In the current Australian games environment, where games such as Reservoir Dogs and Mark Ecko's Getting Up have been denied classification by the OFLC, it's surprising that Eidos' long-running Hitman games have continued to flourish -- this is, after all, a game that revolves around a central core of assassinating people, often in quite brutal ways.
Hitman: Blood Money is the fourth title in the long running series about a genetically engineered killing machine known as Agent 47 -- that'd be you -- and his adventures taking up contracts to kill selected targets. To keep things on a somewhat moral side, all of 47's targets are identified as "bad guys" by the backstory, but it's a somewhat arbitrary distinction, especially when you consider all of the many and varied ways that are at 47's disposal for the purposes of murder. The game plays out over just over a dozen levels, each of which will take you around an hour to finish quickly, but many more than that to fully explore and gain the best possible scores for. Good scores are awarded for the cleanest possible kills -- ideally, you don't want anyone to even know you've been there at all.
The story of Blood Money concerns a rival agency to 47's slowly and methodically killing off agents -- rather like the way that 47 himself operates, actually. The story itself is well paced, and fans of the previous games will spot a few sly references to the previous titles, but you don't need to have played the previous games to make sense of Blood Money.
In many ways Blood Money is a superb realisation of the Hitman ethos; if you play it slowly and calmly, you'll have as much fun just wandering around each level, working out where the disguises are (or who can be safely sedated or strangled to get new disguises) and sorting out different ways to complete each contract as you will actually completing the kill. It's this flexibility that's Blood Money's greatest strength. While there are many clues in most levels that lead you to a kill method, there's usually plenty of ways to get inventive and reach your target, all guided by a quite simple and intuitive interface.
You're also not limited to just killing your intended target, either. In many ways it's a weakness of the game model, as the impatient can, if they wish, just go in and gun down everyone in a chosen level, and, assuming that your marksmanship is up to it, you'll eventually shoot your target dead. There are, however, two important counterbalances to just turning Hitman: Blood Money into just another action shooter. Firstly, you'll get paid less for a sloppy kill, and that translates into less money for weapon upgrades, making later missions much harder.
The second factor is your notoriety; this is generated at the end of each level based on how blatant you were during the mission. It's possible in most missions to arrange circumstances such that your targets all die of what appear to be "accidents"; do this and you'll earn substantial sums and your notoriety remains constant. Wade in with a bloodbath, ignoring civilians and getting caught on tape, and you'll be more easily recognised and make later missions harder for yourself. It's an interesting concept in theory. Sadly, it's largely deflated for two basic reasons. Firstly, you can pay a relatively negligible sum to reduce your notoriety at the end of each level. More galling is the fact that there's an easier way to keep your notoriety low -- just kill every single person on each given level. Given that the enemy AI isn't that spectacular once you go beyond the skin-deep plotted routines each character undertakes, this isn't all that difficult.
The Xbox 360 version of Hitman: Blood Money looks superb, although the PC version (on a reasonable spec PC) isn't too shabby, and we can't imagine that the Xbox or PS2 versions lag too far behind either. Previous Hitman games have seen 47 glide around in a rather unrealistic fashion, and thankfully there's been a lot of work done on improving animation routines in order to impart a more lifelike feel to the game. It's not flawless, however -- there's still some clipping issues, and sometimes you'll run afoul of controls that don't work quite as precisely as you'd like them to. Jesper Kyd once again provides a moody and entirely suitable score that works quite well at setting scene and mood.
Fans of pure run and gun killing games won't get quite as much out of Hitman: Blood Money as those who approach it as a rather deadly and intricate puzzle game, and it's hard to shake the sneaking suspicion that it's just one media outcry away from a total ban -- this is, after all, a game in which you can brutally strangle a housewife, drag her bleeding corpse through the neighborhood and then dump it into a trash compactor, complete with mechanical squishy noises as she's mashed. That kind of thing tends to breed controversy. That ignores the point that in order to complete the game properly -- and earn as many achievement points as possible -- you should only be eliminating your targets, something that is possible on every level of the game -- but it's undoubtedly going to be a sticking point for many.