Considering Blood Money's protagonist is an ethic-free, slapheaded killing machine, it's remarkable how easy-going the guy is. We hesitate to use the term "sandbox gameplay" to describe the sort of freewheeling experience you can expect from the fourth Hitman game, but it fits. Comparing Agent 47 to a kids' play area might seem morally flawed, but the sheer variety of ways to kill your targets is absolutely staggering.
It's a massive improvement on the last game, Hitman: Contracts, which was lenient to the point where stealth - Agent 47's main method of operation and the grounding for the whole Hitman series - was almost an optional extra. By taking the easy option and going all-out guns blazing much of the nefarious scheming was bypassed and the best bits of the game - which mainly involved pulling off intricate murders - you didn't have to bother with.
Subtlety is now key to everything in Blood Money. Rather than completely gutting what's gone before and starting again from scratch, developer IO Interactive has created a game which rediscovers the rich form that made Hitman so popular in the first place. A slight touch-up here, some considerable polishing there, and the result is a truly well-rounded stealth experience.
LOOKING GOOD, 47
A first, cursory play would probably make you think we're talking out of our bare behinds. There's hardly anything to differentiate Blood Money from previous games. It looks great - the best yet in fact. Blood Money's levels are truly atmospheric courtesy of some brilliant visuals: the Parisian opera house flits between crowded, vibrant foyers and shadowy behind-the-scenes hallways; the Las Vegas level is possibly the most accurate portrayal of the city yet seen in a game; while the job that takes you to a porn baron's Christmas party captures the feeling of festive warmth so well you'll genuinely feel like Santa's crossing you off his delivery list when you fulfil your contractual obligation.
But it's when you spend a little more time getting to know each level that the game really starts to stretch its legs. Pressing the limits of where you can and can't go without a disguise and looking for breaches in security guard patrol patterns soon becomes second nature. It all becomes part of a giant, immaculately presented puzzle with you in the middle, leisurely trying to crack it.
When a plan of action has been decided on, Blood Money hits its stride and suddenly the whole game starts to feel like a proper evolution for the series. Likely looking tools and entry points are dotted around levels, and there's plenty of individualistic behaviour from various workmen, tourists, chefs and so on which 47 can imitate and use to slip into a target's inner confines unnoticed. A disguise doesn't guarantee invisibility, mind - start waving a silenced pistol around in a set of chef whites and people will suddenly realize 47 might not be such a culinary hotshot after all. Fail to listen to a bodyguard's warning to leave a restricted area and he'll soon lose his temper or call in the heavies to manhandle you out of whatever building you're attempting to loiter around.
The feeling that you're working among sharp-eyed security experts rather than trigger happy goons is palpable. Agent 47 is regularly searched if he's entering a particularly sensitive area; one instance sees him disguised as a lab technician about to enter a cocaine factory. He has a metal detector run over him by the guard at the door, but he won't bother checking the crate of baking he's carrying - perfect for hiding a pistol in. Guards notice more and are quicker to respond to your cackhandedness, and as a result the game is mighty challenging on the higher difficulty settings. A new suspicion meter beside the health bar acts as a measure of stealth - if it stays in the green, 47 is going about his dirty business unnoticed, but if it starts rocketing towards the red, well, bad things start to happen.