Hitman 2 Review
Silent, and almost lethally dull
This is one of those instances where the drama of how a game got made is likely more interesting than the game itself. In the spring of 2017, publishing giant Square Enix announced it would stop funding IO Interactive, the developer of the Hitman franchise, and seek a buyer for the studio. It seemed like IO was in a precarious situation, but a month later they were able to perform a management buyout from Square Enix and retain the rights to the Hitman brand. Earlier this year, IO announced it would be partnering with Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment to distribute a sequel to 2016's Hitman that had been in development while the company had gone through its tumultuous years.
It has to be difficult to work through such chaos - as jobs are cut, and your studio is fighting for its life. With developers of similar stature having closed their doors in the past year, in some ways, one has to admire IO simply for still existing - let alone releasing a sequel to their marquee franchise. With a new publisher, Hitman 2 is content complete at launch, instead of doing staggered digital episodes like the previous game. There are many interesting elements surrounding the development of this sequel, but I just wish it resulted in a better end product.
After playing through Hitman 2016, it felt like the best thing the newly rebooted franchise had going for it was the promise of future entries. The first game felt like a staging ground, as IO experimented with creating large-scale levels with organically built-in scenarios called Opportunities that would allow the player to execute their hit. It was far from polished, but it did show potential and I was eager to see what an iteration on the idea would do. Unfortunately, IO hasn’t spent the subsequent years refining and expanding the open-world design of their gameplay. In many ways, the missions in Hitman 2 feel smaller and less imaginative than the first game. Instead of expanding the aspects that made the first game work, IO has grafted on a multiplayer experience and a Sniper Assassin mini-game. Both of the new modes feel like they were added late in development to be bullet-points on the back of the box, and it comes at the cost of making the campaign maps and contracts worse.
The story in Hitman 2 is bad, to put it bluntly. While the first game’s narrative was forgettable, this one is just a mess. You begin the game searching for the Shadow Client, killing cartoonishly evil people, in order to discover the identity of the mysterious figurehead. The might be grounds for an interesting story, except that’s not the one that the game wants to tell. Instead, the Shadow Client wants you to find him so he can reveal the true plot of the game, at which point you’re already about two-thirds of the way through and need to scramble towards some kind of resolution. It also explains why the first people you kill are so over-the-top in their evilness, if the game had you kill dozens of people to get to the Shadow Client, it might get the audience wondering about the human cost, thus every briefing in the early missions explain that the targets are all involved in cocaine, or funding international terrorism, or eating babies (okay, that last one is made-up, but you get my point).
That being said, the targets in the sequel have more interesting stories than our protagonist. By the end of the game, I was longing to play as the bank thieves with a score that was so hot, they hid it and created a tontine with the winner getting all the money; or the ruthless leader of a cartel who had fallen in love with her partner’s brother. You can see all of these more interesting stories happening around 47, whose own tale is an alphabet soup of boring organizations and secret societies hidden within secret societies. This is the only game that could take the drama of an all-powerful super-cult and make it be about as boring the day-time programming on CSPAN.
This wouldn’t matter so much if the game was more focused on building an interesting playground for you to create havoc in - which was the highlight of the first game. It’s hard to say if the maps are smaller in Hitman 2, but they definitely feel more constrained. Part of this might be that each map has multiple mini-locations inside of it, and these areas all get claustrophobic as you realize they are specifically designed around one target. Because the areas are smaller to operate in, characters tend to have a more defined AI path, as they wait to be triggered by one of the scripted Opportunities unique to them. With all these extra elements dumped into the game, there’s less room to breathe in between hits and drink in the atmosphere - thus, the illusion that you’re walking in a living, breathing world is shattered. The bounds of the level rigidly stand out, it’s too easy to see how the area specific to one target has been stitched next to the area of another.
The game is clearly steering you toward the Opportunities in each level. While it’s nice that IO has returned the most popular feature from the previous game, the Opportunities in Hitman 2 can make things overly easy. It requires a little bit of patience, as you have to let the boring scenes play out, but once you’ve endured the bad voice acting and pressed forward on the analog stick for long enough, you’ll be prompted with what is basically an insta-kill button. There was one Opportunity that led me to the target, and even though I was surrounded by guards and witnesses, they all turned their back to me long enough that I could push the target to their death and no one cared. No one was suspicious of me, no one was searching for a killer, everyone just continued going about their business. There are too many of these Opportunities that make things almost insultingly simple. It’s also dull, as you spend a lot of time with Hitman 2 simply hiding from the guards who will see through your disguise, waiting for an Opportunity to play out, while a character spouts their purpose in the level and maybe dumps some exposition. It’s clumsily paced and makes for a lot of downtime.
You can feel IO working hard to try and find the difficulty balance with Opportunities. You can either turn on indicators, showing you where the Opportunity objectives are, or you turn them off and just try to pick up things by exploring. The second part is more fun, but it also means that characters often stand around shouting “I might have an opportunity over here! I hope nobody steals the explosives in the trunk of my car!” There’s such an effort to make these things stand out that they feel totally out of place.
The added emphasis on having you follow the Opportunities is made even more obvious by having fewer ways to otherwise kill a target. There are about ten weapons that you can find in the world and they all revolve around poisoning, shooting, and hitting/stabbing. Trying to find environment kills that aren’t set up by Opportunities is disappointingly rare. Again, because most of the targets are walking around, waiting for their Opportunity scripting to kick in, the window to kill them in any other way is too limited.
But if you’re feeling frustrated, you can always just mow your way through a mission. The gunplay is way overpowered with 47’s health recovering crazy fast. While playing around with the mechanics I found I could just blast my way through enemies, without hardly needing to take cover. Obviously, you’ll get a bad score at the end of the mission, but it wasn’t like I was heavily rewarded for playing things stealthily anyways. Again, it seems like IO is certain you’ll be desperately comparing your scores to those of others in some sort of arcade experience, and that’s the incentive to be stealthy. The problem with this assumption is that it is not based on the levels being interesting or worth exploring, but simply the reliance on a desire to get a better score. Scores, in and of themselves, are meaningless if you aren’t having fun earning them.
On top of everything else, after you finish a mission, you’re brought to a screen that informs you that you didn’t actually play the mission the right way. It seems each mission is built around specific Opportunities and in order to best follow the story (such as it is), you should play those three Opportunities in the right order. So after you’ve been able to find any sort of creativity in your assassination, IO would like you to go back and do it the way you’re supposed to. And while the side characters are interesting, they’re hardly worth constricting the game down to a myopic sequence of events. IO almost seems to be begrudgingly offering an open-world experience, annoyed that a player won’t just play the game the way they imagined and have the audacity to want to create something on their own.
It doesn’t help that the game’s aesthetic is boring all the way down to its marrow. The stuff that works feels like it was done better in the first game. There are bustling city streets, public events, and exclusive clubs, but none of it captures the flair of the original game. Hitman 2 boasts that it contains exotic locales, but a third of these missions take place in the US - one being a Vermont suburb (nothing screams exotic like fresh-baked blueberry muffins). Gone are the lavish hotel in Thailand and the remote spa in Hokkaido; even when the game is riffing off of the ideas of its predecessor, they aren’t as striking. The constrictions are a result of the story, again, showing that Hitman 2 has its influences warring with each other. If the story was going to be flimsy, it should have taken a back-seat to more creative locations and allowed the art department an opportunity to show off its creativity like it did in the first game. Instead, IO seems convinced that we’re going to be invested in the relationship of Agent 47 and the Shadow Client - when nothing could be duller.
While the plot is boring, it’s delivered in an equally boring way. Static images that aren’t animated make up the cutscenes. Quick cuts and small camera movements are working hard to try and make up for the lack of animation and they might have been alright had the voice acting and story been more interesting - but both elements are equally letting each other down, failing to pick up the slack of a production that seems to be just trying to get across the finish line. The cutscenes are indicative of the larger problems with Hitman 2; they’re static, generic, and a regression from the first game.
But it’s the in-game animations that are worst of all. The models are stock, there are few details that really stand out. You can usually tell important characters or areas simply because they have the smallest amount of design added them. In some ways, this feels intentional, so that if someone is wandering around, their eye will be instinctively drawn to the Opportunities, but it means that everything else is just so bland.
Contracts mode also returns, giving players a reason to revisit to maps outside of the story through community-created challenges. It plays fine, but the new maps lack memorable characters or locations to really have any fun with it. Again, if the targets that the levels are designed around are boring and simple, it’s going to be difficult to find random other targets that are worth revisiting the map for. The game also allows for contracts to be played using maps from the first game, but they are only free if you own the Season Pass of the first game. If you purchased the episodes as standalone, you'll need to pay to bring them into Hitman 2.
Ghost mode offers a way to play Hitman 2 multiplayer. Both players start at the same point and a target is placed on the map until a player kills them. If that target is killed, and you are not seen, then you score a point and the opposing player will have 20 seconds to also kill the target and earn a point for themselves before the target resets elsewhere on the map. If you kill the target and are seen, the target resets, but you’re not awarded a point. It’s not a bad idea, but the execution doesn’t quite work. The biggest issue is that you can see the other player - even though they don’t affect your world. So if you take a lead, you can basically follow the other assassin around so even if they know a shortcut or where to get a good disguise, you can just copy their work, making it difficult to come from behind.
There supposedly is a risk/reward factor with being a little bit more careless in your kills. The idea being that you’ll get a kill more quickly if you’re playing things fast and loose, but the chaos will slow you down in the future. That doesn’t happen though since a kill that’s witnessed doesn’t count as a point. So instead, players quickly don a disguise, find the target, and spend time following them around until they are alone. This also points out the weak level design. There also aren’t a lot of places to put the target that are very interesting. If you can get your hands on a staff outfit, you can move around most of the map without issue, follow the icon to the target and then just wait to get them alone. There just isn’t a lot of things that can dynamically change the outcome of a match.
Another multiplayer mode is the Sniper Challenge, which can also be single-player. In this mode, players use a high powered sniper rifle to eliminate guards and targets. The trick is to take them out so they aren’t seen since a dead body will raise the alarm and cause an evacuation. I’m not sure if any player is going to get much use out of this mode. It felt appropriate when the same thing was used as a pre-order bonus for Hitman: Absolution, but as part of a released game, it’s just not compelling enough. It’s a shooting gallery with sights that constantly bob up and down. It feels like something that would be better suited to mobile, where you just need a distraction for twenty minutes, rather than something a player will sit down on their couch to enjoy.
Technically, I found Hitman 2 to be competent. The online functionality seems to be more stable than the first game. It didn’t take me long to load into multiplayer matches, and when I was in them, there were hardly any lag or connectivity issues. The saving process is a little annoying as you have to wait for your saved games to load in before you can save another game - a quick-save option on consoles feels sorely lacking. But there weren’t any technical issues.
Hitman 2 is a flawed game. It feels rushed in places, compromised in others, and it never lives up to what one would expect in a sequel to the game we saw in 2016. The previous entry worked hard to create environments that allowed players to explore and discover; it wasn’t perfect, but you could see the potential. But said potential seems strangely absent in Hitman 2 - replaced by an emphasis on underwhelming storytelling, multiplayer, and adding content in all the wrong places. In an effort to attract more players, Hitman 2 lacks identity. It doesn’t know if it wants to focus on story or on the world, if it wants to direct players where to go or let them discover on their own, if it wants you to get the best score or have the most fun. Since it can’t determine what it wants, it ends up not really being anything. If you want to support IO, I totally get that. And you should do that by purchasing the Definitive Edition of Hitman 2016, not this one.