Hitman 2 (2018)

I have so many good feelings about Hitman 2.  For one thing, I’m so proud of IO Interactive for going it on their own and being able to retain their core IP from Square Enix in a buyout for independence, rather than being acquired by some other huge studio.  It also just so happens to be probably the best Hitman game ever.

Confession: I never got to play 2016’s Hitman reboot.  I’m hella leery of episodic release schedules in games; I’ve been burned way too many times.  But my husband got me Hitman 2 with the gold pack for my birthday, so I finally had a chance to check out not only Hitman 2’s content, but the first game’s as well.  I am extremely impressed.

I love being able to blend into crowds and bushes, and how fake surrender is useful but definitely NOT a get out of jail free card, since guards patrol in groups or overlap more heavily.  And, though it’s technically been a thing since Absolution, having unarmed subduing and neck snapping without needing syringes or the garrote is also very cool.  Glad to see that return.

The training level prologue is completely brilliant.  I love American actors pretending to be 1970s Cuban communists, calling each other “comrade” in flat English.  What’s a little weird is how all the 2016 game’s maps are also full of people speaking in American accents.  I don’t think they meant to imply that the whole world is an ICA training ground, right?  And I guess it’s fine that we didn’t have to endure people in Sapienza talking like Mario.  What I don’t understand is, with the rest of the first game getting the American accent treatment, why did they have some NPCs trying for badly-accented Japanese on the Hokkaido map?  Oh, genn ki? deskuh.  Some of the emphasis and pronunciation is truly atrocious.  Thankfully, the accents improve quite a bit in the 2nd game’s maps.

I love that the guy you knock out with a wrench in the kitchen during guided training has a bandage on his head in the next level. THAT’S THE SAME GUY.  HE CAME BACK TO WORK. What a trouper.  That guy is a fucking hero.  He’s gotta stand there in the kitchen, stirring that soup.  Doesn’t even vary his lines. 47 walks in, he HAS to know who you are but he holds the line, sweating loudly but doin’ the job. What a pro!

This is an actor who was hired for a gig. and as part of that gig, some asshole THROWS A PIPE WRENCH AT HIM FULL FORCE FROM ACROSS A ROOM.  He went to the hospital! Why didn’t he quit!?  Is it love for his craft?  Threats of death?  What’s going on here?? WORLDBUILDING.

I love how insanely DENSE each level is. Not only the huge number of NPCs walking around, that’s impressive and makes the world feel alive, yes.  But also just the sheer amount of STUFF in each map, all these crazy interlocking pieces and events and reactions.

I love how granular the options are, how if you’re a purist you can turn off all the waypoints and Detective Vision and even hide the minimap, which not even Blood Money let you do.  On the other hand, if you want to just jump in and see the most elaborate scripted stuff, you can do that too and have your hand held straight up to it.  It makes these games at once the most accessible and the most hardcore in the series, and it all comes down to how you want to play them.

I’ve spent hours just mucking around in each map.  What I’ve found is a game that acknowledges and rewards attempts to get immersed in its world.  In BM, you’d only ever really hear incidental NPC dialogue when it led to something big and important.  These reboots have a higher volume of NPC dialogue, 1-sided cell convos, et cetera, which makes the whole world feel real and alive.  Most of it still does lead to cool stuff, but there’s a lot that’s just here for flavor, like tourists at the Himmapan hotel complaining that the sky is always so blue and pretty that it’s boring.  This leads to a very believable world that’s easy to get lost in, and also encourages you to spend a lot of time wandering around each map before taking any action.

I like how they scaled back the way NPCs recognize people in the same outfit, to making it just certain ones who know their crew well.  This “enforcers” concept makes way more sense than it did in Absolution, and lets them open it up more too, so targets can recognize if their close bodyguard now has perfect cheekbones, for instance.

Also much appreciated: releasing everything all at once instead of teasing for months and maybe never delivering.  That’s a good move.  As the recent Telltale shutdown reminded us yet again, episodic games are for suckers.  You’re paying for stuff you might never get.

It’s a small thing, but nevertheless I appreciate that the game is pretty equal-opportunity when it comes to male and female assassination targets.  That sounds like maybe a weird thing to say, since we’re talking about killing people, but it would’ve been weird if all the targets were men, or if all of them were women.  It feels pretty carefully balanced to be representative.  That’s a good move, in my opinion.

What is most definitely not appreciated is aggressive data collection / always-online DRM.  Since when did this shit become standard in every big game?  It’s disgusting, and frankly, if they didn’t also hamstring the in-engine cutscenes not to play video unless you’re online, I would have opted out hard.  Making it so you can’t get scored or accrue XP for unlocks, can’t see what’s going on in in-engine cutscenes, can’t do most of what’s on offer in the game unless you “choose” to accept intrusive data collection, is shitty as hell.  Eventually, this game’s servers will go down, and then you just won’t be able to pack in a sniper rifle or take advantage of any of the alternative start points.  Some of these are really fun, like the ninja outfit on the Hokkaido map that starts you infiltrating from the outside, completely changing the dynamic of the mission.  Eventually, that will no longer be a thing you can do.

This particularly stings for those of us who, like me, enjoy playing on Master difficulty.  On that higher difficulty, certain items like emetic and lethal poisons are more difficult to find lying around in maps.  There are some maps that have no poisons available at all, and if you want to use poison still, you have to pack them in using unlocked poison vials and syringes.  Unlocks which go away in offline mode, and which will be gone forever once the servers go down.

Granted, if you like playing on Master, you probably appreciate a challenge and a minimalist approach anyway, sure.  But it’s just gonna suck to lose a bunch of the core functionality of the game eventually.  It really bothers me that a game that’s so, so good feels the need to ship with an expiration date and lock most of itself down unless you agree to let them spy on you.  It’s not okay, and if this wasn’t literally the best Hitman game in the series, I wouldn’t tolerate it at all.

Overall, the level of complexity, detail, and interactivity here are quite impressive.  The creativity and variety of the scripted kills is really something as well.  The level design is both expansive and intricate, and the assassination puzzles on offer have never been meatier or more interesting.  While I take issue with the always-online thing, I can’t ignore that Hitman 2 is easily the best game in the series to date in every other respect.

ADDENDUM: I’ve been asked by a friend what I think about the release of Hitman 2 as a sequel rather than an expansion to the first game.  The short version of my response is that basically, given that IO Interactive split off from the publisher of the previous game, releasing it as an expansion to Hitman 2016 would’ve meant robbing themselves of all but IP royalties, which would have had to be negotiated right after they just finished negotiating their split.  It also would’ve meant hosting Hitman 2016 as it was on new servers.  So, just from a logistical and business perspective, releasing Hitman 2018 as a separate game was basically a given, in my opinion.

In terms of game design, it feels about as much of a sequel in terms of new mechanics as any other Hitman sequel has been, they’re all pretty iterative.  Blood Money was probably the biggest leap in terms of mechanics from one game to the next, but that’s an exception for the series.  Absolution had a lot of new ways to kill people accidentally, and a lot of other new mechanics, too.  So in that regard I feel like the team had justification for a sequel, as well.

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