June 14, 2006

Game Dork

Murder by Death: "Hitman"

It's beautiful here at this suburban home. Birds chirp. A lawn weeps from being watered. A clown walks inside to entertain children at a birthday party. I am also strolling up the sidewalk, but to assassinate a man in the house — a guy in witness protection — with a knife, a bomb or a gun. My choice.

This is one of more than a dozen missions I will be paid a half-million each to carry out in "Hitman: Blood Money." I am not a nice person. But I am extraordinary at my vocation.

I've anticipated this game more than any other this year. "Hitman" titles are ultra violent in a face-to-face way, but they pose intricate and intellectual challenges, to sneak around and take out mean people. "Blood Money" is no disappointment.

I am a chrome-dome mercenary, an operative named with a number, 47, and described by others as "the bald killer clone." I'm the test-tube result of genetic tinkering.

Cities and other settings look good at first but become even more extravagant as the game moves on. In South America, I crack into a party on a huge estate scattered with armed guards, and I sneak through hallways and windows to find the owner of a winery and extinguish him while he's playing cello.

One of the great routines in the "Hitman" series is you are a chameleon of sorts. You knock out a waiter, for instance, or a villain's security guard and put on his clothes to go undercover. If you kill such non-essential targets, you hide their bodies in Dumpsters and dark corners. Correct, this is pretty vile.

But it's surprisingly addictive to track through a Mississippi mansion or a pornographer's grotto to complete a job, either as a top professional (killing only evil targets) or as a mass murderer (blasting away dozens of henchmen before getting to the villains themselves). The choice is with the gamer on which way to go.

Because video games are so often under attack for violence, there is some sympathy built into "Blood Money." In Paris, 47 must break into a rehearsal of Puccini's opera "Tosca" and shoot a tenor and an American ambassador, but only because those two guys are running a prostitution trafficking ring.

Where is it hardest to kill terrorists? Yep, in the security fortresses of Las Vegas casinos and the White House. In Vegas, terrorist types include a woman wearing only a thin ribbon, strategically placed, as she does cartwheels toward me, swinging sharp knives in her claws.

After each level, a local newspaper pops onto the screen detailing the carnage. The Vegas newspaper colorfully calls me "an experienced shooter of limited skill and dangerous enthusiasm."

That story sits next to another article headlined, "Lion mutilates 42 midgets in Cambodian ring-fight." That's a funny headline, but the game's message is clear: A hitman is bad, so much so that he's just another news item in a violent society of terrorists and home-grown criminals. That is one dark outlook, but it's the truth in many people's minds.

"Hitman: Blood Money" for Xbox 360, Xbox, PS 2 — Addictive. Looks great. Challenging to very challenging, depending on which setting you choose. Rated "M" for blood, strong language, use of drugs, partial nudity, sexual themes and intense violence. Four stars out of four.

(Ratings: "E" for "Everyone;" "T" for "Teen;" "M" for "Mature 17+")

New To You — Used Game Of The Week

With summer kid-movie fare out this year, it bears revisiting last year's movie-based, animated game "Madagascar" for Xbox, PS 2, and GCube. It's a playful, fun ride featuring zoo characters on the run, although the actors' voices are different than in the film.

It's not just a good recommendation for kids. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and loved the British-type penguins who slide on the ground. Since the game's been out a few seasons, it's selling in used stores for $15 and less. It's rated "E 10+" for cartoon violence and crude humor.

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