Release Date: November 13, 2018Platform: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PCDeveloper: IO InteractivePublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentGenre: Stealth Action
There came a moment in Hitman 2 when I was (It: Chapter Two spoilers ahead) dressed as a clown and standing beside a doorframe waiting to chop up bodyguards with a samurai sword when I realized that my favorite games are the ones that allow you…no, not allow…demand that you fail. From Dark Souls substituting tutorials for countless deaths to the way Fallout 3 lets you walk straight into the mouth of danger while exploring, many of the best games realize that success is just a power fantasy if it’s not coupled with the possibility that something might go horribly wrong.
Few games exemplify that philosophy better than the Hitman series. Hitman games have long been described as “trial and error” exercises, but that’s not entirely accurate. That phrase tends to suggest that you’re trying to accomplish one goal. Instead, the Hitman series has always been about improvisation and allowing failure to shine a light on the game’s possibilities. If you’re not failing in Hitman, you’re not exploring everything the games have to offer.
So why is it that Hitman 2‘s developers sometimes seem afraid to fail?
The (likely) answer to that question is that IO Interactive has “failed” in the past and almost suffered dearly for it. 2016’s Hitman reportedly suffered through some initially horrible sales which may have been partially to blame for Square Enix’s decision to drop IO Interactive. The franchise’s ability to succeed in the modern world was seriously in doubt. The shame of it all was that 2016’s Hitman was a brilliant game. Its open levels, brilliant scenarios, and mission-by-mission release structure encouraged players to explore the possibilities of every assignment like never before. Hitman might very well have been 2016’s best game, and it was certainly the best game of that year that not nearly enough people played.
In a way, then, it makes sense that Hitman 2 is closer to Hitman: Redux. This sequel even features the ability to access all of Hitman‘s levels. Beyond such obvious comparisons, Hitman 2 features similar level design philosophy to the one employed by Hitman, similar mechanics, similar special timed missions, and generally feels about the same as the 2016 game plus or minus a few new gadgets and some really handy new features (like an enhanced picture-in-picture mode that relays enemy positioning and awareness). There is also a new “multiplayer” mode that sees you and another player compete for kills, but it doesn’t quite capture the methodical feel of the base game despite being somewhat amusing in its own right.
You know what? I honestly didn’t expect anything more from this game, and I’m even okay with its familiarities in many ways. Lest we forget that the Hitman series hasn’t really changed all that much in 18 years. That’s rarely been a problem considering that there aren’t many games worth playing that offer what Hitman offers. Instead, the value of the Hitman franchise has typically been measured by how well it executes that formula and whether or not the game has enough flavor.
So far as that goes, Hitman 2 is arguably the best Hitman game ever. The crux of the Hitman series has always been the quality of its mission and level design, and Hitman 2 elevates those elements to a near art form. Ever since Hitman: Blood Money, the series has embraced absurdity to the point where we often judge and remember the game’s missions based on the quality of the elaborate ways it allows us to take out targets. What Hitman 2016 did was escalate the thrill of discovering those possibilities by scattering them throughout more open environments and allowing players to organically uncover them through whatever way they choose to play the game.
Unsurprisingly, Hitman 2 sticks to that same approach but manages to perfect it via the sheer quality of the levels and the objectives. It’s easy to point to things like sabotaging a race car or giving someone the world’s deadliest tattoo and say “Oh, how fun,” but the reason all these elaborate and brilliant kill possibilities work is that the levels themselves are designed in such a way that the journey to these possibilities is equally – if not more – exciting than the destination. You just never feel like you’re on a rail when you’re playing Hitman 2. Yes, there are very specific assassination you can work towards, but the fact that your plans can fall apart at any second – and that you can always change them on the spot – means that achieving a specific assassination feels like an accomplishment and not an inevitability.
Most importantly, there are levels in this game that are just flat out brilliant and fun to explore even when you’re not trying to kill anyone. The best example of this may be a brilliant Vermont suburbs level that feels so genuine that it makes it all the more disturbing to introduce violence to the area. In fact, the IO Interactive does a generally brilliant job of disguising these assassination playgrounds as something more genuine and real.
Combine all of that with the game’s excellent visual design (if slightly dated raw graphics), fantastic sound quality, and incredible replay value (achieved both through the replayable nature of the levels themselves as well as the fun special challenges) and you’ve got a game that Hitman fans are simply going to fall in love with.
That’s all great, but it comes back to whether or not you consider that to be enough of an accomplishment or whether or not you feel that IO Interactive needs to try to do more with the Hitman formula (if for no other reason than the fact that 2016’s Hitman was an almost perfect execution of that formula and still struggled to sell). In fact, even though it is often also a great example of the virtues of that formula, there are times when Hitman 2 exhibits the limits of playing it “safe.”
The biggest example of those limits is the game’s story. Hitman games have never really been about the overarching story, which hasn’t necessarily been a problem until IO decided to devote more attention to the grand narrative of the last two Hitman titles. The problem with that approach is that the arching story of these games is almost always going to be less exciting than the stories players create through their actions and the mini-narratives that populate each level. IO is trying to strike this strange balance between linear storytelling in-between missions and open, action and environmental storytelling in the missions themselves. That contrast creates some very real pacing issues that make it difficult to really motivate the player. You just never really feel the stakes of what is happening.
It doesn’t help that the story itself is just okay at the best of times. It’s a fairly standard global conspiracy type of affair that lacks compelling characters, shocking moments, or a sense of urgency. Quite frankly, you could skip every cutscene in the game and still get the best of what Hitman 2 has to offer. There’s also a feeling of complacency sinking in when it comes to certain environmental options and the mechanics of specific actions. Dragging bodies remains an exercise in tedium, gunplay still feels prohibitive (if intentionally so), you’ll often see missions employ “disguise yourself as a server/vendor in order to poison something” (and other familiar scenarios), and the relative alertness of guards and targets often doesn’t feel as organic as the ways in which you can eliminate them.
2016’s Hitman disguised some of these franchise familiarities with a more refined and open take on the formula that emphasized replayability and creativity. Two years later, though, you may often find yourself asking “what’s next” even while you are actively enjoying what the game has to offer.
It is not the duty of every sequel to drastically change the franchise, but at a time when games like Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 are pushing the limits of even the most stagnant franchises (not to mention games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and God of War boldly revitalizing perfectly fine franchises), and at a time when the value of a game is just as much about the experience of it as it is the amount of content it offers, we’re left to wonder whether or not Hitman 2‘s “$60 ambitious DLC” approach is enough for anyone who isn’t already in love with the franchise. Is it enough to help ensure the future of a series that is quite frankly living and dying by the success of each release?
Developer IO Interactive has accomplished things with Hitman‘s “succeed by failing” design that I only wish more games could pull off. I just hope that the next Hitman game isn’t afraid to put that philosophy to work beyond the boundaries of what we’ve come to expect from this franchise.