Behold the future of adventure games: A bald dude with two guns!
In short Hitman 2 takes the original over-ambitious and critically flawed assassin simulator and revamps it by pretty much fixing everything that was wrong with it and generally increasing the attention to detail in level design, balance and features.
Story-wise the game is pretty obscure, starting a while after the original game, we find Mr. 47 living a peaceful life as a gardener in a sicilian monastery. For some reason his best friend the priest is kidnapped, so in order to track him down 47 resumes his connection with "The Agency" and starts taking on contracts in exchange for information. As expected there is a connection between the kidnapping and 47's relationship with the agency, and yes, his clones will show up again along with someone related to his origin. Interesting? Maybe. It's not exactly revolutionary nor exciting, but it provides the right elements for it to connect the many contract hits into some sort of cohesive plot.
And of course, what we all really care about is about performing those hits, right? As the game progresses you take on a variety of 3-mission long campaigns in which you are dropped in a specific location and have to complete the missions in succession before returning home to your monastery and get back in touch with the Agency.
The changes and improvements are evident from the get go and as advertised, fix pretty much everything that was wrong with the original. For starters the run key is now a modifier (THANK GOD!) preventing the misshaps of the original; the inventory is easily accesible from a game-pausing splash screen complete with descriptions; the collision detection between characters has been fixed so as to prevent you from running through an enemy (???) when dashing to stab him or whatever and blowing your cover; the interaction menu is now kept at the top of the screen without cluttering your display and works much better than before; the changing of clothes is now not a magic disguise that makes you invisible to the enemies, and the AI has been upgraded to be much less forgiving and become suspicious much easily than before; finally the shitty macho-man decision to exclude in-game savegames has been replaced with a limited amount of savegames to be used completely at your discretion. Now THAT's how you are supposed to do it!
What's really amazing however, is how the many little fixes and improvements allow the game to flow much better and to fully exploit it's potential as not just another 3D sneak/action game but as the next generation in adventure games. That's right, adventure games! Remember those? The original Hitman included some puzzle aspects into it's missions to help keep things scripted, but the sequel uses even more scripted and puzzle-oriented events to make it a true action/adventure hybrid were you can run around gunning everyone down or instead carefully infiltrate and make a good use of several items and other elements like electricity generators, fire alarms, vents, etc. in your quest to place some poison in a champagne glass, plant a bomb, or lure someone to a trap with a beeper and a cell phone. All without rising the suspicion of the many guards, terrorists, henchmen or the assorted policemen and civilians.
The arsenal is comprised of a mix of exotic and well-known real life firearms and assorted weapons like Katanas and fireaxes. 47 gets to keep the weapons he takes with him from the missions and then puts them in display in his tool shed at the monastery, not only is each one accurately modeled and imposes it's own set of rules but collecting them becomes a nice mini-game not to mention that they will become pretty useful in the final mission. Did you get all the sub machineguns? How about the golf club? Or the Japanese custom sniper rifle?? Gotta catch 'em all!!
The mission design is exceptionally executed and with some small exceptions remains among the best ones ever developed for a 3D action/adventure title smoothly flowing and developing in layers as you examine your surroundings and the possibilities, infiltrate, execute, and then evacuate the premises. As expected the game allows you to pack a considerable amount of heat, so you can take the heavy weapondry and mow your way down to your target, however the missions include a variety of "peaceful" ways (usually related to these puzzle elements I mentioned) that allow you, for instance, to make the call between crashing through the door, shooting that pesky guard and making a ruckus or simply activating the horn in a car in the garage and sneaking past him as he goes to check out what the hell did that noise. Exploration and the use of your head has it's rewards as in every good adventure game, as following the "brainy" path not only is much more satisfactory and efficient, but also increases your rating and rewards you with bonus weapons. However, unlike Adventure games Hitman 2 doesn't force you to follow those paths and allows you to mix it up with gunfire, sneaking and whatever you can come up with, essentially overcoming the "do what the designer wanted you to do" problem that killed the adventure genre, a far more important feat than what it seems. Gamers and developers alike should start to look in the direction of games like Hitman 2, since it's in them that the future of adventure games lies.
As for the technical aspect the game is exceptionally polished, using an upgraded version of the original engine which mantains the clean graphics, superb animations and the ragdoll physics that made the dragging of corpses in the original such a distinct feature. For as good as the graphics are however, they are completely overshadowed by the sound design which combines excellent surround sfx with professional voice acting (another improvement from the original) that keeps the multinational tone of the game by using multi-lingual subtitled dialogues that give the game a class most "international-conflict" games lack when they put Boris the ruskie and Eichi the Jap talking as if they were born-bred L.A. beachbums and also gives the entire package a much higher level of realism and detailed quality.
As for the music, the orchestral soundtrack composed by Jesper Kyd and performed by the Budapest orchestra and choir brings the game to new heights and introduces some of the best orchestrated music ever to hit your monitor using sweeping arrangements and moody chorus that merge with fast-paced tense melodies to compose a distinct Eastern European soundtrack in the same vein Hollywood movies have been doing for a while when placing the action in such places as Prague, Stalingrad, etc.
Finally I'd like to personally thank the team at IO for the nice collection of extras that come bundled with the game and which include a collection of early screenshots, bloopers and other bonuses amongst which you have the 3DS Max model for 47 himself!! It's the in-game one unfortunately, and not the high-res model used for the promo artwork and other illustrations, but still it rocks and it's a feature I'd like to see included in other games as well.
There are still some things left to bitch about, including the psychic nature of some of the enemies (how the hell can a Japanese guard tell I'm a gaijin when I'm fully covered with a ninja get-up and we are both 50 feet away in the middle of a snowstorm???), or the weird ass reaction of some others (is it customary for russian militia to instantly shoot anything that runs??).
There are also some less than stellar levels including the aforementioned snow-filled treks through Japan's fields or the middle eastern adventures of the amazing bald white dude that can pass by unmolested among a group of Afganistanian terrorists that all look either like Osama or Saddam... Geeez, at least he doesn't get to "mingle" as the whitest, tallest chinese waiter with a funny hat in the world anymore...
Finally there's the issue of 47's uncanny durability when compared to everyone else in the gameworld, the ballers and their mega-hyper-powered force, the sniper views still bob up and down as if you were atop a buoy (this may be nice as a challenge but it's NOT how it's like, trust me) and the meager rewards for attaining Silent Assassin rating, seeing as how you just get 3 bonus weapons (one which can be obtained in the main game) and nothing more.... Oh, and the story could also have been better.
The Bottom Line
Exceptional game that surpasses the original in just about every level imaginable and delivers a tightly-woven package filled with quality entertainment and fully recommended to anyone who enjoys quality gaming.
This is the sort of thing that puts a big smile to anyone's face, IO had a good concept but implemented it poorly. They refined it, acknowledged their mistakes and fixed what was wrong, and the result is nothing short of amazing. Kudos to everyone involved.