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Retro: Hitman Blood Money

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This is a revised version of a piece I wrote last year for PC Gamer UK.

There’s something on my mind. This being a Hitman retrospective you might think that thing would be murder, but actually it’s the nature of puzzles. You see, it seems to me that each level of a Hitman game isn’t merely a set of rooms full of enemies to be killed or out-sneaked, but rather a kind of multi-solution puzzle. Hitman is more like “Rubik’s Murder Sim” than it is like part of the linear of dude-shooting action games. If a puzzle is “a toy, problem, or other contrivance designed to amuse by presenting difficulties to be solved by ingenuity or patient effort”, as my dictionary claims, then Hitman’s missions truly are nothing more than puzzles. You don’t need railgun twitch skills to feel supremely confident about your Hitman abilities.
So, this is a game less about the act of running, gunning, or even sneaking and strangling. The grisly excitement of electronically simulated violence is of secondary importance here. Indeed, it’s more about not causing a commotion in an extremely volatile situation. Murdering a porn baron and his son in their palace, or killing a gang of thugs on their Mississippi steamer – these might seem like standard shooter missions, but the environments in which they take place are not your average deathmatch escapades. Often, all you’ll have in your armory is a garotte and a syringe. And soon you’ll admit that quiet strangulation or poisoning is always better than the indelicate application of a shotgun. Bombs having their uses, but I’d rather use a silenced pistol. Keep things quiet, and the puzzle unravels. Cause upset, and toying with this deathtrap becomes ever more convoluted, until there’s no way out for you.

There’s only so many times you can make a wrong move in Agent 47’s world, and you can’t expect to be able to kill all the guards. That said, this is the most lenient of assassination games, and making a wrong move is often the best thing you can do: you get to see exactly how things come apart, and often collapse your house of cards into a quagmire of slapstick slaughter. Hitman is a game in which the need to replay a segment of time isn’t simply a denouncement of your failure, but the gradual, careful examination of the possibilities, the parameters of your perfect kill. Playing Blood Money is more like scientific method than arcade foolery.

Blood Money, above all the other Hitman games, seems to have grasped what it is that is that makes a good puzzle. Not all of the levels quite hit their mark, either, and some are far too easy: but occasionally there’s a glimpse of unmitigated brilliance, and usually there’s something outrageously and obscurely imaginative in every level. Whatever their scenario they are simultaneously a problematic situation, and a toolbox containing all you need to fix it. The science of murder is all about meticulous design.

Take, for example, the carnival level, in which you must protect a canvassing politician from assassins. Assassins dressed as chickens. You might think they stand out in a crowd but as it happens, Blood Money’s crowd – the most realistic I’ve ever seen in a videogame – is full of folks with chicken hats. It’s kind of a carnival theme. Suddenly the silly puzzle becomes a little trickier. Can you keep track of your target? More than that, can you stay out of sight? You’re now faced with getting people alone, in a situation where there are potentially hundreds of witnesses. Best dress as a chicken, eh?

Then there’s the sanitarium. There are so many ways into this that the challenge isn’t so much technical as temporal. It simply becomes one of monitoring the patient’s habits and waiting for the time to strike. The obvious way in is to simply become admitted as a patient, but you could just as easily pick a lock on a side door, murder a guard, and use his identity to get through the building. Smuggling your agent buddy out of there can be a little tricky, but if it comes to the worst you can usually shoot your way out. Not that you’d want to, of course. Guns really are the most unsophisticated solution.

Or how about that visit to the opera? Killing someone on stage doesn’t seem like the wisest option, but if you pick up the antique pistol left for you at reception, you’ll realise that you can take the shot to time with a blank fired in the play. But then how do you kill the second mark when he’s still surrounded by bodyguards? There’s the sniper option, of course, but once the guy is down, how will you make your escape? One disguise is never quite enough. One decision never quite a solution…

Then again, some of Blood Money’s levels are a little too easy, and it’s ultimately up to you to find ways to make them interesting. Take the redneck wedding: you can easily steal a disguise and an invitation, and kill both the father and the groom, within about two minutes of starting out. But that’s clearly too easy: would you really be playing the game if you did that? Would you really be an artisan, a master of the puzzle? There are so many options: the remote mine, the wedding present, the dogs, the sniper rifle secreted in nearby buildings… The possibility space is delectable.

Blood Money is, like all the great puzzle games, about bettering yourself. You’re not just completing the game, you’re doing so with style. Also, as if you needed another reason to go back and dig out Blood Money, there is no other game to which, while playing, you can respond to the question “what are you up to?” with the answer: “I’m waiting on the sidewalk until the clown comes out of the house. Then I’ll strangle him, put on his clothes, and put him in the boot of his own van.” At which point your girlfriend leaves your cup to tea and backs away rather too quietly. No sudden moves…

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Jim Rossignol

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