The Player

by Marty Demarest & r & & r & Hitman: Blood Money Rated Mature 17+; Mac, PC, PS2, Xbox, 36 & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he waiter's white jacket is a blank in the crowd of jiggling Santa's helpers and black-tuxedoed old men. Working the Christmas Eve party at a porn king's Rocky Mountain retreat has taught the server discretion. He sets an empty cocktail glass on the bar -- very near -- then turns away. Outside on the deck, a rich kid half-immersed in a shimmering hot tub slaps his girlfriend. "I'm not in the mood, bitch!" he shouts, calling for another drink. The glass leaves the bar, taking an aphrodisiac along. A few minutes later, the couple decides to look for an unoccupied room. Just before their throats are slit, they walk down a hallway, past a waterfall behind which their bodies will be discovered long after I am gone.

I stalk through the dark baker's dozen of levels in Hitman: Blood Money with one purpose: murder. There is always a target. Backstage at the Paris Opera House, a prop German pistol was replaced with a real one, and a singer was killed during rehearsals. I was watching from the back of the house with the rest of the tourists. Jobs like that, that newspapers can report as accidental, bringing in more money. More money buys better guns. Lovingly modeled in 3D, they can be collected, customized and viewed, the television screen slowly slipping into the barrel's black well. But their main purpose arrives when the computerized citizens around me realize I'm an assassin. Then it's time to haul out the trick hardware. The new short-barreled shotgun that I brought as a gift to a bayou wedding came in particularly handy when I had to back into the bride's bathroom and blast bloody holes in the stomach of one redneck gangsta after another as they rounded the corner.

Once I watched a drug lord play the cello. Apparently he hadn't heard about the massacre across his yard. So he settled into J.S. Bach's G Major suite. I watched him for a few minutes from inside a closet. He played thoughtfully, ducking and weaving his head, only occasionally looking at the waterfall outside his window. During a lull, I stepped out and strangled him. Like most of the automated individuals in Blood Money, his routine contains a point at which I am able to slip in unnoticed, remove his life, then vanish. And if someone catches me, like a woman once did in Vegas -- dropping to her knees in her pleated green skirt and crying about her children -- well, that's why it's called blood money.

THE GOOD: Hitman: Blood Money makes longer games look meager in terms of storytelling. The cut scenes feature dramatic cinematography and editing. The in-game levels are murderous contraptions full of virtual lives. But most satisfying is Blood Money's final chapter. It's one of the best videogame endings in years.

THE BAD: Enemy guards will attack without reason. Or they might ignore me while I walk through their bodies. At the hardest levels, one error and they're all over me like ghosts on Pac-Man. Inelegant programming like this turns several of the trickier levels into monotonous massacres.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Hitman is a swift, sinisterly satisfying assassination simulation with the best criminal storyline in months.