Over the past 18 years the Hitman formula has firmly established itself as a staple of the stealth genre; drop into a mission, use any variety of weapons, items and scripted situations to eliminate your targets and escape the scene. Gamers everywhere are at least familiar with the antics of the stoic Agent 47 and the thrilling assassination missions he undertakes. IO Interactive’s Hitman 2 is perhaps the best example of this tried and true formula to date, but it struggles to reach beyond the parameters of the series or significantly build upon the foundations of its predecessors.

Hitman 2 is a direct followup to the series’ soft reboot back in 2016, which has also been remastered and included in the new game. As Agent 47 you travel to various diverse locations around the world assassinating targets with ties to the shadowy Illuminati-esque group Providence.

Each mission lets you pick your starting inventory, offering a wide range of firearms, melee weapons, explosives, poisons to choose from, as well as 47’s outfit and your starting location. As you play you will unlock more of all of these, allowing more opportunities to customise your kill.

Targets can be eliminated by almost any means imaginable, be it loud and showy or quiet and unnoticed. The most fun comes from the scripted Mission Stories, named Opportunities in Hitman 2016. These are specific quests you can trigger and follow, often providing exclusive access to certain areas or situations ripe for 47 to take advantage of.

In the mission The Finish Line one of 47’s targets is a race-car driver competing through the streets of Miami. One Mission Story has 47 pose as a member of the target’s pit crew and prompts you to tamper with their car, causing the target to fatally crash mid-race with no trace back to you. These quests were introduced in Hitman 2016 and have quickly become one of my favourite parts of the series.

For Hitman 2016 IO Interactive touted their “Swiss cheese” approach to level design, a sentiment that holds true for Hitman 2. Each level in the game is enormous, with the smaller areas comparable to the largest in Hitman 2016. At the same time each area is fitted with an incalculable number of alleys, corridors and secret ways to reach your targets, hence the Swiss cheese metaphor.

To return to Miami for a second, one target is situated at the top of an office building. One option to reach them would be to take an employee’s disguise and walk through the front door undetected. Other option would be to covertly enter the basement and climb up the elevator shaft, or reach a lower floor and scale the outside wall. The agency left to you as the player in how you choose to navigate the environments and eliminate your targets is exactly what Hitman is about, and is exactly what Hitman 2 gets right.

Once all of 47’s targets have been eliminated you must exfiltrate the area through one of the designated exit routes to complete the mission. While pulling off a perfect, silent assassination feels greatly rewarding, sprinting away from gunfire to a motorboat and peeling out to sea is equally fun.

From a mechanical standpoint I’m not sure the series can get any better. Hitman 2’s controls and HUD are almost identical to Hitman 2016’s, aside from a few minor and solely aesthetic changes. Movement is fairly basic, while less obvious options appear as on-screen prompts such as when an item can be picked up or a wall can be mounted. The game doesn’t hold your hand, per se, but it never leaves you in the dark.

Stealth is perfect in Hitman 2. The game is intensely transparent in letting you know how safe your disguise is and where threats to your detection lie. Most NPCs won’t recognise 47 in disguise, however certain characters, such as an office manager or head of security, rightly know the difference between the people they know and an imposter. There are certain areas where this is system fails to work as expected, especially when pretending to be someone’s close friend or lover and engaging in conversation without being detected, but for the most part it works excellently. The new inclusion of bushes and shrubbery that conceal 47 is also very welcome.

Items work as you would expect them to. Sharp objects like scissors, screwdrivers and antique swords can be used to stab or cut, or thrown for an instant kill. Blunt objects like bricks and fish can knock out your victims for a non-lethal blow, whether thrown or used in close quarters. The sheer number of items in the game is staggering, especially the range of location-unique items that flesh out the thematic depiction of that area. One location occupied by the wealthy elite is packed with priceless art and relics of ancient cultures, with obtainable items to match.

Gunplay is pretty standard 3rd person fare. In all-out gunfights things can quickly go awry; 47 can’t take a lot of damage before going down, and aiming is tricky and imprecise for tense situations. Shooting feels best during stealth, when you have time to prepare yourself and consider your options. This is by no means a negative, rather it subtly encourages stealth while leaving the option open for guns-blazing action.

Missions feel more like puzzle boxes than action set-pieces, in the best way possible. Navigating restricted areas, finding the right items and disguises and uncovering opportunities to achieve your goal is extremely rewarding.

The story of Hitman 2 is of virtually no consequence. The inter-mission cutscenes could have been stripped out and the missions slightly re-contextualised, and the game would not have suffered for it.

Hitman 2’s narrative follows directly on from Hitman 2016, using the aforementioned group Providence as a vehicle to explore Agent 47’s origins and exact revenge upon those responsible. However, this isn’t achieved. In one of the worst conclusions to a video game story I have ever seen the story cuts itself off in what can only be described as a poor attempt at a cliffhanger. Nothing is really concluded, but nothing is really setup for a sequel either, other than the fact that 47 will live to assassinate another day.

As well as being largely superfluous and uninteresting, the story cutscenes look plain bad. They adopt the same graphical fidelity of the beautiful, fully animated cutscenes from Hitman 2016, but reduce them to frozen images overlaid with dialogue and lighting effects, as if produced in Adobe After Effects. It was a bold artistic decision by IO Interactive, but I’m not sure it paid off.

The mission briefing cutscenes, however, are incredible. A mix of minimalism and True Detective-esque superimposed visuals laced together to explain who your targets are and justify their assassination. It’s jarring to see this level of visual quality and artistic flair sitting next to the disappointing story cutscenes.

I deeply respect IO Interactive for attempting to follow through on the story they set up in the previous game, as well as Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for giving them the freedom to do so since buying the developer. We have seen time and again, however, that story-driven Hitman games tend to be weighed down by their narratives. Hitman: Absolution is an excellent example of this, while Hitman 2016 exemplifies the benefits in unrelated missions. The day-to-day operations of Agent 47 — taking out a variety of targets across a broad range locations — is much more fun and much more interesting. Like so many iconic characters from popular culture Agent 47 is best shown doing what he is known for and left with some semblance of mystery and ambiguity.

Ghost Mode, Hitman 2’s answer to online multiplayer, is a fun novelty but doesn’t feel strong enough to warrant extended play. The mode, currently in its Beta phase, pits you against a ‘ghost’ assassin to eliminate five randomly selected targets. The two players, despite visually appearing in each others’ worlds, cannot interact with one another. If one player causes an explosion, it and the ensuing chaos do not eventuate for the other player. If one player eliminates the current target, the other player has a limited amount of time to achieve the same feat. Players can use ‘ghost items’ like ‘ghost coins’ to affect the target for both players, but that is the extent of the player interaction. Had it not been included the game overall would not have suffered. I would resources used to develop Ghost Mode could have been otherwise used to bolster the core singleplayer aspects of the game.

The Sniper Assassin mode, introduced as an early preorder bonus for the game, as 47 perched in a singular vantage point overlooking an elaborate Austrian mansion. Your mission is to eliminate three targets and their bodyguards with a sniper rifle as your only tool. Well placed shots can be used to distract or lure targets to secluded spots or to detonate explosive objects. Alternatively, you can madly open fire and eradicate your targets in a matter of seconds, but your final score will reflect this lacking sophistication. It’s a really fun and creative mode, although not entirely original. If Sniper Assassin recieves continued support and new locations I wouldn’t be surprised if its cooperative multiplayer mode retains and cultivates its player-base better than Ghost Mode.

Elusive Target mode has made its return in Hitman 2, but was unfortunately unavailable to play upon writing this review. The first Elusive Target will be live on the 20th November.

In terms of visuals, I was left somewhat disappointed by Hitman 2. It’s clear that IO Interactive has used the same engine for this sequel, which is by no means a development sin. But the fact that this game is running on 2016 software is clear, and in many areas looks worse than its predecessor. Character models look like character models, not people with some amount of soul. 47 himself looks to have had some sort of visual downgrade, although this may be a downgrade in lighting.

Animations of both characters and objects often look rigid and robot, especially those of 47 himself. His walking speed is slightly faster than NPCs around him, making Mission Stories which require you to follow someone feel awkward as you repeatedly stop and start to stay in proximity. 47’s gaze also never changes, even when directly addressing a character. NPCs are able to rotate their heads to look at 47 during conversations, or even in incidental exchanges when you bump into someone or arouse suspicion. 47’s head however stays perpetually locked looking straight ahead. I repeatedly tried to rotate his whole body to face characters during conversation in an ill-fated attempt to recapture my immersion.

A lot of objects in the game environments look very plasticky upon inspection, particularly trees and water. Water looks especially poor, equivalent to PS3/Xbox 360 era graphics. Areas that are not accessible, like background cityscapes, look more like cardboard set dressing than believable places. Additionally, many close-up textures take a significant amount of time to load in properly, leaving readable signs and posters distorted and indecipherable.

It should be noted how excellent the music in Hitman 2 is. Each location has its own subtle themes, such as light, bittersweet classical guitar for the Columbia-set mission. It hits perfectly, and suitably ramps up when things start going wrong.

Hitman 2 also experiences a lot of model pop-in. For those who those who aren’t familiar with the tricks of game development, objects in video game worlds that aren’t in the immediate eye-line of the player or are far away enough to not be noticed, such as a grouping of trees on a distant hill, will be rendered to a lower degree and will look like something from the PlayStation 2 days. This saves memory and rendering power for objects in the player’s immediate field of view.

Unfortunately, many objects such as trees and bushes in Hitman 2, which would be no more than a hundred in-game metres away, are visibly in this low-poly state. It’s not clear whether this is a glitch or intentional, but it does detract from the overall presentation of the game. That said, many areas in Hitman 2 look absolutely stunning, namely the untamed jungles and messy slums.

Speaking of glitches, Hitman 2 has its fair share. In my time playing I only experienced a few, some more noticeable than others. In certain areas you can have Agent 47 lean against an object or sit somewhere to blend in with the crowd, and you can also carry things like briefcases to store weapons away from the eyes of the public. One mission allows you to begin in one of these leaning positions while carrying a briefcase, resulting in the briefcase clipping through the environment and facing up towards the sky in a pose that defies gravity. This is a minor gripe and only a visual glitch, but it speaks to the wider polish Hitman 2 seems to be severely lacking.

The only significant issue I experienced occurred operating the pause menu, which caused the game to crash. The in-game area I was in was quiet and largely unpopulated, so I can’t imagine it to have been a rendering issue. This seems like a simple oversight, and something that will likely be patched.

The strangest and least attractive part of Hitman 2 however is its install process. I preordered the game through the Xbox Store and was notified by my console at launch that it was ready to play. I jumped in and finished the tutorial but was stopped when I attempted to play the next level. All signs told me, despite paying AUD$99.95, that I had to purchase either each mission individually or all of them for over AUD$50 on top of what I had already paid. It was only through rooting around my games library and the ‘Manage game & add-ons’ option that I found the rest of the game waiting to be downloaded mission-by-mission, with each download taking around an hour.

I find it baffling that a game, which touts itself as a complete experience in one package following the commercial disappointment of the episodic Hitman 2016, requires this kind of busywork to be fully experienced. I would have been less irritated had there been some kind of in-game explanation or option to download from there instead of a link to the store and the apparent requirement to spend more money. I feel sorry for gamers who don’t think to look around as I did and spend much more than they should.

Hitman 2 is by no means a bad game, but it doesn’t quite reach greatness. It feels much less like a sequel and more like a Hitman 1.5, an expansion pack with more levels but the exact same content as the core game. That’s the thing; it’s more of the same, but that ‘same’ just happens to be excellent. Hitman 2 is tricky to get your head around in that respect. The game would have definitely benefited from another year of development and refinement. If you’re a fan of Hitman or stealth games in general I would definitely encourage you to give this a go, or at least play the free demo and see if you enjoy it. It’s a really excellent experience, but it just isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.

Hitman 2 is available now for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC in both digital and physical marketplaces.

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