Thursday, April 15, 2021

Hitman: Blood Money (Xbox)

Among the original Hitman games, Hitman: Blood Money is usually considered the best one by both critics and players due to how much it advanced the series’ gameplay. Blood Money’s gameplay remained so iconic, in fact, that the World of Assassination Trilogy took what that game did and refined it even further until Hitman 3 arguably topped it. Although the game was available on the Xbox 360 at launch, I ended up playing it directly after Contracts through the lesser-known Xbox version, which still gave me a good idea of why Blood Money had developed such a reputation. In fact, considering the lengthy development period, which included releasing Contracts to buy more time, I actually agree with it, even if it feels just a little clunky.

Compared to previous Hitman games, Blood Money tells two stories at the same time through a framing device. In the frame story, American journalist Rick Henderson visits the estate of former FBI Director Alexander Leland "Jack" Cayne for an interview about a recent attack on the White House. Not long into their meeting, however, Cayne reveals that the interview was a ruse to give Henderson a much bigger story concerning the elusive Agent 47. As Cayne gives the story to Henderson, we see Agent 47 taking on various contracts across the United States while the ICA is targeted by a rival organization called “the Franchise”, who have infiltrated the ICA and started killing field agents in pursuit of 47.

While this storyline doesn’t have the same emotional core as Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, where 47 took on contracts to find his only friend, Blood Money’s storyline is still engaging for how it shows 47’s actions from two distinct perspectives. 47 and Diana’s increasing desperation to get away from the Franchise is evident between cutscenes while successive twists help make different parts of the story and gameplay more memorable. In fact, the basic premise for 47’s portion of the story would be reused and fleshed out in the World of Assassination Trilogy, though those games would execute it differently and lead to their own highly memorable moments. It was also interesting to finally get the context for the events of Hitman: Contracts, especially since one could conceivably play Contracts between the missions Curtains Down and Flatline if they were playing the games in chronological order. The game’s final mission, Requiem, also ties the gameplay and story together in a unique and very memorable way.

Though I don’t really have any complaints about Blood Money’s story apart from presenting 47 more coldly, I did notice that Mark Parchezzi III is almost a wasted character. The beginning of the game and some promotional images highlight him as a rival for 47 and a mission briefing goes into further details of his rather interesting backstory, but he’s encountered in only one mission, Amendment XXV, and isn’t explored much further. If he had more of a presence within 47’s story, like occasionally appearing in more cutscenes, then he might have more staying power.

Promo images make Mark Parchezzi III (left) look
like more of a rival to Agent 47 (right) than he really is.

Alongside its interesting story, Blood Money further advances the gameplay systems of the Hitman series into its most recognizable form. Each of the twelve missions, after the tutorial, is presented as more of a sandbox where 47 can approach any of his Targets in a wider variety of ways thanks to newly introduced gameplay systems. 47 can now climb certain obstacles for traversal and has a much better time fighting enemies with unarmed combat, which can also let him disarm the enemy and steal the weapon they’re holding. Additionally, the game added improvised melee weapons, though melee combat won’t really come up if you’re sneaky enough.

Sneaking around and achieving Silent Assassin rank are made easier with much needed tweaks and additional systems like strangling people from elevator emergency hatches. Crouching and sneaking are combined into one action, which, along with a faster sneaking speed, makes it easier than the previous games for 47 to get in close and kill or sedate people. Speaking of sedation, the Sedative Syringe can now carry two shots default, but you can’t obtain any additional shots in a level, which ordinarily means that you have to plan out the two people you’ll knock out. However, a new mechanic lets 47 use someone as a human shield as long as he’s holding a weapon. This mechanic also lets 47 knock out, not kill, the people he’s holding onto, allowing for potentially infinite sedations. It helps, of course, that anyone you knock out will remain that way for the entire mission with no threat of waking up and raising alarm. For additional assistance in keeping your suspicion down, you can also now hide bodies in containers, but only one per container, and hide yourself in closets and cabinets.

Further freedom comes from the addition of the then-robust accident system, which lets 47 kill targets without raising as much suspicion. For example, you can set a gas grill to explode when it’s turned on, pushing people off balconies or even one of my favorite moves, replace a prop gun with a real one. I loved the amount of freedom provided through this system, since I got me thinking about levels in new ways and made me want to immediately go back and try new methods for killing Targets.

Accidents also prevent non-Target kills from counting against you.

After an absence from two games, Blood Money reintroduces a cash system that lets 47 upgrade his equipment and custom weapons that help facilitate a player’s individual playstyle, with cash rewarded based on performance. This acts as a great incentive to do well, but also ties into a new Notoriety system that affects 47’s visibility between levels. 47 can lower his Notoriety during a mission by stealing CCTV tapes or eliminating witnesses, but he can also lower it further by spending his hard-earned cash for post-mission bribes that lower his Notoriety a certain amount. Considering that the AI can perform actions like following blood trails, this system also incentivizes keeping it clean and presents a good balance between saving cash for upgrades or covering up their mistakes. Also notable is how the AI will now give 47 a warning if he accidentally wanders into a restricted area, though this isn’t a guarantee.

One of Blood Money’s more interesting concepts is the presentation of mission rankings. After you receive your normal ranking and settle any bribes, you’re shown the front page of a newspaper. Not only can you actually read the articles on the front page, as well as some hilarious ads and keep track of weather and US Presidential votes, the main article will actually alter its headline and exact text based on your ranking and performance. On top of this, the newspaper can also depict an increasingly detailed sketch of 47’s face as a representation of his Notoriety level. I haven’t really seen such a creative visualization of your performance in other games and now I wish more did, since it can encourage multiple replays just to see what text will show up.

One example of the post-mission newspaper.

As for the game’s difficulty, it’s overall easier than Contracts, itself already easier than Silent Assassin, thanks to its gameplay improvements and generally more forgiving timing windows for certain kills (they’ll repeatedly practice the execution scene in Curtains Down for instance). For those who aren’t as skilled at stealth games or just want even more room to play around, a new Casual difficulty lowers the overall difficulty of the game and allows for infinite saves during missions. Though that means there’s less weight put into the decision of when you should save, if at all, it’s useful for those who want to play around with less stress or want to try out different strategies before increasing the difficulty later.

Compared to its predecessors, Blood Money has stunning visuals, even on the original Xbox. The Xbox version may not have the same lighting as its next-gen counterpart, but the graphics are still an improvement over the previous games, with better character models and more environmental detail. I also found the framerate pretty consistent, though it admittedly looks slower during the tutorial, and the crowd sizes in some levels still impress.

Like the story, I didn’t have too many complaints about the gameplay and presentation, though they are there. Since I played the World of Assassination Trilogy first, it felt odd that 47 couldn’t disguise himself as someone he had hidden in a container, which immediately limits disguise options. I also found climbing through windows a little touchy, since I sometimes couldn’t do it while already in motion, but had to instead stop directly in front of the window and then press forward on the left analog stick again. For another World of Assassination comparison, the picture-in-picture felt more intrusive in Blood Money, since it takes up a third of the screen instead of a small box in the corner, made worse by how you can’t control when or if it happens. On top of that, the tutorial also misrepresents the game a little, since it encourages forgoing stealth and conditions you to expect hints to pop up during a level (as opposed to buying intel). As for the graphics, the only real issue came from the occasional minor clipping.

The picture-in-picture is pretty intrusive.

As with previous games, the voice acting has improved, with Vivienne McKee’s best work in her final performance as Diana Burnwood and another strong performance from David Bateson. For his final score for the Hitman series, Jesper Kyd also shows the range of his talents, with a mature orchestral flavor that mixes well with his use of electronic sound and helps each location stand out from one another.

Although it originally released back in 2006, Blood Money’s story and gameplay have held up surprisingly well after 15 years and is easily the best of the original games. If you can get past some of the clunky aspects, or if you choose to view it as the foundation of the World of Assassination Trilogy, then this game can easily keep you entertained for hours on end.

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