Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Hitman 2: Silent Assassin (Xbox)

Following Codename 47, IO Interactive started development on Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, released in 2002. As the first game in the series with a console release, however, this would also serve as a jumping-on point for a majority of players at the time, since the game ended up as the highest-selling title in the series to this day. Playing through this game on the original Xbox was interesting, since it still provided a memorable experience even without the polish of the World of Assassination games. That said, however, it shows its age, since some of the then-new mechanics feel unrefined by modern standards.

Following the events of Codename 47, Agent 47 has retired from his line of work and started a peaceful life at the Gontranno church in Italy. However, Reverend Emilio Vittorio, his only friend, is kidnapped by unknown assailants who demand a ransom of $500,000, money that 47 no longer has. As such, he resumes his work for the ICA in hopes of tracking down and rescuing Vittorio.

Although presented minimally, the game's story is pretty well-written. It fleshes out 47’s character through his desire to live in peace and his struggle with the reality of it as he goes to increasingly dangerous lengths to save the man who helped turn his life around, however briefly. There are also interesting developments related to his past and 47 gets to reunite with a couple characters from Codename 47 under odd, but meaningful circumstances. In a great move from IOI, the story can actually have an impact on gameplay in clever ways, which leads to a powerful moment within the final set of missions where the player and 47 both come to a certain realization at the same time.

47's attempt at a peaceful life doesn't last very long.

Compared to Codename 47, Silent Assassin introduces some great quality-of-life changes to the series and starts refining the stealth-based direction of the series. For one thing, Agent 47 can now enter a sneaking mode and crouch down to avoid detection or get past certain barriers. Additionally, 47 can also look through keyholes to gauge a room and pick locks to access otherwise secret locations, though doing so in front of guards will more than likely blow his cover. Some items are also removed from an in-game paywall in favor of placing the Fiber Wire and Binoculars in 47’s inventory by default and making the Compass part of the HUD, which also has a more intuitive Suspicion meter that flashes black and red and different intervals. The map is also much better, since it shows AI movements in real time and color codes different NPCs and passages. In a major godsend, players can also save their progress mid-mission, though they can only save a certain number of times depending on the difficulty level.

Silent Assassin offers a good amount of freedom in approaching each mission, supporting both lethal and non-lethal methods for approaching or taking out a target. However, their actions affect what rating they’ll receive at the end of each mission and non-lethal play is subtly encouraged through two new mechanics, Anesthetic and pistol whipping, and the coveted Silent Assassin ranking, which unlocks a new, unique weapon. Big guns also can’t be holstered and will more easily blow 47’s cover, but some of them help complete a disguise, so carrying these weapons isn’t completely discouraged. While sneaking around, however, it’s worth noting that whether 47 walks or runs is determined by how far the player tilts the analog stick, since loud footsteps can alert guards to his presence in some situations.

47’s journey takes him through twenty-one missions, the most in any one game in the series, many of which provide memorable moments and provide plenty of replay value after beating the game through unique opportunities. For instance, before hiding the body of one Target, you can either shoot or garotte them or you can poison their water while their back is turned and have them die on the spot. In another mission, you have to reach a basement and can try to do so by somehow getting past a metal detector or you can drop a smoke bomb into a laundry chute and then pose as a fireman, complete with axe. In any case, during the first playthrough of missions, which are presented in sets, 47’s loadout carries between sets and all of the weapons he’s collected are stored in a weapon shed at the church, which doubles as a base and training ground. This weapon shed actually comes back in a spectacular way during the finale, which makes collecting the game’s unique weapons feel worth it. After beating the game, players can then replay missions individually and select a custom loadout based on the weapons they collect, opening up a wide world of experimentation for the fastest time or the best ranking.

47's journey takes him to some interesting locales.

Unfortunately, some of the game’s mechanics haven’t aged completely well or have since been refined in later entries. The map, while generally great for planning, gives the same color for 47 and civilians, green, only distinguishing 47 by having his icon pulsate, not to mention it makes no distinction between living and dead guards. Sneaking is also very slow, mostly useful when knocking out people standing perfectly still, and guards will get suspicious just for running in front of them. It made sense to at least not get too close, but even in situations where it wouldn’t make as much sense for the guards to scrutinize you so much, they’ll shoot on sight just for looking at them funny. As such, the game can occasionally feel slower than necessary.

While I generally like the touches of realism in the Hitman series, Silent Assassin can get a little too realistic at times. Ammo counts carry between mission sets on the first playthrough, which makes some amount of sense and forces you to think more critically, but if you don’t leave a mission with a weapon or item from your inventory, you lose it until you reacquire it. For instance, in a later mission, I killed the Target with a scalpel unique to that mission, but it didn’t show up in my weapon shed later because I accidentally dropped it and didn’t pick it back up before exfiltrating the area. When 47 loads/reloads the anesthetic, he also has to physically coat the cloth in chloroform again, which takes a few seconds, and even when you use it successfully, the NPC will stay down for maybe five minutes at most. This introduces a ticking clock to the mission, since if you’re not fast enough, the NPC will wake up and your cover will be blown once they inform a guard.

You also have to manually select actions from a list.

Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is the uneven difficulty curve. Even on the lowest difficulty, Normal, missions vary between pretty easy (ex. Tracking Hayamoto, Basement Killing, Murder at the Bazaar) and unnecessarily difficult when done the way the developers intended (ex. Hidden Valley, At the Gates, The Motorcade Interception). Although I did my best to figure the missions out on my own, usually ending up with a Mass Murderer ranking, I ended up consulting a walkthrough a few times due to the difficulty so I could actually beat the game in a timely fashion and learned how to cheese some of the missions, like The Motorcade Interception, for a quick victory.

As for the graphics, Silent Assassin has obviously aged, but it doesn’t look too bad for an early sixth-gen console release, though I did notice some clipping from time to time when guards interacted with some doorway. David Bateson has a solid performance as Agent 47, as he usually does, though it was odd at first hearing a noticeably younger Diana Burnwood from Vivienne McKee after I got used to Jane Perry’s take in the World of Assassination Trilogy. Apart from that, the voice acting was pretty awkward, but the sound design was pretty good and the soundtrack by Jesper Kyd really nailed the atmosphere. At least one ambient piece also sounded like it wouldn’t feel too out of place in a Silent Hill game, which I’d consider a compliment.

Though flawed, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin holds up fairly well. Agent 47’s motivation helps keep the player invested up until a final decision that feels like it has actual weight while the gameplay shows signs of the series finding its identity. If you’re into retro stealth games or trying to get into the older Hitman titles, Silent Assassin is a solid choice.

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