I don’t think the Hitman series really clicked for me until I played Hitman 2. I really enjoyed Blood Money, and I really enjoyed what I played of the 2016 Hitman, but they were both one-and-done games for me — I gave Hitman’s Paris level a few replays, but otherwise I just completed all of the levels in order and then called it a day. Which is a bit of an odd thing to say about a game because that’s how they’re usually supposed to be played, but Hitman is a series that rewards replaying individual levels again and again to find alternate routes, assassination methods and background information about the people you’re assassinating. Playing through the levels just once meant that I arguably was doing it wrong, but for whatever reason I never really felt much of an impetus to do it right — until Hitman 2.
What changed in the interim? I think my current obssession with Hitman 2 is at least partly thanks to Arkane; since Hitman 2016 I’ve played both Dishonored 2 and Prey and those games have very much made me appreciate the value of large open levels stuffed with detail that can be tackled in myriad ways, and I’ve acquired a taste for going back afterwards to see what I missed the first time around. Hitman 2 also makes some very minor tweaks to how it guides you through a level that make the whole thing rather more palatable, as the levels are big and open and potentially rather daunting to tackle if you’re not given some sort of map. Mostly, though, I think it’s because the worst of Hitman 2’s levels equal the best of the first Hitman. Hitman 2 doesn’t escape the ructions of developer IO Interactive’s separation from publisher Square Enix1, but the impact has mostly come in the form of a smaller package than I might otherwise have expected; after having played the five levels present in the game to death (plus the smaller tutorial level and the bonus Sniper Assassin level), I can confidently say that IO have really found their groove when it comes to level design.
Hitman 2 is a direct continuation from the story that was introduced in Hitman 2016, except that story was and is utter bollocks and is mostly present to provide an excuse for Agent 47 to do what he does best: infiltrate a set of heavily guarded locations and dispose of anywhere between one and four targets wandering around the map. The locations range from a drug lord’s mansion in Colombia to a dark, windswept castle on a Scottish island, and every single one of them has at least two dozen ways of killing the marks. Take the very first mission, which is the tutorial and which takes place inside a single large house — not a mansion, just a house — and has a single target for you to kill. Even though it’s “just” a simple level that’s supposed to teach you the basics of the game, IO have not skimped on the freeform ethos that drives the Hitman series: you can sneak into the mansion and push her off a balcony while she’s having a smoke; poison her tea with either outright lethal stuff or an emetic that’ll make her stagger to a toilet which you can then drown her in; garotte her while she’s brushing her teeth and her partner is in the shower; smother her with a pillow when she’s gone to bed; or trigger an alarm and dump poison gas into the ventilation system for her panic room. And that’s just the “undetectable” methods, since if you’re not too bothered about getting a Silent Assassin rating or shooting it out with dozens of guards as you escape you can just wander in and shoot her in the head. Hitman 2 crams more replay value into this single house than most triple-A titles manage in their entire length, and the full levels are an order of magnitude more complex and will each require a dozen hours or more to even come close to seeing all that they have to offer.
This is a good time to talk about an unusual tension that exists within Hitman 2: despite its freeform nature it’s still a very specific kind of game that wants you to play it in a very specific kind of way. Agent 47 is known as the Silent Assassin and he’s said to specialise in making it look like his targets have died in unfortunate accidents — although the nature of these accidents is often so ludicrous he might as well be called the Slapstick Assassin — while leaving no trace that he was ever there. No witnesses, no bodies found, no security camera evidence, and no collateral damage. Canonically he never kills anyone who isn’t the target, including guards, (although mechanically Hitman 2 doesn’t mind if you choke them into unconsciousness as long as nobody sees you and you hide the body). The game heavily encourages this mode of play by attaching large score bonuses to each of the Silent Assassin conditions and by also making many of the kill methods contingent on never being spotted. The moment you take out a gun and shoot it at a person you’ve effectively blown any goal you had for the run outside of killing the targets and escaping the level, and since the levels can be attempted in any order there’s absolutely no benefit to this unless you’re going for some very specific challenge conditions and are willing to abandon the run immediately afterwards.
I think it’s fine for Hitman to be a heavily stealth-focused game. Thematically the restrictions around who you can and can’t kill even give 47 a strict moral code and make him into a likeable protagonist, which is helped along by some fantastic writing and line delivery — if you like your humour black, then the dialogue along with the kill methods will make Hitman 2 one of the funniest games you play this year. That’s a significant achievement for a genetically-engineered clone assassin who is supposed to have had all of the emotion scrubbed out of him at an early age. However, the thing I found a little curious about the stealth conditions is that unlike other games in the genre Hitman doesn’t give you many stealth-focused gadgets; I’d say that probably two-thirds of the equipment unlocks in the game are either guns or explosives that are all but useless on 95% of the runs you’ll be wanting to do. The primary function of a gun in Hitman is to get NPCs to look in the direction of the bullet impact, or to destroy items from a distance, and the default silenced pistol the game starts you with does both of these things perfectly well.
So, given the choice that Hitman has made to value stealth over all else, why does it give you so many unlocks that are functionally useless for this playstyle? I have two theories about this, both of which are probably true. First is that freeform stealth-oriented games are a bit of a tricky sell these days and that cramming your game full of guns will at least create a more comfortable environment for an audience that’s used to their primary mode of interaction with a game world being to shoot its inhabitants in the face. Second is that Hitman’s levels might be an absurdly detailed set of puzzle boxes, but the puzzles need to both be solvable regardless of what you take into the level with you, and at the same time remain challenging regardless of what you take into the level with you. Those conditions are almost mutually exclusive, and the only way Hitman 2 can really satisfy both of them is to drastically limit the range of utility equipment that can be used in a stealthy run and make the levels as self-contained as possible. It’s more than a bit of a kludge, but I’m hesitant to say it’s a mistake because I can’t think of an alternative way to reconcile the kind of game Hitman is with a more satisfying equipment system.
Still, this means that your most powerful weapon in Hitman isn’t actually a weapon or a piece of equipment at all, it’s the various disguises you can either find in a level or steal off of unconscious/dead bodies. One of Hitman’s running jokes (and it has a lot of running jokes) is that despite Agent 47 being a tall hulking pale bald man with a barcode tattooed on the back of his head, all it will take for people to accept him as a short Indian barber is to knock the barber out and steal his clothes, and the only adverse comment he’ll draw is NPCs wondering if he looks different because he’s had a shave. He’ll also be a virtuoso at shaving, or drumming, or tattooing, or pretty much any occupation he has the disguise for that lets him blend in. Disguises give you access to restricted parts of the level — so a waiter disguise will allow you in the service areas of a castle, while a security guard disguise will let you go pretty much anywhere, although you need to be careful because all the levels in Hitman 2 have different types of guard who have access to different parts of the map. Disguises aren’t a totally free pass as security cameras will still pick you up (necessitating destruction of the evidence in the level’s security room, which you’ll have to locate first) and while most NPCs will accept you unquestioningly there’s a significant subset that will see through your disguise if you get too close, but they’re key to penetrating the security around a target and maneuvering them into a position where you can get at them unseen.
This can be done in one of two ways. You can do it the truly freeform way, by spending time observing guard locations and patrols and the route the target takes around the level — if Hitman has a flaw, it’s that all the targets do the same set of scripted actions on repeat until the player does something to change them — and looking for a window of opportunity, or perhaps creating your own by throwing down distractions and knocking out guards one at a time until the target can be lured into a room that contains just them, you, and a short length of fiber wire. Or you can take advantage of the level’s Stories; these are a set of subplots running through each level that 47 can participate in to learn more about the characters and incidentally maneuver them into more vulnerable positions. The individual stories are all fairly linear in terms of what the player has to do, but they’ve all got tricky bits where you have to acquire items or steal disguises undetected, and they all end either with the target suffering an ironic accident as part of the story, or having them rather conveniently send away all of their bodyguards and spending a large quantity of time standing next to a very high drop, granting you a free kill.
Ah, but I think I’m underselling the stories here, though; mechanically they might be a bit simple (although still very difficult to pull off undetected on the hardest difficulty setting), but in terms of flavour they’re one of the best things about Hitman 2. The first level has you disguising yourself as a military officer attending a demonstration of a military contractor’s newest combat drone, allowing you to feed his biometrics into the drone’s targeting system so that he can be ED-209ed. In the second you can pose as a hippo doctor and lure the target close to a hippo enclosure, with predictable results. The third lets you follow another assassin around Mumbai and give him a little helping hand in the background so that he can assassinate the targets for you. The fourth has an incredible sequence where 47 gives a tour of a house as a real estate agent. Finding and experiencing all of these stories and kill methods is a huge part of Hitman 2, and a challenging one; the game will provide explicit guidance for many of them (although you can turn this off if you fancy figuring them out yourself), but there’s a significant subset of stories that aren’t hinted at at all aside from a suggestive name in one of Hitman’s many optional challenges. These you have to find on your own, and some of the “hidden” kills are absurdly elaborate, which ensures that even after you’ve worked through the explicit mission stories the levels still feel like they have additional secrets to uncover, and you find yourself returning to them again and again.
I think that this mix of guidance and exploration was part of what had been missing for me in the first Hitman. There the default setting for the stories was that you had to find the story start point in order to get any guidance, and while there was apparently an option to turn waypoints on from the very beginning of the level I somehow never found it. This made each level a rather daunting prospect; they’re huge and sprawling and crammed full of stuff and just being dropped at an entry point and told to find your own way is something I found rather intimidating. Having explicit guidance on from the start may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it meant I could tackle the levels in Hitman 2 in a rather more focused way, learning the levels as I worked my way through each story in turn. When I was done with them I had enough of a decent working knowledge to start playing Hitman the way it’s supposed to be played, by mixing and matching elements of different assassination methods along to manipulate the level into doing what I wanted, and plotting my own path through it in an attempt to uncover the many challenges that were still hidden from me.
As a consequence I’ve become far more familiar with Hitman 2’s levels than either of the Hitman games I’ve played before it, which is why I’m so convinced it has the best level design of the series so far. A criticism I’ve seen of the game is that it doesn’t do much to shake up the formula the series settled on in Hitman 2016 and is “just” more of the same, and to a certain extent this is true; the actual in-game changes to gameplay consist of NPCs being able to see your reflection in bathroom mirrors as you sneak up behind them, a briefcase that you can take into a mission to conceal large illegal items like sniper rifles instead of having to carry them around on your back (which makes going for the Sniper Assassin challenge in each level far more palatable), and nerfing fire extinguishers and breaching charges so that they no longer result in “accident” kills when detonated. These are minor tweaks by any metric, but I don’t know why anyone would actually complain about Hitman 2 containing content that’s the same or better than one of the best games of 2016. Which IO has incidentally ported into Hitman 2’s updated engine as DLC that you get for free if you own the original game, allowing for a straight comparison that confirmed for me that the Hitman 2 levels are better.
Flaws? Well, as covered, Hitman 2 is a very specific kind of game that I suspect may be an acquired taste for a lot of people. In terms of mechanical implementation the object interactions still feel a little flabby — getting an interaction prompt to appear over the correct item before a guard turns around and spots you can sometimes be rather frustrating — and for a game that’s so hell-bent on telling the player to experiment and figure things out it’s slightly baffling that there’s no quicksave option, instead requiring you to go through a conventional save/load process if you screw something up. I also feel like the leaderboards for each level are a good idea that don’t quite land, as the only scoring metric past getting a Silent Assassin rating is how quickly you can do the level, and that’s something that ends up being as much about manipulating loopholes in the Hitman NPC AI behaviour than it is finding a quick and efficient route. And the criticism I made in the Hitman 2016 review about missing the newspaper headlines from Blood Money still stands; that was a very nice bit of flavour that really made it feel like there were more valid ways to complete a level that just Silent Assassining it, and while the individual levels of Hitman 2 are crammed full of character the game feels rather sterile as soon as you leave them.
These are fairly minor nitpicks, however. If you buy into the kind of game that Hitman is — an almost dadaist accident simulator with a dark streak of humour running through it, where the aggressive approach is there more to allow you to blow off steam after an hour of tense stealth runs than because the game actually values it in any way — then it’s got very little wrong with it. It’s a bit pricey, and for that money I would have liked a couple more levels to be included in the package, but it’s difficult to complain when I’ve put forty hours into the ones that are already there, and the quality is doubly impressive considering IO almost didn’t survive to release Hitman 2 at all. It’s not doing spectactularly in the charts, but I do hope it’s doing well enough to keep them going because the world sorely needs more games like Hitman 2.
- For those not following: Square Enix have long had ludicrous sales expectations of their games and Hitman 2016 didn’t come close to matching them, but instead of just shutting IO down they enabled a management buyout so that IO could become independent again and finish the then-in-development Hitman 2. IO had to lay off a sizeable proportion of their staff during this process, so Hitman 2 has still had a rather troubled development and it’s frankly a miracle that it’s in as good a shape as it is. ↩