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Hitman: Blood Money

The newest Hitman incarnation proves that Agent 47 is still one of Xbox's darkest and coolest heroes

"I'd like to place an order" is the first significant piece of dialogue in this new Hitman game. You are Agent 47, the troublefixer who sorts out the kind of problems not covered by your local council.

You are a hitman, funnily enough, using stealth, binoculars, stolen clothes and special strangling wires to silently hack away at the necks of your victims. Oh, and in a first for the Hitman series, you're now in America.

You're out to get the 'Swing King' in your first mission, a bad man responsible for untold health and safety infringements - that lead to a few unfortunate deaths. The f-word then makes an appearance, as does Agent 47's serious manner, manly walk and no-nonsense attitude toward causing death. And it's hard. This is a grown-up game for people who want to think about how to get from A to B. But first, you've got to decide how much you want to suffer while playing it.

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The difficulty setting you pick at the start of each mission really makes a difference to how you play Hitman: Blood Money. A huge difference. For research purposes only, you understand, we set the game to Rookie - the easiest setting - and had a go. It's pretty damn pointless. Guards you're supposed to sneak by in a stealthy fashion simply ignore you, with Agent 47 able to stroll past them in broad daylight without them even breaking their clichéd gangsta conversations.

If you start shooting they die with one hit, then you can run away and hide until everyone else forgets about the murders they've just witnessed and goes about their normal business after a few minutes. So don't play it on Rookie. That's like buying a Porsche and only driving it in reverse.

Up the difficulty a notch to Normal and they'll bust your arse into bite-size chunks even if you're holding down the left trigger and trying to sneak. It's suddenly ten times harder and like a proper Hitman game. Only the elderly and infirm should bother with Rookie. On top of this comes Expert and Pro settings, each of which further enhances the challenge and brains of your enemies.

Blood Money also ups the toughness by including its new Notoriety system. Notoriety works by charting how aware the enemies are of you and your work. Leave more of a trail and get spotted and your Notoriety grows, making the bad guys more aware of your presence. Each mission has several different end sequences depending on how you got through it, with bigger cash rewards coming your way if you manage to keep yourself off the front page and remain mysterious.

So you need to work on staying hidden. And that's the greatest appeal of the Hitman games. Sneaking around enemies while wearing a lab uniform, security guard costume or doctor outfit is something you don't often get to do. It works here and it's a laugh. You're worried about getting caught at every turn, you're walking slowly through buildings past people with big guns, hoping no one busts you. In every level. It's great.

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If you do get busted, the resulting events depend on your difficulty setting. On Rookie, guards will gradually reset themselves, taking up their original positions or maybe hanging around a slightly different area and paying a bit more attention to what's happening. The thing is, it's not game over as soon as you're spotted. Play it on something above Rookie, mind, and you're up Trouble Creek without an excuse.

You soon get to understand Hitman's hierarchy system and start automatically seeking out a better uniform to help you keep hidden and stop enemies noticing the bald killer in their midst. It happens in most missions. Nicking superior uniforms from dead guys lets you walk into the next area, better clothes mean you're safe to stroll through the next set of brainier guards and so on. It's a Hitman game, and that's what you do.

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