Io Interactive's second foray into the roll-your-own hitman concept is a lot better than its first, the most significant difference probably being our antihero's motives this time around. Instead of killing by trade, 47 is living out his days at a church in Sicily, helping with repairs and tending to the garden, whilst repenting his sins with the local priest, but nobody with as much history and skill as 47 ever truly retires, and our beloved hitman receives a quick jolt to his senses when his pal the priest is abducted and ransomed.
47 isn't likely to pay, so he checks in with his old chums at the agency and books some correspondence work to pay his dues, and buy some information on the priest's whereabouts. The game follows his path through variations locations including Italy, Russia, Japan, Malaysia and India, as he fights to recover his chum and get back to retiring. Along the way he has to reemploy an arsenal of weapons ranging from a fibre wire garrotte and anaesthetic to silenced hardballers and a sniper rifle in slaying his targets, picking any way he can through the surrounding area and silently tending to his mark before making his escape.
The variety of locations means that Hitman 2 is always a pretty game, but the most notable graphical work has gone into human movement and weapons behaviour. Played from either third or first person views, the former keeps our bald and barcode-headed chum in sight at all times, dressed in everything from sharp suits and pinstripe tuxedos to the uniforms of postmen, chefs and delivery boys. Character animation is relaxed and conventional, and remarkably lifelike. There's no forced speed unless you make haste of your own accord, and hand and head movements are slow and deliberate. Models are quite chunky, but realistically so, and blokes and birds come in plenty of different builds.
On the weapons front, the sniper scope quivers with 47's breathing, and other guns are held firmly and fire with a degree of feedback. Death animations are numerous and severe, but none more so than the sight of a man clutching for breath as a fibre wire is gently slipped beneath his chin and tightened taut. That said, a shotgun blast can propel a man ten feet backward through the air.
The environments of Hitman 2 are serene. From the idyllic, Mafioso Sicilian mansions with their beige walls, lush gardens and towering wrought iron gates to the snowy streets of St. Petersburg, 47 is always moving through a real location occupied by real people and either genuinely beautiful or realistically dank. The developer's ability to suggest atmosphere through scenery is quite impressive, too. The church gardens look hot and lively, whereas the inside of the church with piercing beams of sunlight bouncing off the floor is quiet and delicate, with the gentle movement of cloth on the confession booth the most active element in the room.
Sound is also disposed to accompany with a degree of class. The soundtrack mixes original compositions with more familiar tunes reminiscent of The Godfather and other mob and hitman flicks, all performed by a symphony orchestra and eerily fitting. Cracking necks and blowing someone's brains all over the wall feels a lot less brutal with a soothing piece of classical music in the background.
The action, such that it is, is also very well realised for the most part. Missions begin at 47's base in the Sicilian church grounds, with a tool shed that gradually fills up with high calibre weaponry as the game wears on. After touching base with his handlers, 47 finds himself plonked at the starting point for his next mission, and it's from here that the player gets to flex his brains and brawn within the mission parameters.
Io has very wisely chosen to bestow most of the impetus on the player. As a hitman, you have to examine the information at your disposal, watch entrances and exits and establish the best way to take out the mark (or marks) given the tools and situation at your disposal. The game makes a few suggestions, but it's largely your own calling and trial-and-error that will see you through. Take for example the first real mission - 47 has to take out a nasty fellow who may be harbouring the priest in his basement. This means finding a way past vicious mafia goons into the mansion compound and then into the house, up the stairs and through guard-packed rooms into the target's office.
The clue you're given is that many people often come to pay their respects to the don. As you might expect, this means that several people are coming and going through the main entrance. If you happen to quietly bump one of them off with a garrotte (like the postman) and pinch his outfit, then drag his lifeless body (in a very well animated fashion) somewhere it's unlikely to be disturbed, you can pick up his bunch of flowers and saunter through the main gate. But, you'll have to ditch the hardballers and silenced 9mm before you can do that, or the guards will pick them up during the frisk and rob you of your ambition.
That's one option, but it leaves you ill equipped to deal with the countless enemies inside. Another idea is to go round to the back and take out the grocery boy. He's hardly going to be missed, and he happens to be carrying great big trays of food and drink through the back gate and into the kitchens at the back of the house. If you take this route, you can hide your guns in with the groceries and sneak past the guards fully armed. From then on, it's only a question of working out the best way to the mark.
Unfortunately, the game relies to a large extent on trial and error. You'll come unstuck about 15-20 times before you make a breakthrough, and it's all to do with watching guard patterns, having the guts to make a break for it when the opportunity arises and not arousing suspicion. If a goon thinks you're trouble, he'll raise the alarm and cause you untold problems - and like real life, a direct attack from a handful of heavily armed henchmen is going to leave you dead.
However, the wealth of options at your fingertips is almost unfathomable. You can take almost any route imaginable, and opt to kill in whatever way you please, and you can make liberal use of mid-level saves if you're on a particularly good run.
Death from afar
With all this choice within such a beautiful game, you could be forgiven at this stage for wondering where the flaws kick in, and I don't blame you, but for all its non-linearity and serenity, Hitman 2 really boils down to a game of substitution and repetition, with some quirky control and camera habits. It's too hard to switch weapons and behave actively in close combat - your average assassin is more than a match for any henchman hand-to-hand, but 47 is clumsy and hard to manoeuvre, with virtually nothing to say for himself other than blam blam and then club club with the butt of a gun.
The third person mode should be the easiest way to silently remove targets, but the much more irksome first person perspective is actually a lot easier to rely on because of the way the controls behave. The whole game is far too relaxed to support third person close-quarters hit-work, and the AI is far too suspicious, easily alarmed and once so, efficient for you to wire-tug your way through the single player game. It's also a bit unbalanced in places, allowing you to stomp through a mission blowing your cover in seconds because the scripting dictates that nothing bad can become of your contact or the priest, leaving you to do as you like.
So, for the most part Hitman 2 is a sniper's game with a lot of other paths to opt for if you fancy a challenge, and it suffers a bit for it. If Io had found a way to smooth things out in the up-close-and-personal department and eliminate some of the trial-and-error gameplay, then this would be an excellent, all-round hitman simulation with a wonderful cinematic vibe running through it. As it is, it's a very good hitman simulation which will be remembered for its brutality and non-linearity, even if it is pretty unforgiving.