Platforms: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One

With every new Hitman game, I’m reminded of the fact that being a professional assassin is harder than it looks. Keeping track of enemy patrols, disguises, autosaves, and the electrical fault you caused by tossing a car battery into a puddle from a clogged sink; it all seems like a lot to wrap your head around.

Long time protagonist Agent 47 takes on the role of silently assassinating a secret shadow organization, and acts as a flawed, but serviceable puppet for you to explore IO Interactive’s fresh set of playgrounds and objectives in Hitman 2.

Smooth evolution

Hitman 2 doesn’t do much to reinvent the wheel, but for what it lacks in raw gameplay innovation, it makes up for with the sheer breadth and variety of experience offered in each of the six levels. There’s something to be said for refining a game’s formula in a positive way, and Hitman 2 offers just that kind of polish.

In a lot of ways Hitman 2 is extremely similar to the episodic Hitman that rolled out in 2016, and if you were to take a break from one and jump into the other you would probably only notice a slight graphical upgrade, an increase in NPC density, and improved AI between the two. Of course, these improvements do work to Hitman 2’s benefit. Levels undeniably feel more crowded and alive, while most NPCs feel like they pay attention and investigate distractions just enough to make them realistic, but not so much that they constantly feel like robotic terminator set pieces in IO Interactive’s world.

It’s obvious that Hitman 2 isn’t trying to make some wild jump to a whole new experience, it’s trying to be a little better at what it does best. It largely accomplishes that goal by delivering interesting puzzles for the player to unravel as they progress through each level.

These playgrounds are crafted with Hitman’s patented attention to detail, and wry sense of gallows humor. The levels are very engaging, whether you’re slaughtering your way through every NPC dumb enough to separate from the pack, or sleuthing your way through missions like a lethal ghost.

Unfortunately, this does mean that Hitman 2 feels a lot like a large-scale expansion of the 2016 Hitman rather than a true successor to the franchise. The fact that we get six levels, five of which are extremely detailed, large environments rather than an episodic adventure is an improvement over the previous entry, but Hitman 2 never quite feels like an evolution of the franchise.

I found myself remembering certain levels more than I remembered the whole experience, which makes me wonder if Hitman 2 will be remembered as fondly as earlier predecessors like Hitman: Blood Money that managed to deliver a much more complete adventure from start to finish.

No need to race to the finish line

At the same time, Hitman 2 still plays fantastic, and manages to blend a sense of real consequence with the trademarked sensation of walking around in a three-dimensional puzzle focused on killing unique targets in varied settings. 

As you would expect, loading into a level for the first time is a lot of exploration and experimentation, as you learn the level and your target’s specific patterns and behavior.

Hitman 2 does feature a return of mission strands, which prompt a player to follow a specific mission or objective they might find to pull off a particularly stylized or interesting assassination. Most of these strands now also tie into Hitman 2’s challenge system to reward you for creativity and encourage you to replay missions with new equipment and possibilities.

As with 2016’s Hitman, you find a lot of these questlines organically by eavesdropping on conversations between civilians, guards chiming in about their employer’s habits, and through various bits of intel and tech spread across the map. This system seems a little out of place when compared to older titles in the franchise, but eventually I grew to enjoy it. The focus system is implemented subtly enough that it mostly feels like it enhances your ability to pursue your goal, rather than getting in the way of your ultimate objective.

For more hardcore fans of the franchise, you can easily ignore the objectives, and find a more organic way to do the dirty deed. You can even disable them entirely in the difficulty settings to create a less guided experience. Choice is always good.

The benefit of this flexibility is it provides accessibility for someone that’s always wanted to dive into Hitman, but may have been intimidated by the fairly demanding learning curve. There are moments where triggering your focus or following an objective you picked up from listening to two mechanics complain about their boss allows you to pick out possibilities that you might never have noticed under normal circumstances.

These mechanics act as a helping hand, but aren’t so intrusive that they get in the way of your adventure through IO Interactive’s finely constructed virtual wonderlands. 

Killing with the butterfly effect

Hitman 2 is often challenging, and as a result, you often find yourself learning as much from death as from casual observation. Each level feels like an extremely complex puzzle game that’s slowly rotating around Agent 47 as he makes his way towards his target.

Moving any one piece of the puzzle causes things to shift and react around you, which forces you to shift and react in kind, as though you’re playing a game of cat and mouse with the engine itself.

As a result, dying is an integral part of learning how the game operates. As you progress through the level, you quickly learn that sometimes the best way to see if something works is to cause as much havoc as possible to see how the game reacts. The right decision might send you down the exact hallway your target is taking to get to their panic room. Make a mistake, and you could end up walking into a trap that you set up earlier in the level. Either way, you won’t know what not to do until you try.

Finding the balance between experimentation, replay value, and the correct path to the objective is one of the things that makes Hitman 2 so much fun. It’s often not about any single attempt at a level, its about playing them repeatedly to figure out the method that you enjoyed the most. That’s what Hitman has always been about, and the same is true in Hitman 2.

Trouble in paradise

Positive level design aside, there are some issues that disrupted the flow of this complex game.

Although Hitman 2 is clearly the best-looking Hitman game in the franchise, animations are not always consistent, and occasionally the crowd physics and NPCs interact in bizarre ways. This sometimes results in people existing inside each other, invisible barriers that you can’t walk around, and the rare bit of looped audio that can get a bit annoying if you’re camping out waiting for a target to get far enough in their daily routine to pull off a clean kill.

Poison in particular was consistently an issue for me, and on more than one occasion I would drop lethal or emetic poison into a drink only to find that my target didn’t feel any worse for wear after downing half a bottle.

This could have been the result of my own lack of patience, but I could never tell if the poisons just occasionally failed to work, or if my target just didn’t finish their drink because of another distraction. I also ran into a few issues where unconscious enemies would become immune to other methods of killing them short of shooting them in the head or personally snapping their neck, which was occasionally frustrating when I was trying to make a knockout look like an accidental death.

That said, these issues are relatively minor, and I never ran into something so game breaking that I couldn’t find a way to work around it by exploring other options. Hopefully most of these issues will get fixed between now and release, but some of them are just the price of admittance for open-world levels with so many NPCs and possibilities.