Two years ago IO Interactive rebooted everyone’s favourite bald assassin simulator and all was good in the high value world of spies, subterfuge and criminal enterprise. After a bit of a rocky start, they proved the episodic model could work and that it was a perfectly suitable fit for Agent 47’s story, and then went on to provide stellar support for over 18 months from the release. Now, after IO bought themselves back from Square Enix, aligned themselves with Warner Bros for publishing, and ditched the slow drip chapter release, we’ve got Hitman 2. Do the changes manage to improve on the already great series and finally bring the concept of the world of assassination to life?
Picking up immediately after the events of the last game, Hitman 2 teams up Agent 47 with Diana Burnwood again to continue their hunt for the Shadow Client and the elimination of the well placed individuals that control all that happens in their respective worlds. Starting the search at an isolated house on a New Zealand beach, they finally discover the identity of the mysterious individual who’s been pulling the strings and begin to track them down through the systematic removal of key players across the globe, each with key pieces of intel that link to the next location. Miami, Colombia, Mumbai, the USA all feature in sandbox levels designed to challenge and delight with the complexity and opportunity on offer. They’re not huge open worlds that need hours to traverse, they’re more compact and refined playgrounds that encourage replay, experimentation and improvisation when inevitably everything goes south.
Gameplay hasn’t changed in the last couple of years, the Glacier 2 engine still powers the action and provides some of the finest visuals seen in any current gen title. The premise is to enter a level, locate a target, take them out without anyone noticing, and get out of there in one piece. Because of the free form structure, 47’s success depends on blending and being part of the environment, and getting the player to believe that they’re having an impact on events means having all the details right. AI behaviours, visual clues, and snippets of conversation all contribute to building something believable that pulls you into the right mindset as well as giving you the requisite tools to deal with most situations. If this isn’t a skill that comes naturally to the player then the opportunity system makes a return that guides them through each step of a scripted scenario that results in a target losing their life. But beware, that support crutch gets reduced further into Hitman 2.
Arguably the best thing about these games is the ability to do things whichever way feels right. It’s a true sandbox environment where every part oozes potential for causing harm, and that’s been amped up in Hitman 2 with almost everything being lethal. Spending time learning the layout and seeing what goes on where and when is key to solving the puzzles of how to get to each target, but that doesn’t necessarily reveal the best way to eliminate them, or what consequence it’s going to have. There’s a domino effect in play where one move can open up a series of opportunities, and in most cases this is tied to a disguise and a scenario that’s building up part of the story. This doesn’t mean there are only set pieces that can be played out, even though newcomers might see it like that. The beauty is in the nuance of the scenario and the replayability that comes from the sheer freedom of approach that not many other games manage to capture.
The scripted elements are very well done, but you haven’t experienced how rewarding it can be until you break away from that and plan things from scratch. Aiming to complete the mastery challenges for each level helps by providing specific activities to go for, or gives clues to what might be possible, and pulling all the learnings together suddenly opens up an entirely new way of looking at things. Distracting witnesses with thrown coins is a common technique, yet essential to a smooth operation, and being quick and decisive is almost as important as avoiding the enforcers who roam the levels and can see through Agent 47’s various outfits. For instance, non-lethal takedowns are available all the time using the trusty neck grab, but it takes time to subdue a victim. Carry a wrench and it’s job done in seconds meaning being able to operate in tighter time constraints. This is of course if you care about scores at the end – if it’s carnage you’re after then it’s carnage you’ll get.
As with the last game, the mastery is linked to unlocking a whole host of weaponry which can support a silent assassin, or a deranged slayer. The choice of what to take in is yours once they’re available and then it’s only imagination that’s the limiting factor. With the return of the briefcase to stash the larger and more conspicuous firearms, and a raft of upgrades to existing kit, there’s a huge amount of choice to stash in the mission. Being more prepared means more flexibility, and this is where Hitman 2 really shines. In those moments where you think you’ve got everything lined up and the unexpected happens, having a contingency plan or a bit of quick thinking is essential to prevent a bloodbath (usually 47’s own). There’s some leeway in how quickly it goes tits up – there’s no instant fail, but there’s not a huge amount of time to get out of sight or drop the person that’s spotted 47 committing a crime. Getting through these instances successfully gives an adrenaline rush, it sets the heart pounding and there’s a slight paranoia left over afterwards that makes you doubly suspicious of each subsequent encounter.
Once every location is mastered and you’ve uncovered all the callbacks to previous games and story threads – I particularly liked the Hippy from Paris cropping up with the Delgado family in Colombia – there’s an almost infinite amount of content in the contracts and escalation modes. The user generated content asks players to wander into a level, pick a target (any target at all), execute them in whatever fashion feels right, then challenge others to do the same and beat your score. Currently filled with lots of high score trophy bids, the curated featured section is where the best ones can be found. Escalations are like contracts crossed with Simon Says… complete the first target and a second is added for the next run through, and so on up to a maximum of five. Taking the same approach for each repeated level works up to a point, though things are switched up with random conditions thrown into the mix and no attempt ever feels the same.
Elusive targets will start again too on the 20th November with the frankly inspired choice of Sean Bean playing “The Undying” Mark Faba. These timed events were one of the most unique features in the last game, and add a huge amount of longevity. Without the monthly drop of a level this time around, these are very likely to be the hook that keeps the players coming back. That does lead to the point that might well be the drawback of this iteration though. With six levels, no matter how detailed and playable, it’s entirely possible to “finish” Hitman 2 in about 5 hours. However, that’s missing the point entirely and IO seem to have learned a few lessons on that with regular prompts letting you know why you should head back into a level and attempt the kill in a different way, as well as rewarding well for the effort.
New to the series are two multiplayer modes – Sniper Assassin and Ghost modes. The first is the pre-order bonus level that has a team of two ICA recruits sniping targets in a brilliantly realised chateau from a cliff side. Co-operation and communication is essential in order to trouble the leaderboards, and is highly satisfying when it all comes together. Ghost mode takes place in the standard Hitman 2 levels and is a competitive mode where two players are assigned the same target and race to take them out the quickest, and with no witnesses. The twist is that each player sees the opponent as a ghost only and can’t interfere with their assassination. What results is a surprisingly fast paced and tense blast in a way that the game isn’t usually played. Death isn’t a worry here, getting gunned down just means a respawn elsewhere, but it does strip away precious time needed to get to the target.
Interestingly, the whole game does manage to hang together with the globe trotting story continuing straight on from Hitman. It might be a little opaque for those who’ve not experienced that, though all of the previous game’s levels are available if you own it (or for a small fee if you don’t), and all come with the neat upgrades from the new game. Crowd blending, foliage hiding and all the new gadgets are available alongside the cosmetic updates. This is a very good looking game that pays attention to the details and there’s never really a point where it drops the facade. Conversations between NPCs are interesting which don’t repeat too much, the AI logic is balanced and the level design so intricate that it will take a lot of revisits to find every single area. The music sets the scene well, though it does tend to cut off unexpectedly when moving around at times, which is a very minor gripe in the grand scheme of things.
Is Hitman 2 worth the investment then given the low number of levels and seemingly recycled content? Yes, it absolutely is. Repetition is what makes it great because it leads to continual discovery and increased knowledge of the mechanisms underpinning the flow of the mission, yet it can end up being different every time. And that’s only if you stick rigidly within the campaign mode, there’s a lot more to get absorbed in by venturing into the community content. I’m biased because I’ve been a fan since the early cult status games, so it’s fantastic to see the hard work of the developer breaking into the mainstream and the faith the new publisher has in them. More levels are to come, the elusive targets are sure to have surprises, and there’s hints at expanding the multiplayer modes – this could be the game that keeps on giving for years to come.
A PS4 review copy of Hitman 2 was provided by IO Interactive’s PR team and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC. Snag the Gold Edition to get access to two additional levels due in 2019.