Creating a mainstream AAA hit in the games industry is tough. Whether you’re attempting to convert a niche series with an established audience of hardcore fans into a powerhouse franchise with mass appeal or hoping that a brand new IP will be the medium’s next runaway success, nothing is ever a sure thing.
In the case of the former, there are occasionally times when hindsight proves 20/20, where you can look back at the history of one of the medium’s success stories and pinpoint the exact moment when the seeds for its boom period were planted, whether those involved at the time knew it or not.
When it comes to the Hitman series, which has arguably only established itself among gaming’s elite in the years since its 2016 reboot, the foundations were laid all the way back in 2006.
Hitman: Blood Money is by no means an obscure or underappreciated classic, at least among long-time Hitman fans. Look at any of its store pages on PC and you’ll see overwhelmingly positive reviews posted relatively recently, some of which even argue Blood Money is superior to today’s critically acclaimed Hitman games. That’s high praise for a game that turned sixteen on May 26, and it’s what prompted me, a child whose only prior experience of the series came via the rebooted games, to finally give Blood Money a go.
The first thing that struck me upon firing it up was the soundtrack, with the orchestral tones of Ave Maria blasting through my stereo system. Despite possessing no nostalgic tie to it, I found myself agreeing with the older players’ preference of Blood Money’s grandiose Jesper Kyd score over the rebooted games’ more muted and brooding sound cues. In many ways, the bombastic symphony of Blood Money serves as a subtle early indication of the slight difference in tone between it and the modern games. While humour certainly is an aspect of the latter, with amusing costumes and weapons aplenty found in the arsenal of today’s Agent 47, the vast majority of the rebooted games’ levels and overarching plot points are steeped in unbreakable seriousness. On the other hand, Blood Money’s tone takes some pretty bizarre detours in between the weighty cutscenes that dispense its story beats.
From hunting down a group of would-be assassins dressed in bird costumes to infiltrating the quarters of a Hugh Hefner-inspired pornography magnate while dressed as Santa Claus, the road to Blood Money's conclusion is littered with surreal pitstops. That’s without even mentioning the game’s final two missions, which see 47 break into the White House to prevent the US President from being assassinated before literally rising from the dead in the game’s finale to take out the big baddie, who happens to be attending our bald friend’s funeral.
That said, despite its inclusion of levels featuring implied incest and some distastefully modelled female characters, Blood Money’s fairly serious central plot, about cloning and Agent 47’s past, ensures that it never feels too silly or stuck in the past. The result is a story that wouldn’t feel too out of place in a modern AAA game, especially given that, as the Grand Theft Auto series has proven via GTA V’s ascent into the most profitable entertainment product of all time, the presence of humorous and adult themes isn’t the barrier to mainstream success that it might have been perceived to be in the past.
Though, I’d argue the main aspect of Blood Money that makes it such an obvious harbinger of the series’ current success is the monumental overhaul it enacts on the gameplay established in the earlier releases. Ever disposed of a body, been warned by an AI guard while trespassing, or gotten away clean by making a target’s death look like an accident in a Hitman game? Well, all of these staple mechanics, in addition to several others, were originally introduced to the series by Blood Money. For me at least, features like these are an intrinsic part of any Hitman game’s identity - the ever-present furniture that together make the series’ offerings unique from anything else on the market.
They’re the reason that I, despite never having played a classic Hitman game, was able to adapt to Blood Money with relative ease. Sure, it took me a few levels to get used to not being able to use instinct to peek through walls and to acclimate myself to the fact that the slightly less fluid animations meant I couldn’t start disposing of a body five seconds before a guard walked past, but aside from those minor teething troubles, things were pretty much smooth sailing.
Given what this says about the game’s approachability, the changes made to the formula by Hitman: Absolution in the name of taking Hitman from niche to mainstream seem even more ill-advised in hindsight than they did to many at the time. By passing on the formula established in Blood Money in pursuit of mass appeal, publisher Square Enix set Hitman's natural growth back by years, leaving the eventual rewards on the table by not immediately iterating on Blood Money’s fun foundations.
Instead, Square Enix granted IO Interactive its independence in order to free up resources for Marvel games that it eventually declared “disappointing” and which seemingly played a part in the publisher cutting ties with many of its western studios earlier this year. Sure, predicting all of these future events back when Hitman: Absolution was just hitting the drawing boards would have been an impossible task, but they sure must make for an infuriating history lesson if you’re a modern Square Enix executive.
This is why I’d argue that, as it celebrates its sixteenth birthday, Hitman: Blood Money’s legacy is best defined by the lessons it can teach those in industry management desperately looking for ways to create gaming’s next mainstream hit. Sure, you can add extra zeros to the budget of a niche sensation’s upcoming entry and order the devs to mimic what players seem to like in other current successes, but if you cut out the game’s heart and soul in the process, the series as a whole could well lose its way. This isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but in the case of Hitman, I’d argue that this approach made the road to achieving the franchise’s full potential far longer than it could and should have been.