By Shane Ferguson
Hitman: The Complete First Season was one of my favorite games last year. IO Interactive listened to fan feedback and knocked everything out of the park. The huge maze-like levels provided tons of ways to approach each mission coupled with multiple story kills, targets, personal and online challenges. All that encouraged replayability so players got more out of the experience Hitman fans have enjoyed for two decades. In many ways, Hitman (2016) is a masterclass on how to revive classics for modern audiences without reinventing the wheel. Unfortunately, the sequel seems more like a side step, a lateral move that needs more refinement and new ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed multiple playthroughs of Hitman 2. Plus, I received bonuses for purchasing the first season (upgrades, weapons, sniper briefcase, etc.). But where’s the exciting innovation? Hitman 2 takes an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. You don’t feel like you’re having a brand new experience. That’s a shame because IO Interactive generally did a fine job at finding the middle ground between Hitman: Absolution’s quality of life improvements and Hitman: Blood Money’s brilliant gameplay. As I play more and more, I realize Hitman 2 is more like an expansion (although it doesn’t lack in content).
The missions sandboxes are still masterfully designed with more options for story kills this time around. The developer really hit its stride when designing these missions as far as freedom in dispatching your victims goes. But only two of the missions really stood out to me in comparison to many more in The Complete First Season. More, some missions feel like they have taken a step back in terms of creativity. In some cases, they just aren’t original at all. I can look past my disbelief when 47 disguised himself as a famous supermodel who just so happened to be his doppelganger. However, in various instances, you have a similar celebrity target opportunity regardless of resemblance, tattoos, etc. I get that Hitman doesn’t take itself seriously, but it can come off as unimaginative when celebrities can be easily identified by appearance. It makes garroting someone as a furry team mascot seem significantly less ironic.
Boosting the difficulty will increase combat difficulty, and limit manual saves. One any difficulty level, there are plenty of checklist challenges and achievements to unlock after every mission. I found myself trying to complete them all. The more you unlock, the more options become available to you when planning future missions. XP is awarded after every mission for various actions and you are given a five-star rating based on your performance. Hitman 2 encourages exploration, so be sure to check every nook and cranny to unlock all the game’s secrets. The campaign is made up of replayable missions, and going through again is how you’ll get the most out of Hitman 2.
The story is weak for the most part, although Hitman 2 does try to piece together a narrative in between missions. The story continues where season one left off as they attempt to tell Agent 47’s backstory. That’s a wasted opportunity due to the poor execution, lack of urgency and bad pacing. You’ll find the story really just comes off as a stale reason to move between grandiose locations. Instead of cutscenes, Hitman 2 tells its story through short video clips of still images with voice-over dialogue. It feels cheap and the story is pretty much forgettable. The lack of cohesion can make the game feel arcade-like at times, haphazard.
While Hitman isn’t the best looking game on the market today, it does impress. The scale and detail put into every mission’s interiors as well as exterior design is to be commended. The variation and volume of NPCs on screen also add to the immensely layered environment Hitman 2 creates. The voice acting in the cutscenes is decent but the quality is lacking during gameplay. I found it best to experience Hitman 2 in surround sound because you’ll be able to hear voices and footsteps in the distance more distinctly. I rarely ran into technical issues but I was spotted through a wall or a blindspot from time to time. Improvements in these areas would really carve out a niche for the Hitman franchise as the dominant stealth title.
Yet I’m torn. Yes, there are issues, but Hitman is still one of my beloved franchises. It’s a completionist’s dream and if you’re a long time fan or looking to expand your first season experience, this new entry works along those lines. Owners of the previous title are welcomed back, but newcomers may find themselves underwhelmed due to the lack of consistency and story. The scale, replayability, and versatility offered in every mission makes this stealth action game unique. Even after you complete its campaign in every possible variation, there are still tons of online modes and challenges to create and choose from. This entry also introduces online competitive as well as co-op modes with the return of sniper missions. If that wasn’t enough, they’ve also brought back the ability to carry the sniper briefcase during campaign missions.
With the current absence of games like Metal Gear and Splinter Cell, I’d love to see the Hitman series propel the stealth genre to the next level. The gameplay is often rewarding but it can feel like IO Interactive has traded in new ways of playing for bigger maps and classic content. Some of the changes made in Hitman: Absolution were necessary in order to move the series into the next gaming generation. Mixing in these ideas with what fans already loved about the franchise is what made Hitman (2016) so great. It would have been be great to have seen more innovative, creative ideas. Oh, well: maybe next time.
Shane Ferguson is a long-time writer for the New York Videogame Critics Circle.