Of all the virtual playgrounds I've frequented over the last decade of 3D gaming, IO Interactive's remain some of my favourite. Rarely perfect and not always even that much fun (in a traditional sense), their Hitman missions nevertheless exhibit a convincing vision of what the craft of level design is all about. At their best they are tightly woven systems of high drama and cause-and-effect gameplay, in which the seductively bleak narratives never get in the way of the more important story that's unfolding—"player = hit man".
But the model has yet to be perfected, the taut suspense too often interrupted by unpredictable A.I. and trial-and-error progress that only really allows a slick 'hit' to be realised through either a perfectionist's dogged persistence or a forgiving player's mental editing techniques. As such, Blood Money's concessions towards accessibility and a smoother game flow initially appear very welcome.
With the increased effectiveness of disguises and clearer non-player character (NPC)behaviour, our anti-hero killer Agent 47 is now much freer to socialize and explore. No longer about precisely creeping around and tracking his target from afar as a red map icon, 47 is rarely forced into tense games of hide-and-seek, and at times he can shadow a target around the whole level until he gets them alone. Too empowering? Perhaps, yes. But more on that later.
Each level remains its own self-contained denouement, but the overarching narrative that frames the stages is thankfully more engaging and purposeful than Contracts' well-intentioned but impenetrably maudlin account of 47's slow and stumbling recuperation from a bullet wound. The scenarios themselves are at least as imaginative as ever and offer up some satisfyingly audacious opportunities, like shooting an opera singer during rehearsals at the exact moment his character is supposed to be 'shot' on stage.
Coherence and solidity, however, have never been Hitman's strong points and Blood Money has its share of embarrassing moments: from irritating game logic (like not being able to pick things up, jump through windows or perform other moves when in the sneaking position) to numerous bugs (like NPCs literally sitting in their seats or performing impromptu through-the-floor disappearing acts).
Worse than any glitch is the absurdity of not being able to load mid-level saves, which hits home with stinging bitterness when you forget and turn the console off without finishing a level, or when you simply don't have time to complete an entire hit in one go. Although presumably a technical compromise (I can't imagine it being a design decision), this is an unfortunate step backwards for the series that will be keenly felt, and detested, by many.
But on the whole, presentation has improved. End-of-level newspaper reports help put 47's quest for perfectionism and anonymity into a meaningful context, with the smaller stories taking some amusing satirical swipes for comic relief. A noticeable visual ambition attempts to bridge the generation gap (the bustling crowds at Mardi Gras being a delightful standout) and Jesper Kyd's score, though predictable and arguably not his best, benefits from an increased reactivity to gameplay. Yet regardless of how well it sets the scene, for me the atmosphere was stifled by the newly lax attitude towards stealth.
The safety and relative ease with which the player can now experiment robs Blood Money of its predecessors' nail-biting tension and perhaps only in retrospect can we realize how much the unknowability of the simulation made it all the more engrossing. I hardly ever felt out of danger and it was enough to break the steeliest of nerves. Here disguises allow me to run around through room after room of enemy guards, feeling much less of a hit man than the sneaky and vulnerable 47 of before. There are still occasions when it seems like every step counts and during these the game excels, but overall the illusion of being an intruder is far less consistent and sustained.
So with completion more manageable, the long-term focus has been weighted even more in favour of replaying levels and performing perfect or imaginative hits. But while the alternative methods do seem more enticing, achievable and varied this time around, the core atmosphere feels more diluted and disposable in the first place, and that undercuts any play experience you're looking to have with the game.
Higher difficulties don't solve the problem either: the A.I. will tolerate 47's presence a little less (though still more than in previous games) and players cannot see the guards on the map (which is just annoying), but the experience is hardly kicked up a notch in return. Performing a slick, no-saves hit at 'Pro' level is clearly still something to savour and the Xbox 360 achievement goals befit the game so well that version almost deserves a higher score. But whilst Blood Money has its moments, I found nothing here to actually surpass the tension of shuffling along the wooden boards in Silent Assassin's nerve jangling dojo level, acing its clockwork perfect Kirov Park mission or mixing with the freaks at the Meat King's fucked-up opium party (from Contracts).
Blood Money is the most player- and reviewer-friendly Hitman game to date, reflected in both its early chart position and kind critical reception. In some respects it is also the most well rounded game in the series, making largely sensible and pragmatic design decisions with the franchise; but in doing so, it has dulled some of the fledgling promise of its forebears and for me become a less captivating, more ordinary experience.
Hitman still has plenty of potential and I look forward to seeing if the new direction comes closer to fulfilling it in the future, but for the moment it's hard to tell if the formula has changed too much or too little and if Blood Money represents a brave re-birth for the series or the beginning of the end.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.