REVIEW: Hitman 2 is a Jam-Packed, Satisfying Sandbox Experience
Following the 2016 release of Hitman, developers IO Interactive went independent, losing the financial support of their longtime publisher Square Enix but retaining the rights to the Hitman franchise. With that news, there was some minor worry about what the loss of that relationship would mean for Hitman 2, in terms of quality and scale. Now that the game is actually released, however, it’s clear that those worries were needless.
The only part of Hitman 2 that shows any sense of budgetary limitation is in the story cutscenes, which are now simply still images with voiceover instead of the pre-rendered CG of the previous games. In all other aspects, Hitman 2 manages to meet, and occasionally surpass, the quality of its predecessor.
Core gameplay is largely unchanged from Hitman, but with a few minor additions. Mainly, the Picture-in-Picture feature, which provides a visual heads-up for certain gameplay aspects such as found bodies, camera recordings, and investigative NPCs. This feature, absent from the franchise since 2006’s Blood Money, is a helpful piece of feedback for when you’re in the thick of your infiltration, trying to learn all you can about your surroundings and your mistakes. The lack of significant gameplay upgrades from the previous game might be disappointing for some, but when you have gameplay as refined as that of the Hitman franchise, they’re ultimately not necessary; instead, the focus should be on polishing: making the already-solid gameplay structure feel even sturdier.
The core gameplay loop of Hitman 2 just works. The setup is simple: you’re presented with your target(s) and the reason they need to die and then dropped into a sandbox with numerous obstacles between you and your target, where it becomes up to you to decide how to complete your mission. Do you put emetic poison in their food or drink, forcing them to flee to the bathroom where they are an isolated target? Do you arrange an accident to kill them, requiring more effort but easing suspicion and providing time for you to clear the area? Do you go in guns blazing, killing everyone that stands between you and your goal? Whatever you choose, the game provides dozens of tools - weapons, disguises, and items - to aid in your assassination, which can be combined in hundreds of different ways to achieve your desired result. In that sense, Hitman 2 - like many stealth games - becomes almost puzzle-like, where success is based on finding the right combination of pieces to achieve your goals. Hitman 2 actively encourages improvisation, purposefully leaving its sandbox as nonrestrictive as possible to allow for that improvisation. And if improvisation isn’t your thing, you can follow Mission Stories, which will guide you down a path ending in a prime opportunity to kill your target. Mission Stories often highlight one of the franchises understated strengths: its playful absurdity.
The Hitman franchise is no stranger to ridiculous situations, and Hitman 2 is no exception. That absurdity comes through in more than just the kills, but also in the NPCs that will comically over or under-react to your crimes, or the objects that, when thrown, will lock on to your target and kill or knock them out upon contact, from soda cans and briefcases to screwdrivers and katanas.
It’s a mark in Hitman 2’s favor that these gameplay situations occur on levels that are as a whole more consistent than those of the previous game. The six levels in this game maintain a high level of quality and polish in terms of gameplay and visuals, providing sandboxes that are full of nooks and crannies to explore and things to see. Each level also contains small recurring elements, like people and companies - that help them all feel connected even though they span the globe. The closest this game comes to a low point in level design is Hawke’s Bay, the game’s first true mission. The level feels full of potential while also being purposefully restrictive in scope, owing to its status as a tutorial level. I understand why the level is like that, but it just doesn’t do much for me compared to the others.
If you grow tired of Hitman 2’s main game, there’s still a wealth of additional content to explore. The most significant is the Legacy Pack, free to owners of the first game, which brings over all of its levels into Hitman 2, along with visual updates and the gameplay and progression of the latter game. Providing the pack free of charge is a really cool move from IO, which shows their appreciation of their fanbase. The Legacy Pack levels feel just as good as any other level from this game, allowing them to fit right in.
Also in Hitman 2 is Ghost Mode, the franchise’s first competitive multiplayer mode. In Ghost Mode, you are pitted against another player in a race to silently assassinate targets. The competitive nature of the mode adds a level of pressure to each kill and a constant struggle between getting the kill done fast and getting it done well, which is a big shift in focus from the waiting game of the single player. The limited toolset provided rewards map knowledge and improvisation to an even larger degree, however, which means that your enjoyment of Ghost Mode is dependent on what part of the Hitman 2 gameplay you most enjoy. As a fan of the carefully-planned waiting game, Ghost Mode hasn’t quite grabbed me yet, but in time I may come to enjoy it more.
Another addition to the wealth of content is Sniper Assassin, the game’s co-operative multiplayer mode, in which you are a sniper on a hilltop overlooking the sort of scene that you would normally be right in the thick of, trying to do the exact same sort of thing that you would normally do were you right in the thick of it. This mode works well, and features an effective translation of the stealthier elements from the main game into a less hands-on setting. When you find yourself paired up with a good player, the mode becomes more satisfying than it is when you’re with a less methodical and careful player.
Overall, Hitman 2 shows that IO Interactive truly understands what makes their franchise great. It’s a treat for fans, offering a veritable smorgasbord of content and replayability, and with its legacy content is a good starting place for franchise newcomers. Minor flaws aside, the gameplay is as refined as it's ever been, and with the promise of more content - such as expansions and events - the game’s future is just as thrilling as its present.