Copenhagen-based IO Interactive only had to make one Hitman game to prove the concept’s potential, and two to make it a commercial success. But it took three slightly confused iterations before its promise was completely fulfilled with the fourth, Hitman: Blood Money. The series only improved incrementally, but when its strengths hit critical mass, the difference was profound.
The fact that the studio had four opportunities to get Hitman right was a function of its intrinsic appeal: for every pundit condemning games as murder simulators, there are 10,000 bloodthirsty customers wishing they were. Hitman is, and even when only a handful of its levels have anything to do with that concept (as in the first game), it’s enough.
The first level of the original, released as a demo, established the template. A few streets, a park and a suitcase sniper rifle. The targets arrive by limousine and meet at a predetermined time. The rest is a simulator: anyone can be killed; any set of clothes is a potential disguise; guards react to suspicious behaviour; and any witness will run for help.
Ironically, killing is about the only part of the equation that isn’t especially interesting. The experience of not being shot at was a new one, and is still refreshing today. Until you attack, you’re free to roam the area of operation, observe routines and plan an approach. It gives the breathing room required to inspire creative play.
That was true of the first mission, but not of many others in the original game. By the time it had you sprinting through a poorly rendered jungle with an M60, still wearing your suit and tie as you mowed down soldiers and searched for a tribal artefact, the game seemed to have completely lost track of what it was trying to do.
Even as late as the third game, Contracts, too many missions took place in restricted areas, giving you no time or space to plan an approach. It reduced the formula to a more traditional protagonist-vs-enemies relationship, rather than a network of individually intelligent agents. Blood Money saw it all finally click together. Whether by serendipity or a conscious design decision on the part of IO, nearly every level in the game gives you a generous public area to start in, undisguised, to reconnoitre your objectives and plan your attack. Even when your target is the Vice President of the United States and your hunting ground is the White House, a public tour lets you case the mission area unharassed.
Some of the series’ most creative tactics arise naturally from its various systems, and others are specifically hard-coded to work. The latter usually revolve around poisoning something or fitting a bomb to it – both special options only available in the intended spot. They amount to a puzzle solution for each mission: figure out where you’re supposed to use this special element and you’ll be rewarded with a clean kill.
Blood Money rejects that template in two ways. First, most of the previously scripted solutions became standardised tools and usable anywhere. You bring poison, sedatives and remotely triggered explosives to every mission. The former can be applied to any food or drink, and the latter can be fixed to any flat surface.