Design Review: Hitman 2 – What makes Hitman so addictive?

Hello, I’m Kinglink and this is a Design Review of Hitman 2.

Previously I’ve called this series How – blank – Works? The idea was to dive into the design of the game, and I still intend to do that, but I have been critiquing the design more than talking about the exact mechanism because many specifics tend to be held close to the chest by the companies. So with that said, I think Design Review is probably a better term. It also allows me to tackle more meta topics than just specific games.

Today we’re tackling Hitman 2. The Hitman franchise has been the quintessential stealth game for a long time, but with the recent release of Hitman, and now Hitman 2, I find these two entries move toward a puzzle game, Even IO Interactive has said this, and going back and playing the originals, this series has had some ties to the puzzle genre, but the recent two releases have changed their primary genre.

I’m going to focus the majority of this video on what has made Hitman and Hitman 2 addictive to me, and what it does that many stealth games and puzzles games lack. I will be talking mostly about the Hitman Franchise, specifically focusing on both Hitman from 2016 and Hitman 2. I’ll also bring in some other games as we go along.

Just a note, it’s not very important, but I’ll be playing the Hitman 2016 levels in Hitman 2’s engine, so if you see something that doesn’t fit, it may be because of that. Also I will be talking about the simulation, what I mean by that is how levels play out, or how the game is representing the massive number of NPCs in the world.

The levels in modern Hitman are phenomenal. They are massively interconnected systems of NPCs moving around that work to provide both opportunities and a functional world. What makes each level shine is when players ignore most of what the game expects the player to do, specifically killing targets and manipulating people, and sits back to just observe the world in action for a little while. These levels feel authentic.

An important piece of how Hitman works is by creating a large and complex world with numerous moving parts. This can be done in several ways, but the way Hitman has chosen to do so and the reason this game works so well is that, rather than script the world and every interaction, they have broken much of simulation down into systems and rules. Yes, some scripts decide what a single character or a group may do but it does so using the rules, however player actions can and will divert NPCs from that script easily and often.

What I’m talking about is how the entire world operates. Guards are limited to what they can see. If you’re standing behind a guard, you’re effectively invisible. You know what, let’s get to some examples. We’re going to get this video going with a bang.

So let’s talk about this kill for a second. You may have noticed I’m literally standing around a corner and throwing a bottle of explosives at a target in front of everyone, and yet somehow… no one realized what happened.

This is a divisive moment. There’s going to be two responses to this. The unexpected reaction is that this is clever. Though I think the normal reaction to this scene is to think that the game is weak or easy because I am allowed to do this, how could no one realize what has happened or accuse me of the act as I stroll away?

Let’s try this again and show what happens if the player does this in front of people as you’ll see this time. This is still an illegal move and the guard will immediately spot the player, and attack him. The target is still dead, but the game will change to calling the player hostile and trying to stop him with extreme prejudice.

At the same time, we need to look at one more scene and look at what is around the player before the attack. Here, the player starts by standing in a location where he’s technically unseen, there are no current eyes on the player other than the target who will turn around, so he will effectively be invisible. At the same time, he’s doing an illegal act, throwing an object at another person.

The question is how will the guard react. In fact, he reacts quite intelligently. He knows the attack came from behind him and looks and sees the player. However, he can only be suspicious because he doesn’t know for sure where that knife came from.

How about one more scene, different location, and target this time. A crowd of people is standing around and the player shoots a hanging chandelier and it drops on a target. No one is currently looking at the player, but again, how is he not spotted immediately. He has a silencer but this should be an easy catch. This kill was done mere seconds after the beginning of a level and that is one of two major targets for this level. So is Hitman broken? I would say not.

What I’ve been showing is a very specific rule. If the player is doing something and no one currently has eyes on him, the player is fully invisible. If the player is seen holding a weapon, he might have a chance to put it away. If he is seen doing a hostile act like firing a gun, he’ll alert anyone watching him immediately. This is a hard and important rule of the game, and while it seems like the game is dumb for allowing the original kill I showed, it’s abiding by the rules that have been set up for the game firmly. So players can abuse the rules by killing targets like I’ve shown.

This is just one of many rules that players will learn, understand, and utilize to make the best use of the situation. Once a player understands the rules of the game, they should influence his decision making, and strategies. I tried the explosive throw just to see what type of trouble I would get into, and I was amazed and overjoyed when this worked because it shows how strictly Hitman abides by them, even when they might be exploited. My wife called out how ludicrous this kill was and I agree, but I still love when rules can be utilized instead of the game deciding to make an exception for some difficulty.

There are a lot of rules in the modern Hitman. If a sound is heard, someone will investigate, and more people will follow if the sound isn’t stopped. Any characters who see illegal acts can identify the player on sight later. That compromised state only affects those that have identified the player directly in his current outfit or have been told. Others can still be fooled.

Players will have to learn these rules over time but the more rules players understand, the more they will be able to interact with the simulation that the game presents, and that will only make the simulation feel better because the game reacts predictably. Many of these rules feel understandable and realistic and, as such, players will start to trust their personal instincts to expand on these rules leading to more interesting situations.

There was a point where I was playing a level and was stuck behind a door that I didn’t have a keycard to. I wanted to see what was behind the door, and I didn’t have the desire to hunt down the keycard, but I was dressed as a guard with a shotgun so I figured it was worth a try to shoot open a door. A quick shot from my gun suddenly opened the door.

What’s interesting is that nothing in the game tells the player to shoot open doors, outside of a loading screen hint that I saw after recording this footage. But sure enough, a single shotgun blast opened a door in my way. This was a player having an idea and the designer allowing that to be a solution by having an unstated rule about, even if it wasn’t the intended solution they had in mind.

By having the rules of the world make some logical sense, it allows the player to innovate and try new things that they think may work. This was one of the major pieces of design work that Hideo Kojima showed off in Metal Gear Solid 2, and the entire series. The idea that while the game doesn’t have to directly tell players to try something like hiding in a locker, doesn’t mean the player can’t discover it themselves and start to think of crazier solutions.

One of the most interesting and unnecessary additions in Metal Gear Solid 5 was the idea that the player could slide on cardboard boxes downhills. Does this add much to the game? Not really, but it’s a cool little trick and showed that the designers who worked with Kojima at the Kojima Productions at the publisher, who shall not be named, cared about the world and their simulation to the point that they gave the player the ability to do needless activities. This approach to the world reinforced that expected reactions would work as expected, even if it’s something as simple as shooting out a tire on a car as it drove along. These are unrelated activities, but an understanding that the world reacts believably in outlandish situations leads players to think normal situations should also work believably.

This feeling is achieved by designing the world to be a large complex set of systems and rules rather than a linear level, which starts to bring the new Hitman games toward the ideas of being an immersive sim. While I think a case could be made that Hitman has become immersive sim-adjacent at the very least, I’m going to leave that point for another time. Hitman does take one important piece of immersive sims gameplay in that it has multiple ways to accomplish every goal.

A perfect example is that almost any room in Hitman has more than one entrance to it. There are a couple of dead ends, usually in the shape of a supply closet, or a bathroom, but these are the exceptions. This is true even when the game has believable houses and locations. By having more than one exit to any room will give players options.

This was done by the designers in a way to give players a way to escape from any situation such as guards approaching or chasing them as they run through a location, but it also does something important in that just because an entrance is guarded players can expect there are multiple other options.

The option that players of Hitman will rely on the most will be the idea of a disguise. If you have a set of guards, perhaps the player might be able to find an outfit of a person that the guards will grant access to without question. There are usually several disguises that can work. But that’s just one way.

There are always alternate entrances, usually through other doors, windows, balconies, or crawl spaces, even climbing drain pipes. Usually only one or two of these choices will be available but there’s almost always a possibility outside of the most direct route.

Allowing multiple entrances to a single room leads us to another facet of Hitman’s new game style. I call it allowing failure. Let’s say you are at a party in real life and wander off. If you were to accidentally walk through the wrong door and a security guard saw you, their first instinct would likely not be overly aggressive, such as shooting or attacking you. Instead, they would assume you made a mistake and escort you back to the area that you are allowed to be in.

Hitman now uses what they call the escort system which does a similar thing. It allows players to make mistakes such as crossing some invisible boundary without destroying the elements of stealth. Players will be told to exit the area, and given a decent amount of time to do so, as well as an indicator where he has to reach

The same is true when a player commits some more urgent issue such as alerting a guard because of being suspicious. The guards have several states with the one we’ll focus on being Searching as well as Suspicious. Both of these states usually indicate that something has gone on, but these are not serious issues, yet. To talk in game terms, guards have been turned into enforcers and will see through disguises, but this is just an elevated state for a single guard.

But what if the player was to just run away from these enforcers. The fact is, that’s perfectly acceptable. If you commit some minor infraction, where enemies have yet to turn hostile to you, you can usually get away by just leaving that area. But similar to how rooms have multiple entrances, you have multiple options. You can hide until the alert level is lowered. You can change outfits, you can kill or knock out the observers, and depending on who that character is, it might even be an NPC that will only go get the police or guard, sometimes you can ignore it and quickly finish what you’re doing.

Being spotted in any of these manners does change Hitman 2, it would have to. However, what it doesn’t do is simplify the game to the point where a player may feel the necessity to revert to a save or be limited to a single solution. I’ve had situations where I’ve knocked out four or five NPCs because they each spotted me in order, and yet I felt that was a valid strategy, not necessarily up to the standards of a master assassin, but well worthy of consideration if the situation called for it.

What’s important with this system is to understand how this changes what happens after a mistake. Let’s take a game like Mark of the Ninja with what I want to call a standard stealth system. Being spotted is instantaneous here and much of the game is about stealth itself. Mark of the Ninja is fantastic but I bring it up here because once you’re spotted in Mark of the Ninja, you are forced into combat, fleeing, or more likely restarting from a checkpoint, none of those answers are particularly engaging. You also lose score and the game feels like you’re immediately being placed in a failure state because truthfully, you are. You can kill targets, but Mark of the Ninja feels more like it expects you to restart.

I could go through several stealth games that start to fall apart when you’re sighted. It can be anything from Deus Ex which pushes choices through builds, such that you’ll have stealth mods, but not combat mods. That became a bigger problem when the original Human Revolution had mandatory combat bosses. There are morality systems like Dishonored where players will usually choose early on if they’ll be a killer or not, but even there, combat is not where it’s at the strongest. I’m planning on tackling those karma systems, soon. Of course on screen now is Alien Isolation, which is a great game, but don’t get sighted in Alien Isolation. You will not like what happens. These games become very limited in options when you get sighted. Even when there is a counter, there’s A counter, not multiple choices.

So why does Hitman work where the rest of these games have issues? It’s because the game might change, but it doesn’t stop giving the player opportunities as I talked about before.

Being detected doesn’t end a run in Hitman, but rather changes the gameplay to a different phase. You can think of the normal gameplay in Hitman to have Agent 47 hidden. At this point, the player isn’t known and can move seamlessly between locations and targets when going along with the rules. Once the player is discovered, there’s a heightened state, but rather than moving to a phase of gameplay where the player feels like he has lost, the player has enough options to continue on. Again the options include ways to take down enemies and ways to hide, changing disguises, and more. Each of them can return the game to the hidden state and proceed with the game.

By allowing the player to recover from their mistakes, Hitman is more welcoming than a wealth of stealth games that tend to treat stealth as the only real gameplay, and loss of stealth equates to a loss of the game or section.

On-screen now, you can even see the way knowledge about Agent 47 is passed. It’s done through normal dialogue, and while it’s probably not the most realistic way, as many times NPCs should have radios, we do have to remember this is a game. But it also allows the game to limit the compromised status so that while these NPCs might know about Agent 47, he can go to other locations and meet with other people without being forced to change his disguise.

What’s important though is that just because an alarm is set, or an avenue of attack for a major target fails for some reason like being spotted, there are always ways to get to targets and kill them in interesting ways. In real life, if an Assassin was spotted, the target would be removed from the location immediately, but here the simulation is rigged in such a way that failure may only close one door and leave many others still open to be discovered..

This leads us to one last thing I want to talk about, Hitman does something important. It empowers the player through a variety of systems giving the player a way to tie the rules to the opportunities and coming with their approach to the game. This is different from just giving the player a superpower, though instinct mode is quite useful itself. Empowering the player for Hitman 2 is more akin to getting them to the point where they can start making smart moves or discover the critical pieces of the puzzle themselves.

This is where Hitman elevates everything it does. We’ve already seen the player use enemies’ sight to their advantage. The rules of how enemies see and detect costumes heavily weigh in Agent 47’s favor. Most rules in Hitman are similarly tilted in the player’s favor. If the player is discovered, he can just run away and become unseen again. If there’s someone who can see through 47’s disguise, there’s usually a disguise somewhere that will work on that person.

Earlier I showed a video with Agent 47 ducking behind a wall to avoid being spotted, that’s a rule that’s in 47’s favor. The amount of these rules that side with Agent 47 allows a lot of interesting exploits that I’ve been showing off, and while serious players might say the exploits make the game easier, new players will benefit and understand these rules and be able to make better progress.

But both modern Hitman games take the extra step for the player, the Mission Stories and Challenges. These are the hidden tricks of Hitman. When a player enters a level, they can usually run up to a target, and just shoot them in the face, and run away. It’s not an elegant solution but it can be made to work. Hitman needs to elevate the player’s thought process out of the bluntest way to achieve the simple goal of killing someone. Though if you remember the chandelier it’s still an interesting possibility.

An important addition added to Hitman 2016, was Mission Stories. These sound like the expected ways to tackle a mission, and while they can be, it’s more set up as almost a tutorial for players, especially new players. In the current story, I’ve overheard that Robert Knox, one of my targets likes The Florida Man’s food truck. So sure enough, I’ve taken over the identity of The Florida Man, opened his truck, fed a few people and Knox shows up.

These Mission Stories are hardly the only way to beat a level, but Mission Stories are a helping hand that gets players invested in both Hitman 2 and the level. They won’t teach everything to the player, but they are a great way to teach the rules of a specific level, where several important elements are, and the layout of that level.

We can even go further, not only are there mission stories, but there are challenges listed, each challenge on these pages are some act or some action the player can take. It might be as simple as opening a specific door, taking on a specific disguise or a way to kill a target. Poisoning the trophy is an interesting death for Sierra Knox, but there’s no story here, it’s just a way to take her out that might take a decent amount of work to get.

Challenges can be seen as in-game achievements which is what they are. They do offer some experience on a level system that helps to unlock additional equipment and additional starting points and more, but many Challenges are just nudges to tell players what might be possible, such as using a treehouse and killing two targets with one bullet. What might be desirable, such as impersonating a person that the target is expecting to meet with, and what might just be interesting, such as in the Santa Fortuna level, I wasn’t even aware there was a Hippo until I checked out the challenges.

These are all ways to start giving players ideas on how to approach these levels, as well as a way to offer rewards to players who replay levels and find new solutions. These Challenges are what has kept me returning to each of these levels.

But of course, some players don’t want Mission Stories or the Challenges, they might see them as spoilers. The good news is that players aren’t forced to follow Mission Stories, and on the hardest difficulty, the game turns off the Mission Story tracking completely. Challenges can be hidden at all times from the options menu as well.

If a player wants a harder challenge, Hitman offers it. There are grading systems, leaderboards, and three different difficulties, but that’s all fine. The thing is by offering Missions Stories, Challenges and more, players are welcomed into the world of Hitman, and the player who might struggle on how to take out a target the first time is given training wheels to start learning the levels and the methods of attack that Hitman offer outside of “shoot the target in the face”.

The trick is you don’t have to challenge the best players. They’ll find their own challenge, whether it be the no suit challenge, the leaderboards, or just finding the most outlandish way to kill a target. I’m sure some players even play the entire game without the instinct mode and that’s a new level of commitment. This isn’t just Hitman, Zelda games have 3 heart runs, Guitar Hero has blindfolded players, and even Rubik’s Cube has speedrunners. Players will find the upper tier if they want to.

Just by offering a complex enough system, you’ll give the best players hundreds of hours of entertainment to show off their skill. What designers need to do is to welcome new players to the game with the friendly choices. You will introduce them to both the systems and the opportunities that your game presents, and that’s really what has made Hitman and Hitman 2 such a joy to play.

So just to recap. Hitman 2 gives players an understandable world that creates an interesting simulation with rules they can understand and infer. It then offers countless opportunities and several systems that the players can use to accomplish their goals. And if that wasn’t enough, they make themselves exceedingly welcoming to new players while still maintaining a system that can challenge even the top tier players.

All of this creates a one of a kind stealth or puzzle games. And Hitman 2 is kind of special. I don’t know many 3D puzzle games that are as deep as Hitman gets, with as simple a concept as Hitman has. You just have to kill a couple of targets a level, but the ways you can do it are where Hitman evolves into a game worthy of discussion.

I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into what makes Hitman stand out. This video has taken a bit longer than my other videos to write, so I hope it shows in the final product. Overall though I can say I recommend pretty much any game in this video. Hitman 2 is exceptional, Mark of the Ninja is one of my favorite stealth games, Alien Isolation was a terrifying game, and Metal Gear Solid 5 isn’t the best Metal Gear, but it’s the only Metal Gear Solid game we have on Steam and honestly if you look at it from just an open-world game, it’s enjoyable.

So we come to that point in every video on youtube where I have to say, make sure you like and subscribe, ring the bell for notifications. But, if you’ve made it this far, please consider it. I would appreciate it, and it will help this channel grow, as well as ensure you hear about what comes up next. We probably have the Humble Choice for May next, and then I think I’ll be tackling player choice in games and karma systems.

I’ll pop up a couple of my previous videos, and I’ll get out of here.

Until then, I’m Kinglink, and thanks for watching.