The Hitman series has evolved quite a bit over the past 18 years, dropping an increasingly more versatile assassin, Agent 47, into increasingly intricate worlds to carry out his contracts. With Hitman 2, the team at IO Interactive has further refined the series' many interlocking systems, letting players explore six diverse locales on a quest to hunt down a shadowy organization.

Despite all of the running, jumping, sneaking and shooting, I don't really think of Hitman as an action series. Hitman is more akin to a meticulously crafted puzzle game, though one boasting problems that have a large number of solutions. After nearly two decades of iterating on that formula, IOI has just about perfected the recipe. If you've never been won over by a Hitman game in the past, nothing here is likely to change your mind. If, however, you're in the market for some well-crafted espionage with a handful of quality-of-life improvements thrown in for good measure, then there's plenty to like right out of the gate.

Unlike 2016's Hitman, Hitman 2 (which is actually the seventh entry in the core series) won't be released episodically. Instead, all six of the game's core locations will be ready to explore from day one. In case you missed the first game, Hitman 2 begins with a brief recap that brings you up to speed within a couple of minutes. I'm not usually a big fan of that kind of exposition, but it helps make the argument that new players can just dive right into this latest game, even if they missed the original.

As a side note, all of the missions and locations from the first Hitman are actually included in Hitman 2 as either a free download for people who already own the game or as DLC for those who want to tackle the full story. Each of those locations has been enhanced with all of the new features from Hitman 2, making for a nice, cohesive package if you're willing to make the added investment. Since I'm reviewing the base game, though, I won't be diving into those missions here.

Despite the complex systems running under the hood of a Hitman game, the premise is actually pretty simple. Agent 47 gets dropped off at a location, usually with little more than a silenced pistol, a couple of coins and garrote in his pocket. While the game's various missions have some diversity built into them, your job is to track down a handful of targets, perhaps grab some intel or tackle a side mission along the way, assassinate a couple Bond-level baddies and then get the heck out of dodge. All of that is tied together with some narrative cutscenes between missions that were honestly a bit hard to follow or care much about. But gameplay takes center stage here, so that's not exactly an unforgivable offense.

What makes these missions so much fun is the fact that they take place in a sandbox, letting the player explore freely in an effort to learn as much as possible and fulfil their duties however they see fit. The number of variables at play is impressive, including the layout and complexity of the maps, the behavior of the NPCs, plenty of enemies and security measures to keep an eye out for and a world literally littered with possibilities.

You know that scene in Pulp Fiction when Bruce Willis is about to exact some revenge and starts looking for a weapon? He starts out with a hammer, then puts it down when he discovers a baseball bat. He puts the bat down when he discovers a chainsaw, then is overcome with joy when he locates a katana. IOI has turned that scene into a game, peppering the maps of Hitman 2 with hundreds of items that can be used to distract guards, create diversions and, of course, dispatch your foes. The game's tagline is "make the world your weapon," and both the items and various environmental components let you do exactly that.

On top of all of those tools at your disposal, maps are open enough to allow the player to figure out their own way through a given challenge. I'll use a spoiler-free example pulled from the Whittleton Creek map, an idyllic community set in the good ole U.S. of A. In order to get into a house, I counted no fewer than three open windows, each with varying degrees of security to guard them. There was also basement access and a couple of standard doors. To get through those doors, I could straight-up break in or perhaps knock out a guard who happened to have a key. As for the target, maybe there's a way to take them out that doesn't even require going into the house in the first place.

Again, that's just a single house on a single map, and Hitman 2 is absolutely overflowing with these types of scenarios that task the player with everything from taking out a father/daughter duo at a Miami race track to dispatching a trio of drug lords in Santa Fortuna. Your job is to explore, learn from your surroundings, take advantage of the tools at your disposal, don a few dozen disguises and outthink various obstacles in order to pull off the best hit you can imagine.

It's a heck of a lot of fun seeing a plan come full circle and, yes, it can even be a blast when everything you've carefully built toward comes crumbling down. The game offers multiple difficulty levels for those who want to play more seriously and those who just want to goof off and try out new ideas, and the fact that it's constantly saving your progress in the background means that, if things get too out of hand, resetting to a point before everything fell apart is a breeze.

On top of that, Hitman 2 boasts a new picture-in-picture intel feature that gives you better context concerning the world around you. If you're being told about a van that might contain some useful equipment, you'll get a quick glance at the van itself, which should help you locate it on the map more easily. If the body of a guard you knocked out gets discovered, you'll catch a sneak peek of the scenario and know to maybe avoid that area while they search for the culprit. New alert notifications also help you understand the threat level of a given area at a glance, and Agent 47's "instinct" vision is a huge help when it comes to keeping track of your enemies, locating interactive objects in the environment or some new toys to play with.

If you prefer the action to stay more focused, each map also contains a collection of stories to help guide you through your hits. An example of this is overhearing a conversation whereby you learn that a certain target enjoys food served by a specific food vendor over by the docks. Armed with that information, the game will guide you through a series of events that can lead to some pretty rad pre-scripted assassinations. These help flesh out the narrative and serve as great inspiration for other ways you can carry out your contracts with more pizzazz.

And since this is a Hitman game, there's plenty of reason to dive into each mission over and over again. Things like discovering new areas, picking up hidden items and completing the dozens of challenges spread across each mission will grant you Mastery of that level. Earning Mastery levels will unlock even more variety in the given mission, allowing you to start with more items, begin the mission from different locations and even have useful tools dropped off at key locations around the map.

There's a heck of a lot crammed into each of these missions, making for a more rewarding experience for players who are willing to keep exploring and experimenting. On top of that, Hitman 2 boasts a Contracts mode that lets players create or play customized scenarios. Post-launch plans also include weekly updates with everything from special Contracts created by the developers, new Challenges to tackle across the various maps and more. The first Elusive Target mission even stars Sean Bean as "The Undying," an especially difficult target with a knack for faking his own death.

If that's not enough to keep you busy, you can also dive into the game's pair of new activities including Sniper Assassin and Ghost Mode. The former lets you play solo or cooperatively in an effort to achieve clean kills with nothing more than a sniper rifle. The game launches with the Himmelstein, Austria, map which hosts a collection of criminals attending an insanely posh wedding. As for Ghost Mode, it's a competitive showdown that tasks a player with taking out a collection of five targets more quickly and cleanly than their opponent. You'll be on the "same" map and be able to see each other, but you won't be able to interfere with each other's environment.

It's clear IOI wanted to make Hitman 2 a complete package, one that keeps players returning through regular updates. While only time will tell how the second part of that statement pans out, the team definitely delivered in terms of content. You could work your way through the campaign and peck at the extra game modes and probably get a solid dozen hours of entertainment out of the core experience. But that's definitely not the way this game is meant to be played. IOI wants players to master each of these locations and they offer plenty of rewards to make it worth the effort.

This review based on a PlayStation 4 copy of the game provided by the publisher.

8 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed rating

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