There’s a secret about the Hitman franchise that those who haven’t played the games extensively might not know. For the sake of simplicity, they’ve historically been marketed in the stealth action genre, but I’ve always felt that this was a misnomer. The player can certainly choose to sneak Agent 47 through the levels, using the standard stealth game toolset of crouching and audible distractions. However, these mechanics have always felt (to me at least) to be concessions to normality and not the primary design language of the franchise. If you strip away the surface layer of horrific executions and bald killer clones, at its core the Hitman franchise boils down to patient observation and environmental puzzle solving. They are the video game equivalent of Rube Goldberg machines. Their lovingly detailed levels are filled with layers of complex AI routines, and the joy of playing them is not so much sleuthing around, but rather standing back and watching the level unfold around you, identifying where the cracks are before setting up a fatal line of dominos and watching them fall over in horrifying glee. It has been this commitment to its unique simulation style level design and gameplay that encourages patience and repetition that makes Hitman incredibly rewarding and memorable to play, but also one of the most niche AAA action series that exists today. Hitman 2 iterates on the success of 2016’s slick series reboot, adding new content and several gameplay refinements without attempting to reinvent the wheel.
Unlike most developers currently that are so eager to shoehorn RPG-lite mechanics into their games, Hitman 2 takes a different approach to progression. As cliché as it is to say, you could describe it as the Dark Souls of AAA stealth action, mostly because the full set of gameplay tools are available to the player from the very first mission. Instead of needing to earn XP to follow a highly curated chain of ability unlocks, players need to pay attention to the levels to discover the optimal ways to interact with their targets. The game’s use of context specific actions rather than unlockable abilities means that difficulty and progression curves aren’t bottlenecked by the game itself but rather by the player’s knowledge of the AI systems and confidence in exploiting them. Despite the introduction of an experience system in this iteration of the franchise, the upgrades it affords are useful only for replaying those levels to further explore the murderous opportunities missed the first time around. On the negative side of this coin, new players may find the games demands on your patience to be unappealing. Though the AI sometimes displays the derpy traits needed for a stealth game, for the most part they are highly intelligent and will pursue any disturbance, often to a violent conclusion. And since the games auto-save system works in mysterious ways, newcomers may find themselves relying heavily on save states to complete levels at the cost of natural pacing. For the most part though, It is the player that levels up in Hitman 2, rather than Agent 47 himself, and this makes for a much more memorable and repayable experience.
And replay it you will. Much like Agent 47’s obsession with perfecting his grisly craft, the game encourages you to go through its levels multiple times, refining your knowledge of NPC movements, and uncovering all the unique opportunities to eliminate targets and disappear like a shadow. The game even makes a point of showing the player the ‘mission stories’ that they missed out on the first time around and prompting them to go back and try it again differently until they really are the perfect assassin. These pre-designed breadcrumb trails of opportunities are like mini missions in themselves, and the time sensitive and intricate setup involved in them always results in a satisfying accidental execution that won’t hamper the players final mission ranking. This emphasis on perfect undiscovered kills is the most fun way to play Hitman, but also makes the plethora of guns and explosives available feel a little redundant. The best weapon in this game is legitimately a can of spaghetti sauce. And like other entries in this genre, when there is a tool that can be used silently, repeatedly and non-lethally, the ballistic option becomes a lot less desirable, which can tend to limit the combat diversity for those who want to achieve the best mission ranking.
Of course, the main reason that Hitman’s unique approach to gameplay works is because the consistent difficulty and progression curves allow the level design to take a starring role instead. This time around, players will join Agent 47 in travelling to 6 different locations around the world, from the labyrinthine slums of Mumbai to a quiet Vermont neighbourhood. The game’s crown jewels, the larger levels are marvels of overlapping AI subsystems, with hundreds of NPCs going about their daily routines. Slowly walking around, studying the target’s routine and absorbing ambient pieces of information through conversations, it feels like Agent 47 is just a cog into this living digital machine and it makes it all the more satisfying to throw a wrench into the works. The amount of detail and different approaches to each mission is immense and incentivises replaying them. However, like the 2016 iteration, as the game progresses the levels tend to lose some of their grandiose charm in favour of grimmer and more sparsely populated stages. Without the spectacle of the huge NPC crowds and elaborate death mechanisms of levels like Miami and Mumbai, players are will find themselves leaning on the game’s clunky stealth mechanics more. It made sense to front load the more compelling levels like Paris and Sapienza when IO were releasing these levels episodically in 2016, but here it makes for an experience that starts out bombastic but levels out rather than building over the course of the game.
Though the gameplay philosophy of optimising the players performance through repetition is handled well here, one consequence is that the incredibly fun and darkly humorous gameplay grinds against the bungled narrative. Hitman games have always attempted to shoehorn in their own brand of global espionage and intrigue, however this iteration goes so far into the realm of cliché and genre tropes that it’s even more ridiculous than the game’s wonky ragdoll physics. Those who were fans of the super slick presentation of the prerendered cutscenes from Hitman 2016 will be disappointed with the developer’s choice to go with this narrated storyboard style of presentation in the sequel. It was almost certainly a decision designed to divert money into a designing a better gameplay experience. However, like an anime studio that ran out of money mid-season and had to revert to simply panning across still frames, the effect is jarring when viewed in the context of the excellent voice acting, serviceable writing and impressive visual presentation of the rest of the game. Luckily these cutscenes are merely bookends to each mission, and you will thankfully find more enjoyable characterisation and writing in the novella style sub stories entwined into each level.
Whether or not it is a consequence of IO’s new financial situation with Warner Bros or a stylistic decision, the episodic structure of 2016’s Hitman has also been replaced. The entire game has been released upfront, with an additional bonus for owners of the original game, who will be able to replay all the Hitman 2016 levels with updated control scheme and mechanics. This is a great addition and makes for a more complete and fleshed out experience. However, for those are new to the franchise or do not become invested in replaying the levels, it might feel like there isn’t much new content here. Despite all the community backlash around Hitman 2016’s episodic release, that structure definitely complimented the replayability of the game and basically forced players to squeeze every last drop of content out of each level whilst waiting for the next one to be released. Despite this, when factoring in the bonus sniper mode as well as the free DLC contracts IO is releasing post launch, players can still expect to find tens of hours of enjoyment here.
In addition, multiplayer has come to Hitman for the first time. Normally a solitary experience, IO’s solution was to introduce an asynchronous competitive format called Ghost mode. Here, 2 players tackle the same level simultaneously. Whilst you can see the phantom image of your opponent within the level, you cannot interact with them at all, which makes for a tense race against time to be the best assassin possible and is sure to add even more replayability to those who have already mastered the games levels.
Despite all the positive refinements made for this sequel, the developer’s questionable use of Denuvo DRM strategy remains. Though logging into the servers before playing is relatively quick and painless, the way this has seeped into the content release is a little concerning to say the least. The timed Exclusive Contracts have returned, with Hollywood star Sean Bean lending his voice and likeness to the game for the first target. Though expanding the games depth of content with new targets is an excellent idea, the implementation leaves a lot to be desired. The idea that someone who buys the game well after release or is simply busy one week can completely miss out on valuable content forever discourages consumers from being cautious with their money and is an industry trend that hopefully does not become more widespread.
Hitman 2 could easily be viewed as just an iterative progression of its 2016 predecessor. However, like in the games themselves, iteration and repetition in the hands of skilled craftsman can lead to perfection. By refining their elegant toolset and excellent level design, Hitman 2 feels like the most fully realised version of what IO Interactive set out to create almost 2 decades ago, and after several bungled entries its validating as a fan to see the series exactly where it needs to be: with an engaging and refined gameplay platform that can be easily and infinitely expanded upon with new levels. The game’s demands on player patience likely won’t entice many new fans to the franchise, but for series veterans it stands among the best and offers endless hours of sadistic enjoyment within.
Review by Dylan Cook
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