana, once again, has the kind of voice that you'd expect from somebody who gives you intel for your orders to accomplish your mission. The random NPC voice actors are believable enough to draw you into the world, so in general, the voice acting is pretty good.
This is simply brilliant. Codename 47 and Silent Assassin were simply precursors to this masterpiece in gaming, easily one of my favorite games ever made. Hitman in general has a unique style that helps it stand out amongst the competition and Blood Money drives this fact even further by expanding on the system in ways that feel just right for its game style. By simply adding in the ability to make a target's death look like suicide, it drives the game further forward than simply using the tools at your disposal to kill the target with precision and subtlety. Honestly, it's hard for a game of this style to top this without maybe fine tuning the notoriety system and writing a better story, because with what's been laid out on the table, Hitman: Blood Money is simply *bleep*ing fantastic and I highly recommend that you play this game.