There's no mistaking what Hitman 2: Silent Assassin is all about. One look at the bald, sharply dressed man on the cover, grim as death and armed with a hardballer pistol in each hand, and you can tell that this isn't exactly lighthearted stuff. Hitman 2, released simultaneously for the PC, Xbox, and PlayStation 2 platforms, is the sequel to a PC game released two years ago by Denmark-based developer IO Interactive. The original Hitman: Codename 47 featured some undeniably impressive technical elements, but it also had a number of serious problems. Some players were able to overcome the control issues and punishing difficulty level of the game and appreciated it on the strength of its violent concept--you played as a genetically engineered contract killer and were tasked with stealthily eliminating a number of well-guarded targets. At its best, the game offered both full-on intense action as well as plenty of nail-biting suspense. The sequel takes this same idea a step further and fully realizes it, proving that IO Interactive has the ability to back up flashy graphics and controversial subject matter with great gameplay. Simply put, Hitman 2 fixes virtually all of the problems of its predecessor and stands tall on its own merits as an outstanding action game.
Those who never played the original Hitman already know all the background on Hitman 2 that they'll really need. The game begins with the enigmatic man known only as 47 working not as a hired gun but as a gardener. He's given up his violent ways and is now serving as a humble groundskeeper in a Sicilian church. But when the church's kindly minister is kidnapped, 47 has no choice but to once again don his black suit and unpack his deadly arsenal of firearms and close-range weapons. He contacts his former employer to try to track down the priest, but he'll need to perform a few jobs before they'll cough up any details on his friend's whereabouts. So much for early retirement. Yet though the story unfolds vividly using beautifully staged cinematic cutscenes rendered using the game's 3D engine, the actual story of Hitman 2 doesn't really get too far off the ground. It's largely an excuse to send 47 around the world to exotic locations like Japan, Russia, Malaysia, and India, where you'll help him infiltrate heavily fortified locations from an ancient castle to a high-tech software corporation.
The game comprises more than 20 missions in all, which you'll play through one after the other. Though the settings and the details of each mission are different, most all of them share some basic themes: getting in, eliminating a key target, and getting out. How you meet your objective is up to you, whether by guile and stealth or by brute force, and most missions are cleverly designed to have at least several viable, even intuitive solutions. If you're really good, you can make it through most missions leaving only a single corpse behind--the only one that matters--and you can make it through having never even drawn a firearm. If that's too subtle for you, you can opt to try to mow down anyone who stands between you and your victim. But you'll need to be careful, because your primary target might flee the scene amid whatever turmoil you cause.
Actually, one of the big differences between Hitman 2 and its predecessor is that, for various reasons, a forceful approach is much more viable in the sequel. At the normal difficulty setting, it's in fact much easier, and much faster, to just blast your way through most missions, partly because your enemies just aren't that smart in a shootout, though they can overwhelm you in numbers. Nevertheless, the game still encourages you to be stealthy, and you'll have to be at the game's two higher difficulty settings. Regardless of how you play, the fact that you can just start shooting if you blow your cover will lead to many thrilling, unscripted gunfights against large groups of foes that look realistic and often act realistically too.
As 47, you have access to the sorts of moves and weaponry that you'd perhaps expect from a character of his nature. You'll get to see 47 ply his deadly trade from a default third-person perspective, though the developers added an optional first-person view as well. That's a nice touch, but still, it's hard to pass up the third-person option, since it gives you a clear look at all of 47's lifelike animations and gives you some good peripheral vision too. While 47 has no hand-to-hand combat moves, he can take out foes at close range by slashing their throats in one quick motion, strangling them with his trusty fiber wire, or knocking them out with chloroform--an uncharacteristically humane addition to 47's arsenal. Melee weapons ranging from a golf club to a katana are also available, as well as a massive variety of real-world firearms. All manner of pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, and sniper rifles can be found and used, and as you scavenge new weapons from your missions, you'll find them lovingly displayed as new additions to your collection back at your inconspicuous base out of Sicily. While you can then select which weapons to bring with you on a new assignment, you can't just lug everything around. In particular, you can only carry a single rifle at a time, and these bulky weapons can't be concealed.
Concealment, of course, is critical to 47's success. As in the first Hitman, in the sequel you can relieve just about any killed (or unconscious) male character of his clothing and drag prone bodies out of sight. Donning disguises is handled as strangely as before, meaning one moment you'll be wearing your original outfit and then, moments after selecting the "change clothes" command, you're suddenly wearing a new one as the old one appears neatly folded on the ground. In a game that's generally so believable, this aspect of Hitman 2 comes across as a bit silly--but the fact that you don't have to spend hours looking for a victim who wears the same size of pants that 47 does certainly helps the gameplay. At any rate, unlike in the original, in Hitman 2 there's more to concealment than just putting on a disguise and then having free rein to walk among your enemies. When the 6-foot, pale-skinned 47 tries to blend in with the locals in India, you'd best believe he'll have to do more than just put on a turban. Generally, you need to stay relatively far away from most passersby if you want your disguise to work, and you need to act casually.
This creates some tense situations. Enemy guards will eye you warily and may decide to confront you if you're acting strangely. Their cold stares will often leave you feeling unsettled as you try to walk--not run--through an enemy-infested area as quickly as you can. Yes, 47 can run tirelessly, but doing so generates noise and also rouses a lot of suspicion, making running impractical for most situations requiring stealth. Fortunately, 47 can also walk, sneak, and crawl. Sneaking and crawling are silent, and 47 can aim sniper rifles more steadily from a crouched position. The thing is, these other means of movement can seem excruciatingly slow compared with running, and realistic though this may be, you'll have to practice a lot before you can successfully sneak up behind an opponent.
The game does a pretty good job of teaching and explaining all the control mechanics to you early on and in the context of the story--see, 47's employer wants to make sure he hasn't gotten rusty and so offers him a quick refresher course. The fact that most of Hitman 2's controls will be instantly accessible to anyone who's played any recent shooter speaks to how greatly the designers have improved the sequel's controls since the original. Suffice it to say that all the original game's control problems are gone and that Hitman 2 basically controls just like your typical first-person shooter. The main difference is in the presence of an easy-to-use context-sensitive menu, which lets you do things like pick locks, put on disguises, climb through windows, grab useful items, and so on.
The original game's extremely steep learning curve isn't nearly as insurmountable in the sequel, since at normal difficulty, 47 can sustain massive amounts of damage (thanks to good old genetic engineering) and can still finish most missions if he blows his cover. Also, the fact that you can save your progress during missions certainly helps: Seven saves are available per mission at normal difficulty and two at expert, though none are available at professional, the toughest setting. The professional setting offers an additional challenge in that the real-time area map you have constant access to will not reveal enemy positions, whereas on normal and expert, you'll see incoming enemies as blips on this screen. Also, aiming is noticeably more erratic at the two tougher settings--you'll need to manually compensate for your weapons' recoil, which actually makes the weapons seem to pack more of a punch. At any rate, between the multiple difficulty settings and the game's end-of-mission ranking system that rewards you for staying stealthy, and of course the inherently open-ended design of the missions, you may find that Hitman 2 has a lot more longevity than most other single-player action games these days.
Hitman 2 certainly looks superb, on every platform. Sure enough, the game looks its best on a high-end PC, though the Xbox version is about as good, and the PlayStation 2 version also looks great. While the game does look similar in many ways to its predecessor, its slick, polished graphical presentation stands up to the very best of what the genre has to offer. Crisp, colorful textures are used to bring both the game's indoor and outdoor settings to life, though textures in the outdoor environments can seem a bit repetitive. Weapons are all rendered with meticulous detail, down to alternate reload animations depending on whether you're playing from the third-person or first-person view. You also won't see a great deal of variety in the character models in each level, though all characters are motion-captured to lifelike perfection. You'll appreciate that many of the characters in the game do have a distinctly unique appearance, and you'll really enjoy the game's stylish cutscenes, which often take the form of surveillance footage taken of 47's targets. In one remarkable mission, you'll have nothing to go on but an old black and white video of the target as a young child.
Yet perhaps the most notable aspect of Hitman 2's graphics is its use of what's now commonly known as "rag doll physics," meaning that characters don't die in any prescripted fashion, but rather go limp as they're struck by the simulated force of your firepower. Sometimes this effect is amazing, like when you blast a ninja from out of the rafters and watch him tumble to the ground or when you take out an enemy sniper and see him slump dead over a railing. At other times, the rag doll effect lives up to its name, and you'll see a foe go flopping end over end in a manner that's more comical than anything else. All in all, it's still a very cool effect, though those who played the original Hitman might wish that it were refined more for the sequel.
Sure enough, Hitman 2 sounds as impressive as it looks. The jarringly loud and clear report of each of the game's various firearms is very convincing, and characters all speak in their native languages--though if you start shooting, you'll start to hear innocents uttering the same cries for help over and over. The voice acting in Hitman 2 is generally solid, and 47's voice in particular, with its slight European accent, is particularly good and much improved from his voice in the original. But the music is probably the highlight of the audio presentation. Featuring a booming original soundtrack, parts of which were performed by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, Hitman 2's music effectively underscores the action and also weaves in some cultural themes that help establish each new setting. And the way the music fades to a soft, ominous tone after you assassinate your target in each mission may send shivers down your spine.
Hitman 2 is exceptionally well done in most every way and represents a major improvement over the original. A true multiplatform game, it wasn't developed for the lowest common denominator, but it instead showcases the best of what the PC, Xbox, and PlayStation 2 have to offer, as though the game were specifically designed for each. Clearly, many of the design decisions made by IO Interactive were directly in response to common criticisms leveled against the original, but these improvements don't come at the cost of a simpler or easier experience. Even the most experienced gamers will find a serious, rewarding challenge in the game's highest difficulty mode, yet the well-rounded design of Hitman 2 means just about anyone with a taste for the subject matter, or just a stomach for it, will really like the game and its distinctively cinematic style.