Reviewed: November 21, 2002
Released: October 1, 2002
The original Hitman: Codename 47 released on the PC two years ago and was met with mixed response. Fan of the stealth genre – games like Thief - enjoyed the stealth aspects of the assassin simulation while hardcore action gamers found the pacing and try-die-retry game model more than frustrating.
Io Interactive has managed to take the good parts of the original and blend them into a sequel that not only exceeds the original; it also makes the trip from PC to next-gen consoles with only a few minor issues. Hitman 2: Silent Assassin breaks new ground in mixing stealth and combat in a highly evolved third-person action game.
Our story picks up with Agent 47 recuperating from the event of the first game. He has taken on the role of a humble gardener in a monastery in Sicily. Things seem to be going splendidly until one day a group of Mafioso break into the church and kidnap the priest in charge who also happens to be a good friend of our hero.
Forced back into service, he resumes his role as assassin-extraordinaire to uncover clues on the whereabouts of his friend. The agency agrees to provide him with this information provided he carries out a series of missions that take you on a world tour that would make James Bond dizzy.
Gameplay is a mix of stealth and combat with a heavy emphasis on stealth. I haven’t done this much sneaking around since my Thief and Thief 2 gaming days. Most of the time the odds are overwhelmingly against you, so if you are discovered you may as well just reload that last save game.
When it comes times to get down and dirty you won’t find a larger or more diverse arsenal of weapons than you will in Silent Assassin. The first time you walk into the tool shed in the monastery garden and see the outlines of all the weapons on the wall your jaw is guaranteed to smack the floor. While you start out with next to nothing, every weapon and gadget you collect during the various missions are added to your tool shed weapons locker.
Any previously discovered items are available to supplement your pre-assigned weapons loadout on future missions. While you are always given the necessary equipment to finish any given mission, knowing what else to take with you is often only known by trying and failing the mission a few times. Any extra weapons only make the mission easier and allow you to fine tune the gameplay to your style. You can pack on the heavy weapons for lots of bloodletting or go with the high-tech gadgets for a stealthier approach to the level.
Conventional firearms are always fun but stealth tactics also require the use of silent weapons like fiber-wire, knives, and even the occasional 9-iron. Often, you are forced to start your mission with no weapons or stash them all in a nearby bush in order to infiltrate an enemy facility. This requires you to build your arsenal as you go. If an item can be picked up it can probably be used as a weapon of some sort.
The designers need to be truly commended on their visionary level and mission design that is anything but linear. The numerous ways you can approach each mission are mind-boggling and not only represent the ultimate in replayability, but also present challenges of various difficulty levels that require unique tactics.
A good example of this design is clearly evident in the first actual mission where you must infiltrate a large and heavily guarded estate and kill your target. There are several entry points into the estate. The front gate is the obvious route but requires a disguise. Mugging the postal worker who happens to be walking by provides you with a convincing change of clothes that gets you past the front gate. Once inside you must then choose from even more entry points into the house. You could choose the front door and deliver the flowers to complete your ruse, or perhaps that cellar door is a bit safer, or maybe you can go around to the back and climb up to the balcony and enter on the second floor.
Silent Assassin is not for the casual gamer or those who prefer fast action games. You are often forced to hide and observe the enemy for extended periods of time. Instead of charging into a room with guns blazing you have to peek through keyholes, wait for anyone inside to turn their back, and then sneak up and silently dispatch them.
Given the nature of the game and it’s highly realistic gameplay and damage model you will undoubtedly die often. While this would normally be a frustrating experience, the ingenious level design encourages you to replay and try different tactics each time you fail. It took me several hours to finish just the first mission, and each time I would restart I would do things a bit differently and often a bit better than before until I finally succeeded. It’s a very rewarding experience, even when you fail.
Enemy AI is uncannily realistic. Even when you are in disguise your behavior is being closely scrutinized. If you are seen acting suspiciously, running or going into some area perceived off-limits for your current disguise you will be warned. Future offenses are met with a more forceful response. Guards work together as a team and will often call for reinforcements or notice things that are out of place such as a missing guard, or even worse, a carelessly discarded body.
Everyone you encounter in the various missions may not be considered “the enemy”, but they all act and react with realistic AI that can often prove troublesome. During my infiltration of the manor in the first mission the mailman saw me approaching with a weapon and ran off screaming for help. After I silenced him and made my way into the manor I stumbled into the kitchen where the cook saw me approaching with my fiber-wire. He quickly ran out of the kitchen, obviously trying to summon guards, and I was forced to chase him recklessly through several halls and rooms before I was able to dispatch him and conceal the body.
Disguises are a huge part of this game and crucial to your ability to infiltrate the levels and complete your primary goals. They are not limited to just the casual change of clothes. If you are dressed as a mailman you can’t be seen with a weapon (despite the popular myths about postal workers), and if you are disguised as a Russian soldier you need to be carrying weapons that are appropriate to the disguise. The intensity of these stealth missions is unbelievable, almost to the point of making me queasy as I strolled past guards who dismissed me as one of their own. But if you are careless enough to be caught holding fiber-wire or even worse, a sniper rifle, these same guards will clearly see you for the imposter you are.
The interface is quite clever and well designed with valuable information that shows your compass, currently weapon or inventory item, and of course you health and suspicion meter. The suspicion meter is one of the most useful elements of the HUD as it indicates any change in the guards’ perception of your disguise based on your actions. Activity on the suspicion meter doesn’t always mean you are going to get caught. One of the hardest things for me to learn was to be “aware” of this meter but not to panic and blow my ruse entirely when it started to fill-up.
Despite the designers’ best efforts you can’t help but realize this game is designed for the PC, and no matter how hard you try to adapt to a gamepad, the controls always seem just a bit awkward. The inventory system seems to be the worst offender, forcing you to hold down a button and then cycle through an item list then release the button to select that item. It’s a bit slow and clunky, especially in the heat of battle.
The original Hitman had acceptable graphics for the time, but Silent Assassin breaks new ground on stunning and lifelike visuals, both in environment and character design and animation. The levels are huge and feature real-world architecture that is as true to function as it is to the gameplay. Wandering around the monastery grounds or inside the church, you will find that there is no room that doesn’t have a purpose that is believable. This level serves as your training grounds and the hub between the various missions, so you will have a chance to explore every corner before the end of the game.
The large manor in the first mission is designed just like every gangster estate you have seen in the movies with large sprawling grounds, high walls, and guards perched on balconies and patrolling the grounds. Other missions feature dark and sinister interiors, large outdoor areas such as populated cities, and many other realistic locales.
The game engine seems particularly well suited to handle these environments at a flawlessly smooth framerate. Even when going from the confines of indoors to the larger outdoor areas I never once saw even the slightest hiccup in the framerate or compromise in visual detail.
Character animation is stunning; especially the attention to detail that has been put into the movement of Agent 47. Whether he is walking, running, or sneaking around in a crouched position it all looks amazingly real. There are all sorts of details like unique animation for arming and using each of the weapons and items in your inventory.
The animation of the other characters in the game is equally as well done with all sorts of subtleties. Suspicious guards can be seen scratching their heads in puzzlement, and there are all sorts of idle animations for characters that aren’t aware of your presence. During combat the enemy will respond to hit-location specific damage or struggle against the effects of your fiber-wire. When they crumple to the floor you can drag their lifeless body around the ground and it looks hauntingly real, with limbs flopping around like a rag doll.
The designers have even gone as far as allowing you to “stack” multiple animations on top of each other. This creates a very realistic visual effect where you can be performing multiple actions at once and they are all accounted for on the screen. This becomes very important when you are dragging bodies around and need to open doors, pick locks, etc. and you can do so while never dropping the body.
Hitman 2 might fool you into thinking it’s a third-person only game, but you can switch to a first-person view at anytime with a simple tap of the white button. While this might make the game a bit more accessible for the FPS fans, I found this view a bit restrictive for overall gameplay. It’s nice to use for detailed surveillance, but the wider camera angle used for third-person gameplay offered a more comprehensive view of the immediate area and any potential threats.
The music in Silent Assassin is truly some of the best music I’ve heard since HALO. In this day and age of licensing contemporary music to back-up your game it was quite refreshing and surprising to see that the Budapest Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir was commissioned to create the original score for this title. What you end up with is a soundtrack that is not only worthy of a feature film, but one that actually surpasses most film scores.
The combination of orchestral music and the chanting voices of the choir creates a haunting, yet beautiful mix that evokes all sorts of emotional responses even during the menu screens. The in-game music cues to the action creating a perfect cinematic experience. It just doesn’t get any better than this.
The sound effects are limited only by the design of the levels and the missions. There is nothing thrown into the mix that you wouldn’t normally be hearing, which creates a realistic yet often boring audio experience. It’s not a bad mix - it’s just that real life doesn’t always offer an audible experience that movies and games have conditioned us to accept as normal. What you do hear are heavy breathing and heartbeats during periods of extreme tension or stealth, such as peeking through a keyhole or sneaking up on an unsuspecting guard. Weapons’ fire is authentic as are the various reload sounds and random bullet zings and ricochets.
The voice acting is outstanding, although once again it is limited by the game design. Only a handful of the characters actually speak, but when they do it is all well scripted and acted out quite professionally. The voices of Agent 47 and his agency contact, Diana are the most heard voices and understandably, the best in the game.
Silent Assassin is one of those rare games that adapts itself to your style of gaming. Ultimately, you will get as much out of this title as you put into it. There are plenty of missions but none of them are all that long. Once you know where your primary targets are located you could conceivably blast your way to the finish line in a few minutes and perhaps even finish this game in a single sitting, but then you would be missing the point.
Hitman 2 is about stealth and attitude and assuming the persona of an assassin. The designers have designed this game around these elements and if you play it as intended you will easily have 20-30 hours of high-intensity action waiting for you. This isn’t even taking into consideration the multiple paths that are at your disposal for each of the missions along with mixing up the balance of stealth and combat. The potential for replaying this game two, three, or even four times is amazing. The destination is always the same, but the path you take to get there can be as diverse as you choose to make it.
With upcoming games like Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell competing for the third-person stealth-action game genre slot, Xbox owners have never had a better selection or more difficult decision to make. While all of these games approach this genre from very unique perspectives, Silent Assassin gives you one of the darker approaches to this style of gaming.
The diverse mission design combined with a vast assortment of weapons, gadgets, and stealth tactics makes Hitman 2 one of the best action games of the year. If you can get past the awkward controls you will love it on the Xbox, otherwise you may want to experience this game on the PC where the mouse/keyboard combo gives you greater flexibility and more precise control. Whatever system you end up playing it on, don’t miss out on this amazing title.