Everyone agreed, in the end, that an episodic approach to Hitman worked in its favour. This is a series that thrives on the player building an intimate understanding of each mission, all in pursuit of assassination perfection.
The last outing enabled that, doling out the levels in piecemeal to essentially enforce this unique ‘play, kill, repeat, perfect’ mechanic. That’s changed: Hitman 2 is a package of missions as the games ever were, so now the onus is squarely on you to get better at the game.
And in fact, that is almost required to get any enjoyment out of it. Hitman 2 hasn’t altered the template in any way: you’re still playing Agent 47, you’re still set assassination targets to find and kill, and you’re still given a multitude of means of doing so.
Each time you first load into a stage, it’s more about playing for reconnaissance than the hunt, to doss around these sprawling sandboxes as you learn what is and isn’t possible. Much of the same smart system elements of the last game have carried over and continue to nudge the uncreative player towards particular actions.
Huge boosts in points for certain kills give pointers for things to look out for, while interacting with the environment in particular ways rewards the curious and prompts further ways to secure the mark. It’s a franchise built for the inquisitive, and that’s perhaps more integral than ever with this entry.
This is primarily because of the scale of the maps. This time around, they’re surprisingly vast environments; ones that might not seem so grand at first but quickly open up to be varied, often interconnected puzzles.
The first attempt will be a case of fumbling around the different locales, mentally piecing together the individual mechanisms available to give you a picture of what you have at your disposal and the sorts of obstacles you’ll face. It builds up a good degree of intrigue for experimentation, wherein lies the ultimate critique cop-out: Hitman 2 is for a very particular sort of gamer and nothing has – or perhaps ever will – been done for it to appeal to anyone outside of that.
It’s a game that compels players who like to mess around with systems, whose own innate curiosity drives the game – rather than a set of objective markers and run-to waypoints.
Getting into the pit crew area of the first ‘proper’ stage of Miami is incredibly easy, for example, and through no effort at all you’ll soon find your target, Sierra Knox, bursting onto the racetrack in her soon-to-be-a-fireball vehicle. But what if you learn that there’s a set of three gas pipes that can be tinkered with beside the racetrack? Or that the trophy cup itself can be poisoned? Or how, if left unprompted, Knox will actually finish the race anyway and become a walking target?
This is where the curious player is in their element: the purpose of any of these potential routes are clear, but flawlessly executing them is still a mystery. Hitman 2 has embellished on this franchise staple more than ever, with each mission providing a healthy supply of suggested routes and story titbits to track down, but it’s down to the player to want to experience those.
There’s still a familiar amount of improvisation, too, as once-infallible plans inevitably fail, more interesting prospects present themselves, or unexpected NPC reactions make the anticipated impossible.
There’s a beauty in this, in allowing Hitman 2’s missions to play on however crudely the ball lies. But to get the most out of the game – to rinse it of everything it can offer – it really requires a desire to see a plan through to ‘proper’ completion. Yet that’s where some of the frustrations are born, and in truth they’re not ones alien to the franchise.
There’s a clumsiness to everything: non-player characters that just stop working, with only a reload or a broken neck the solution; targeted button prompts unexpectedly switching the moment an NPC passes by, causing a fistfight when all you wanted to do was read a newspaper; guards getting riled the moment you cross some invisible barrier into ‘trespassing’, forcing you to hide in a bin somewhere for five minutes.
Then there’s the fact that a lot of the actual assassinations are still prescribed in many ways; the sandbox environments give some amount of player agency, but the actual hits themselves don’t feel as creatively rewarding if they’re executed as IO Interactive intended. Instead Hitman 2, like most other Hitman games before, is more memory game than puzzle-solving, about practising enough times to become the perfect assassin rather than improvising a solution of your own devising.
And perhaps that’s the only real criticism of Hitman 2: it’s just not brave enough to mix up the formula that has admittedly worked so well for it for years. If 2016’s Hitman was a return to form, resetting the template for what IO wants the franchise to be, then Hitman 2 is the natural, if unsurprising, extension of that: bigger, better, more things to do.
This is engrossing stealth and the best example of the series’ playful, experimental nature… and that’s enough. But it will always be enough for the very gamers that Hitman is popular with; it’s not until these cat and mouse playgrounds can shake off these ingrained issues that Hitman will ever reach beyond that.
There’s always been a real separation in Hitman between starting a level for the first time and being prepared enough to aim for that revered Silent Assassin, Suit Only ranking. The larger, more expansive, and interconnected maps make that divide all the greater and feel more rewarding for spending hours – and it is hours – unearthing every secret each level hides.
A truly definitive Hitman experience, with all the ills and thrills that come with it.
Format: PS4 (tested) / XBO / PC
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release: Out now