The first Hitman had a lot of potential; there could have been so much to be had from a genetically-engineered, cold-blooded murderer who happens to be bald and has a mysterious bar-code tattoo on the back of his head. Unfortunately, the first game was quite a technical mess and had severe pacing issues with its levels, which also require narrow solutions to be completed without resorting to cheating.
The second game does not suffer from the issues that affected the first game, fortunately. The missions that Number 47 will undertake are also better designed now, such that objectives can be achieved in more than two ways (which in the previous game were the stealthy but rigid solution and the shooting-heavy one that is just too risky).
Silent Assassin is a direct sequel to the first game, apparently having a continuation in the story that has No. 47 retiring from his life as a hired assassin after the shocking discovery of his origins. He has retreated to a Sicilian church, intent on expending the rest of his not-exactly-natural life as a humble groundskeeper.
Unfortunately, the ramifications of his heinous past caught up to him anyway. For whatever reason, intruders have infiltrated the church's cloister and kidnapped the pastor, who happens to be his only friend. Making use of the contacts that he had made during his time as an assassin, he came into contact with the Agency again, which promises to help him gather intelligence on whoever that has wronged him, in exchange for his deadly services.
The incident at the church will act as a tutorial of sorts, serving as a refresher course for both 47 and a returning fan of the first game.
Afterwards, the player is presented with the screen called the "Tool Shed", which is both a reference to 47's second life as a groundskeeper and his hidden cache of weapons. This screen allows him/her to equip Hitman 47 for the mission that he will have to perform. This is a simple looking screen that is composed of icons for items and simple text describing their properties, thus looking not that much different from that in the first game; it may even look blander. Otherwise, it is still satisfactory enough in helping the player make selections.
Starting missions proper, a player that had played the previous game will notice several marked technical and gameplay differences, many of which are improvements and additions meant for convenience.
The first improvement that a veteran of the first game will notice is that the controls have been improved. 47 no longer moves in a clunky manner, turning like a truck; in the sequel, his movements are a lot more responsive and fluid. The camera has also been panned back to give more of a view of the surroundings, compared to the previous game where 47's more than 6 feet frame is filling up most of the screen. (The game can also be played in first-person mode.)
In the sequel, the map can now be accessed in real-time, allowing the player to examine the patrol patterns of enemies. This is particularly useful on lower difficulty settings, where these are shown in the map regardless of the relative distance between 47 and enemies that he has to avoid or eliminate. On higher difficulty settings, 47 can only spot enemies within sight, but the player can still open the auto-map to observe them from the top-down, symbolic view afforded by the map screen.
In the previous game, the game penalizes the player for killing civilians and law enforcers at the end of the mission when the scores are tallied and 47 is paid his due. This meant that the player can choose to kill everyone else, or take out plenty of civilians and policemen in non-lethal manners.
In the sequel, the programming for examining the player's decisions during a mission has been overhauled to encourage subtle and stealthy approaches on the part of the player. In other words, the player is penalized for knocking out anyone (more so for killing them) and getting spotted.
Players who had played the previous game may feel uneasy about this change, as the game apparently appears to exclusively reward stealthy approaches; players who would rather go the noisy way may be left out. However, the missions are designed such that the player can go into the mission lightly armed, but pilfer weapons from armed guards or other sources like gun racks and weapon depots.
Furthermore, the mechanic of purchasing things with money earned from missions are gone. Instead, the rewards come in the form of unlockable gear, and these are fittingly stealth-oriented items that players who prefer to play the subtle way would appreciate; unsubtle gear like guns are unlocked as a standard, so a player can still go into a mission rather heavily armed.
In the previous game, disguises always work as long as the player character is not having 47 doing silly things like going into restricted areas; standing around disguised and doing nothing while guards pass by will never rouse suspicion, even if the alert bar raises because of 47's proximity with enemies.
In Silent Assassin, disguises no longer have designs that allow them to fool every enemy. In some missions, enemies are very suspicious individuals, and will make it a priority to examine 47 more closely if he gets too close to them; given enough time (which is short), his cover can be blown. If the player has 47 running away when he is under the eyes of suspicious guards just to get out of proximity, his cover is also immediately blown.
This may seem like an improvement in enemy AI, but it also means that 47 can no longer get near any guard while in disguise, which in turn also mean that disguises no longer get 47 through guarded doorways.
This increase in the seeming paranoia of enemies would seem understandable and perhaps make for a satisfactory increase in challenge, especially considering that a pale, tall man with almost no facial features and a barcode tattoo on the back of his head would still be terribly suspicious when his disguise cannot conceal these.
Yet, there are instances where the player's sense of belief can be shattered; in some missions, enemies are clad from head to toe, thus 47 can presumably obscure his trademark appearance by disguising himself as them. Unfortunately, enemies who come closer to examine him will still be able to somehow pick him out as an impostor anyway.
In other words, while the changes in the disguise system have made it more believable, they have also taken away the player character's freedom of movement, as they deter the player from using solutions that have 47 getting close to guards.
Furthermore, regardless of how the player slipped up, even if he/she slipped up when not in the presence of guards and other on-lookers, the player will discover (usually through an on-screen message) that enemies are somehow able to notice that "a suspicious person" is wearing the same clothes that 47 is wearing.
However, the game also provides more options to handle enemies with now. In the previous game, the only way to make sure enemies stay down is to slay them. In the sequel, 47 gets a non-lethal solution in the form of anesthetics can be applied on enemies to knock them out for a long time; the victims cannot be roused from their drug-induced slumber, if their bodies are found. However, they will awake some time after.
In addition, 47 can also pistol-whip a person's head from the back, immediately knocking him/her out and also putting out said person temporarily, unless another person comes over to rouse them.
However, it should be noted here that both non-lethal methods still count towards score penalties.
The game discourages killing further through unwitting oversights in the programming of guard/security AI. The AI seems to be able to detect dying persons even through walls and other large solid objects, regardless of how quiet the player went about it, as long as the victims are killed within a certain radius of guards.
It should be apparent by now that the game goes out of its way to discourage murderous solutions to completing missions. On the other hand, the game has also made it easier to pursue such solutions, due to the inclusion of the feature to save during missions and that 47 retained his superhuman fortitude from the first game (e.g. he can be shot in the head and have very nasty decals appear on his head polygon, but it is still difficult for 47 to be killed outright this way).
However, Io Interactive had insisted on not having the player exploit the game-saving feature to succeed in the game. The player has a limited number of game-saving chances during a mission, with this number reducing in the higher difficulty settings (down to none at the highest); any game-saves made during any mission are set in stone, and cannot be recovered unless the player restarts the mission.
While it can be argued that allowing the player to save at anytime during a mission would make the game artificially easier, it can be argued too that taking away the option to save games anywhere the player likes also makes the game artificially more difficult.
In the previous game, the difficulty settings are little more than modifiers for the toughness of Agent 47 and that of enemies'; there are few more significant differences than these. The AI still acts the same, and stealthy solutions still occur in the same manner without any additional complications.
The sequel doesn't change these designs for the difficulty settings. However, it does add more challenges, such as increases in the hearing range of enemies (making it easier for them to detect 47 if he is trying to sneak up on them) and reductions in the accuracy of weapons that 47 fires in the higher difficulty settings.
Unfortunately there are no changes in the stealthy and more subtle solutions, beyond enemies' increased abilities to detect Agent 47. Taking the sneaky and very involved route feels not much different from one difficulty setting to another, i.e. there are no permutations in the stealthy solutions that are available in the mission being played.
That is not saying that the stealthy solutions are dull, however. They can be quite believable and satisfying to pull off, further encouraging the player to take the stealthy mode of play. After all, if the player opts for a shoot-out, the player will find that the gun-play isn't much more different from so many other modern military shooters. Furthermore, 47 has no way to heal during a level.
For a player that prefers stealthy options, he/she may be disappointed that some missions only have one-way solutions, but there are just as many missions that have more than one way for the player to get around to the objective.
For example, there is a mission that takes place in a quaint villa in Japan, and the player has to assassinate one of the masters of the household. The player can wait for said target to be left almost alone before killing him, resort to toxic contamination of the food that he will eat, or wait for him to expose himself through the window of his room before shooting his head.
It has to be mentioned here that missions are no longer one-off affairs like in the previous game. Missions are grouped into chapters depending on the nations that they are held in. 47 will not be able to return to the Tool Shed in between missions, to emulate his lack of access to resources that he needs to prepare for missions, but he does get to take the gear (namely guns from fallen enemies) that he had taken in a mission to the next one in the same chapter.
This may seem like a bad design, especially to players who prefer stealthy approaches but know that these require preparation, namely careful selection of gear. However, every mission is designed such that the means to pull off sneaky solutions are contained within the same map as the mission.
For players who had played the first game and prefer to resort to gunplay when convenient, they will notice that 47 can no longer stuff his suit full of small weapons like pistols and SMGs as in the previous game, which was unbelievable. Instead, 47 can only carry a limited number of them now, though he still can only carry one gun from the two-handed category at any one time and he still cannot conceal these.
(It has to be noted here that the newly introduced Sawn-Off Shotgun can be concealed, thus giving 47 a solution for close-range gunfights - though it has only two shells in its chambers.)
Getting ammo from guns that fallen enemies drop is now a simple affair of removing the magazines from them, thus allowing a player to stockpile ammunition for a scenario that requires a shoot-out to get out of.
There are some weapons in the game that are included in certain levels just to show that 47 can use whatever is close-by and available to kill enemies with, such as fire axes and golf clubs. However, these are really only there for reasons of novelty, because they are very unsubtle and 47, despite being a natural-born killer and experienced assassin, does not have the martial expertise to wield them skilfully.
Most of the weapons in the game are based on real-life weapons, so there won't be much in the way of exciting weaponry if the player has already played his/her fair share of modern combat shooters.
(There is a new silenced handgun that joins the fiber wire as a weapon that cannot sound off metal detectors, though this is a weapon that can only be unlocked very late into the game.)
Canonically, the game has considered that 47 had consistently chosen stealth and subtle means to eliminate his targets, thus earning him his reputation of being a silent assassin. This canonical progress in the franchise gave Io Interactive an excuse to give 47 two very useful items as default gear.
47 now has lockpicks to handle doors with, though the process of picking doors can take a while, depending on the programming for the door. This exposes him to any patrolling guard that passes by, so it may be worthwhile exploring the current level looking for keys. Nevertheless, if the guards are not a problem, e.g. they are distracted elsewhere or are indisposed, this is a welcome alternative to hunting for keys.
(Not all doors can be picked open, however, namely those that do not use conventional locks.)
The Binoculars has also been made a tool that is permanently available to 47. There are not many levels that allow the player to use Binoculars effectively though, and using Binoculars also happen to be a suspicious act.
Unlike the previous game, Agent 47 can now clamber across rooftops and other precarious places - which also means that he can fall from them and injure himself. However, Agent 47 still does not have a dedicated jump button; any jumping across roofs is still a pre-scripted animation/cut-scene. In any case, there are alternate paths to objectives that can be achieved through these places, and the benefit is that they have little guards patrolling on them or looking up at them.
The programming of the game appears to be mostly technically sound. However, there are some hiccups to be had with canned animations, which occur in real-time whenever 47 performs an action like lock-picking and changing clothes; the player can switch to the map viewing mode, and then switch back, possibly canceling the animations.
There are also glitches involving single-handed weapons. Generally, only the early-game handguns like the Ballers and 9 mm pistols an be dual-wielded, but an equipping glitch can be used to dual-wield these together with other single-handed guns, which can be a very amusing sight. Furthermore, the weapon on 47's right hand will be bugged, becoming impossible to run of ammunition. This glitch does not appear to have been fixed at all.
There is even a glitch that can be used to unlock all levels by exploiting a bug that occurs in the screen that has the player selecting the difficulty setting.
While the premise of 47 having to work for the Agency again in return for information on the whereabouts of his friend is really an excuse to have him conducting missions across the globe, it also gives the level designers an excuse to create thematically and aesthetically different levels.
For example, there are levels with greatly contrasting themes like the Oriental conservative countryside of Japan against the third-world urban development of India. It is worth spending the time to explore these levels not only to just figure out solutions to achieve the objectives of the current mission, but also to check out the level designs.
However, the premise also lacks the appeal of the first game, which is the joy of playing as a genetically-engineered killer and finding out that the missions that he has to undertake has something to do with his nature. Taking on missions that appear to have little to do with the kidnapping of his pastor friend just does not have the same appeal; the game's story also makes a weak attempt to tie everything together, which will not be described here as this would be a spoiler.
The technical designs of the graphics can be considered mostly competent, e.g. textures load quickly and are rarely muddled, models in the game have a lot of polygons and decals such as bullet wounds appear quickly and virtually accurately at where they are seemingly applied. However, it has to be mentioned here that Silent Assassin was designed for multiple platforms and Io Interactive had not seen fit to spruce up the graphics for the PC version beyond greater frame rates.
Most of the animations appear to be motion-captured, so Silent Assassin would appear to have the best of the animation designs at the time: many characters do not mill about aimlessly, for they will go about rather believable daily routines like cooking and serving food, taking showers and working in front of computer workstations. This makes observing the routines of these people, if only to plan for sneaking routes, quite worth the time.
However, any sense of belief in the animation of characters is quite shattered when they are rendered dead. They completely lose any semblance of motion-captured animations upon death, i.e. they turn into rag-dolls. Therefore, their corpses will ever only have the restrictions placed on their skeletal structure for their motions (of being dragged around) to be considered believable. Yet, the player will find that corpses can be contorted in ridiculous manners when they collide with environmental objects.
And they collide a lot; every part of the corpse has a hitbox, meaning that it can get caught in complicated level geometries like table legs and the round tires of cars. This can make hiding corpses a major hassle, and 47's preference for only dragging only one limb of any corpse only makes this worse.
Perhaps this can be construed as a design decision on the part of the developer that unwittingly further deters the player from resorting to the incapacitation - lethal or otherwise - of NPCs.
Another game design that can be seemingly unbelievable is the tendency of just about everyone in the game to stare at 47, be they guards, waiters, policemen and triad gangsters, among other NPCs. They are guaranteed to stare at 47 whenever he passes by, even if they are supposed to be keeping an eye on what they are supposed to be doing at the time, e.g. reading a book. Of course, it can be argued that 47 is a very suspicious-looking man, but this animation can also be considered unnecessary.
The sound designs of Silent Assassin are perhaps more thoroughly well-done than its graphical designs.
That Silent Assassin's missions take place across the world means that Io Interactive has the opportunity to have the voice-acting be composed of a spattering of multiple languages. Some of these are competently done, though the others are either just decent or performed with stereotypical gusto, especially the Asian ones. Still, perhaps Io Interactive deserves some credit for featuring some nations that rarely get into video games, such as Malaysia.
Io Interactive may have used a variety of foreign languages, but has not done much for the variation in the voice-over of individual characters. Tertiary (e.g. inconsequential) characters like civilians have very few sound clips, resulting in a lot of repetition, especially if the player resorts to violent methods; the same can be said about guards and armed enemies too. This repetitive voice-acting in combat - again - further discourages overt solutions to achieving objectives.
On the other hand, when the situation is quieter, the effort invested into the voice-acting can be heard. Characters sometimes converse with each other, albeit briefly, giving the player reassurance that things haven't boiled over yet. Yet, such behavior is only apparent in civilians; the guards go about their duties silently, rarely talking to anyone else.
The soundtracks are orchestral in composition. Most of them are meant to aurally emphasize the cultural themes of the nation that the current mission takes place in; a player that had played games that are grounded in real-life themes would not find much of anything new to listen here.
The soundtracks that relay the themes of suspense in Silent Assassin would be more refreshing though. A soundtrack of particular noteworthiness is the one that plays when guards are on alert and are looking for a "suspicious bald man", suggesting to the player that he/she should have 47 hide somewhere until the guards eventually lose interest.
The most prominent sound effects are, of course, gunfire. However, being a game that uses guns based on real-life counterparts, a player that had played military shooters before won't be amazed by the composition of sounds for gunfire in this game.
On the other hand, the sounds that accompany the little actions that NPCs perform like opening doors, eating and relieving themselves at the toilet would be the more interesting ones, because they happen to be rare in games outside the life-simulating genre. However, not every action that NPCs perform have sound effects accompanying them, such as the act of sitting down on chairs. Still, this is a minor complaint. (Any action that 47 performs does come with sound effects though, thankfully.)
In conclusion, Silent Assassin is a major improvement over the first game in many, many aspects, but it can also be considered what the first game should have been.