Hitman: Blood Money Review
The stealth/action genre has grown and expanded since the early days of Thief and Metal Gear Solid. Not only has it spawned several other stealth-oriented franchises in Hitman and Splinter Cell, it's also had a significant impact on the rest of the gaming world as well. We see more fully realized and complex elements of stealth in everything from straight-up action to platforming to even RPGs; sneaking about to complete your objective is rapidly becoming a more utilized method of gaming.
And in games like Hitman: Blood Money, where the gameplay and ultimate success relies almost entirely on stealth, the player must be patient, observant, and surprisingly, cerebral. Although it doesn't fall into the puzzle genre, stealth games place a heavy emphasis on problem solving, which may or may not appeal to certain gamers. Those familiar with the Hitman series is likely salivating at the thought of another installment, though, so let's get started...Agent 47 is back, and more functional than ever.
The graphics in the PS2 version are certainly inferior to both the PC and Xbox 360 versions, but considering the capabilities of Sony's now-outdated console, the visuals are pretty solid. There's a great deal of detail amidst the somewhat annoying "jagginess," as you'll traverse several very pretty environments ranging from a lavish opera house to the sticky Deep South. Coloring, shading, artistic design; it's all quite well done, despite the lack of anything that we can officially label "spectacular." Nothing really leaps off the screen, but it all comes together in graphical presentation that is more than acceptable.
The developers have always seemed to approach the Hitman franchise with a minimalist approach to sound. Because it relies so heavily on stealth, silence is any player's friend, and outside of some NPC dialogue and a few low orchestral tracks in the background, the sound isn't really a focus. Nevertheless, that dialogue and those tracks are of very high quality, so you're not likely to have any major complaints. The sound effects center on sharp gun retorts and the strangled cry of a surprised guard, and those are always good enough to keep you immersed.
In comparison to its biggest competition, Hitman: Blood Money's control is relatively similar to the likes of Splinter Cell, but the gameplay has more of an emphasis on open-ended freedom. While just about every stealth game gives you the option of conquering obstacles in a variety of ways, none give you such an immediately accessible environment. However you attempt to complete your objective is entirely up to you, and you're never forced along a set path to accomplish your goals. So although the game certainly falls into that stealth/action category, this aspect gives Blood Money an atmosphere all its own.
The interface has improved dramatically over previous installments, as all the little actions seem much more fluid and responsive. Agent 47 can open doors, hide bodies, and interact with just about anything in his environment with the simple press of a button. Accessing the inventory and using firearms is still pretty much the same, but that worked relatively well in the first place. IO has also given the super-cool main character the ability to clamber up and down trellises and drainage pipes, and you can even leap across small gaps when prompted. These are much-appreciated additions to the standard run, walk, and sneak control options.
But as I mentioned before, the primary appeal of the game revolves around the freedom. As a top-secret assassin, your environment is completely conducive to the theme, as you have a set of objectives to tackle any which way you choose. Run ‘n gun isn't usually the best option, but it is an option, unlike games in the Metal Gear Solid franchise. And while the skilled weapon aficionado can complete much of the game without ever sneaking, it negatively impacts a variety of factors; Notoriety and cash income for starters.
Your Notoriety increases and decreases depending on how stealthy you are, and if you complete your objectives without being noticed and with minimal casualties, you'll keep your Notoriety low. If not, you need to spend your hard-earned money on lowering that Notoriety meter, primarily because it directly influences how easily you can maneuver through the levels. Your overall performance depends on the amount of violence, the noise you made, if you were noticed (caught on camera, for example), and mission completion time, so there are plenty of things to think about during play.
Unfortunately, there are a few problems. On the surface, the AI seems fantastic. Security guards will halt you for inspection and they're not all trigger-happy, as most guards will warn you before throwing down, thus giving you the opportunity to leave peacefully (provided you're not wandering around with a shotgun). But you can often go on a little killing spree on one floor, hide, then move to another floor and the guards won't be alerted to the massacre. It also makes very little sense that you can wander freely in a particular uniform, despite the fact you look nothing like the person you're emulating.
Furthermore, due to the style of the game, it's intensely trial-and-error focused. Most stealth games operate this way, but it's even more evident in Blood Money because you're free to try anything you wish, in any place you wish. Some things are just a waste of time and entirely unworkable, and if you're trying for a good rating, you're going to be doing a lot of reloading and restarting. And because this process takes longer than most games, it can get a tad frustrating. Lastly, while character control is more streamlined than ever, some of Agent 47's actions are still questionably programmed (it shouldn't take quite that long to figure out how to throw a coin).
But at the same time, that freedom gives the game its very original feel, and ramps up the replay value as well. There are only a dozen missions, but the length of time it takes to complete them (factoring in the assumed high level of trial-and-error) could be between 15 and 20 hours. There's a great deal of enhancement in terms of the interface, there are widely diverse environments, the maps are well constructed and very helpful, the challenge is appropriately high, and you always feel exactly like an elite assassin fulfilling a contract. That, of course, is the best part.
It may have its failings, because it certainly doesn't have the amazing story of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater or the deep military realism of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. It's not as polished the SC or MGS games, either, but in spite of all these facts, Hitman: Blood Money carves out a nice little niche for itself in the genre. Bottom line? It's well worth playing for stealth aficionados, and the PS2 version might be the lesser version, but it's still quite acceptable.
9/27/2006 Ben Dutka