When your company, a video game developer known for a very niche, though long-running series, is cut loose from its home at a well-known publisher, there is good reason to believe you’ll never make a game again. This was the nightmare scenario that played out for Hitman developer IO interactive when Square-Enix decided to remove them from its portfolio. For an agonisingly long moment, Hitman‘s future was deeply imperiled.
And then something happened, an occurrence so rare in this industry that it could be considered a miracle — despite kicking IO to the curb, Square Enix allowed IO to retain ownership of the Hitman IP. This meant they were not only free to continue development on a sequel under their own steam, they were also well within their rights to seek distribution and shop the franchise to other publishers. Seeing a good fit for their portfolio, WB Games took IO in and Hitman 2 was announced ahead of E3 earlier this year.
So, to reiterate: it is a miracle that Hitman 2 even exists. That it’s one of the year’s best stealth titles is another thing entirely.
Hitman 2 picks up a short time after the conclusion of Hitman: Season One, IO’s 2016 series reboot that successfully pivoted to an episodic model. Agent 47 and his long-time handler Diana are on the hunt for the Shadow Client, the mysterious villain from Season One. The Shadow Client holds information about Agent 47’s past and a number of key names connected to it. I won’t go into any spoilers. Suffice it to say, the story remains undeniably goofy and rarely makes a lick of sense, but it isn’t the aspect of the game that keeps fans coming back. They’re here for the creative problem solving that always, always ends in the gruesome murder of horrible people who absolutely deserve to die.
IO clearly understand this, taking their level design game to a level Season One could never have hoped to reach. The prologue mission sees 47 infiltrating the ultra-modern home of a pair of arms dealers on New Zealand’s south island. It’s a straightforward job — gain entry to the house, take out the target and escape the house. From this rather subdued beginning, 47 and Diana draw a ragged, bloody line across the globe, moving hurriedly from country-to-country, from one gorgeous and crowded location to the next, devouring information and dispatching anyone connected to the Shadow Client’s hit list.
IO could have easily rested on their laurels, designwise. The array of murder sandboxes that made up Hitman: Season One‘s levels were already highly enjoyable. IO could have made a few more similarly-sized levels and called it a day — its likely I’d still be losing my mind over it if they had.
But they didn’t. Instead, IO doubled down, building levels of a size and scale that dwarf anything in Season One. They also use the first few levels to slowly expand the scale and help get the player used to it — the beachside house in New Zealand begins small, the Grand Prix in Florida takes it up a notch — before pulling out all the stops in final level, a sprawling, seabound castle that seems to go on forever. I kept expecting the scale to top out at some point, but it never did. There are so many paths to take, experiments to run, challenges to complete and feats of deadly ingenuity to undertake that its hard to know where to start. It’s possible to blast through the entire campaign in a couple of days. It’s possible, but it’s not really the point. Every level is built for replayability, going back and trying different things, seeing how you can be more efficient or creative. I can see a lot of die hard fans really getting their money’s worth out of the game throughout the coming months.
IO are swinging for the fences with Hitman 2. They’ve attacked this project like it might be the last game they ever make because, while it was in production, I assume the thinking internally was “Fuck it, it might be.” A personal game of the year contender for certain.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Great level design; Rewards patience and experimentation; Huge replayability
Lowlights: Still some clunkiness in the way 47 interacts with the world around him
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: WB Games
Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows PC
Review conducted on an Xbox One X using a Hitman 2 Gold Edition key provided by the publisher.