How do you keep things fresh after tinkering with the same game the last eighteen years? Well, for starters, by keeping what works and not breaking it. Add more of the good stuff and refine it in the process. The first Hitman by the Danish IO Interactive came out when the new millennium had just broken, and introduced the word’s best assassin, Agent 47: a towering, bald and composed figure with a barcode tattooed on back of his head, reminding of his origins of being born into the life of a professional killer. A man of few words, his actions spoke for themselves - he never misses his target.
Many sequels followed, most of them hits but some misses along the way, too, until the series was reborn for the current platforms. Hitman 2 is basically a second season for the game that was published two years ago. It features the same cool and thrilling stealth action that takes place in exotic and exciting locations around the world. The game may look and feel familiar but again, it’s refined further. Only this time, missions are available all at once and not released in an episodic manner.
In many ways, Hitman 2 has a timeless tone to it. IO Interactive, now under WB Games after Square Enix unglamorously abandoned them, hasn’t cared for what is considered hip in the gaming today. Instead, they have focused on doing what they can do best. Before open world became a thing, there used to be so-called sandbox games. In those, players were given several tools and rules to approach content within restricted areas, leading to an open-ended gameplay. Hitman 2 is exactly like that, a sandbox game at its absolute best. The player is given all the freedom and versatility in the game’s six maps to execute mission targets.
The tagline for the game is “make the world your weapon”. Indeed. While it’s easy to waltz down the streets and buildings in a third-person view and pop people with a silenced pistol, it carries you only so far and is only a fraction of what’s possible to do. Besides, a basic performance won’t rate very good. There are online leaderboards for every mission and you don’t want to look like a sucker in them. Instead, you can take advantage of everything the environments offer. Make distractions, rig electronic devices, arrange accidents, bluff you way into events and restricted areas and so on. After all, the world is your weapon and more so, it lives around you. Random things can happen as people go about their routines, leaving you to observe, stalk, and bide your time until the prey is caught. To rewrite a common phrase; an opportunity makes a murderer.
Disguises play a big part in any successful run. While the game has a hardcore challenge to achieve everything in Agent 47’s signature suit, donning different outfits takes you into places where you shouldn’t be. Do something suspicious in front of other people, like break a door, poison a drink, or hit someone, and you’re compromised, no matter what attire you’re wearing. Then, it’s wise to move fast and knock out another person whose outfit will serve you better in the next situation. A tourist looks out of place in a construction yard while a worker blends nicely in. A simple security guard can pass some doors but has no business in VIP areas while a man in black has. Choose wisely and remember to hide unconscious people (or bodies, if you do it the hard way) you stole the clothes from. Nothing hurts more than having meticulously wormed your way into, say, a cocktail party, only having an alarm break off when a body is found. It’s not a game over (unless you’re peppered to death), you just have to adjust your plan accordingly and conform to new opportunities. After all, it’s a living sandbox with events, consequences and – of course – unforeseen incidents.
Mission stories within contracts offer prescripted ways to approach targets. Happen to eavesdrop a conversation and you may pursue a mission story, like taking an identity of a celebrity tattoo artist who has an appointment with a drug lord - your target - to decorate his neck with a picture of his wife. Often, mission stories are lighthearted even though they result in most macabre manners. Each mission also has a ton of different challenges and feats, such as killing all targets with electricity, dropping a statue on an unsuspecting victim or going Norman Bates and take a knife to a shower. Some of the feats, challenges and mission stories obviously rule each other out because you can kill your targets only once per mission. All this amounts to an immense replay value. Exploring and completing missions also unlock mastery levels in them, creating new points of entry and different stashes around the map where you can smuggle a critical item. For example, completing the mission in Miami unlocks a chance to smuggle in a suitcase containing a sniper rifle needed to shoot a race car off the track with, a feat that’s impossible at the first go when such a weapon isn’t available at all.
Whatever you do, it adds to (or detracts from) the overall score. The more efficient and creative you are, taking advantage of different feats and challenges (you can browse them beforehand for spoilers), all the while minimizing collateral damage, result in score multipliers. Still, intimidating as the role of the world’s best assassins might sound, it’s easy to get into the game as it doesn’t take impossible accomplishments to make it through it. Common sense carries you far. Just think what you would do for real in given situations. For example, it’s easier to shake off pursuers when you scamper between rooms and corridors, run up and down stairs, climb out the windows, and blend in with the people. Of course, there’s a hardcore side to the game as well if you fancy becoming a perfect hitman, and a bunch of classic, hard to achieve challenges measure just that. Even so, sometimes it’s fun to just mess around, especially when the gunplay and melee action pack a real punch.
A big part of the immersion Hitman 2 evokes comes from its convincing venues. Be it a Columbian shantytown, swarming back streets of Mumbai or a pleasant, North American suburbs, they look like places that are real and lived-in. The previous Hitman already had busy gatherings but a new technology has allowed for high-fidelity crowds to add an extra layer of realism. It’s as easy to get lost in the crowds as it’s to alert their attention. The more people there are around you, the harder it is to act innocent when you’re about to do something shady. Overall, the visual quality is high with elaborate and convincing sets. The game even plays with its ability to display numerous dynamic reflections at once for a great effect. Technically, Hitman 2 is pretty flawless, offering either unlocked or locked frame rate which doesn’t take visible hits even in busiest scenes.
Six locations don’t sound like much but they’re meant to be played over and again as one playthrough of each show only so much of them. There are places to be and events to attend you didn’t even know there were when you return to the scenes and follow different mission plans. Improvisation is a big key in re-enjoying the game, and adding to the challenge, you can also disable navigational help and go blind for a full immersion. At first, it may be frustrating that Agent 47 still moves rather slowly, even when running, and is somewhat stiff in his actions. However, if he were nimble as a squirrel, the game wouldn’t be Hitman anymore but more like Assassin’s Creed. Stoic demeanor and sharp, recognizable looks are so iconic to the series that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The story is told through animated still pictures and voice overs between missions, lifting the veil of secrecy over Agent 47’s origins and his handler Diana’s past but once again, only slightly. It’s all preparing for more story revelations and missions in the two forthcoming expansions packs. Also, there will be Elusive Target contracts that run only for a limited time. The first one, aptly named The Undying for featuring Sean Bean, is due out shortly. Additionally, a Legacy Pack converts missions from the previous season, including the bonus episode Patient Zero, to the improved game mechanics and looks. User-created contracts extend the game’s life too (it’s easy as playing the mission and tagging NPCs to make them) though they aren’t as elaborate as the featured missions. A two-player online Ghost Mode, where you compete over killing most targets, feels like an afterthought to appease net addicted gamers. Either it wasn’t available during the review period or other reviewers were just too coy to challenge anyone as I couldn’t find opponents.
Hitman 2 caters for all kind of virtual killers, from bulls stuck in a china shop to meticulous murder artists, thanks to a flexible and versatile sandbox wrapped in aesthetic I can only describe as Nordic cool. New high-fidelity crowds work wonders in creating an immersive atmosphere, too. The best part, though, is that unlike most big titles today, Hitman 2 doesn’t forget for a second that it’s a video game. Even though common sense is a helping hand in everything you can do, it conforms to video game laws and mechanics. Causes and effects are, of course, exaggerated, and rightly so. This is a video game and not a real-life crash course in the art of assassination. The lingering black humor relieves the dark subject matter (Agent 47’s deadpan delivery in disguises is so tip-top!) and no matter what, you can’t help but summon that sadistic smile you’ve been trying to hide. Granted, Hitman 2 doesn’t do much differently than the first season but it doesn’t even need to - it’s just so cool.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.