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The two ways we play Hitman

The difference between discovery and mastery is essential to becoming a master assassin

Hitman 2 - Agent 47 dressed as a flamingo mascot IO Interactive/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Ryan Gilliam (he/him) has worked at Polygon for nearly seven years. He primarily spends his time writing guides for massively popular games like Diablo 4 & Destiny 2.

The Hitman franchise has always asked players for results above all else. In the game’s toy worlds, you can go anywhere, be anyone and slay anyone in whatever way you want. But killing using a specific path — replacing the fake bullet in an opera rehearsal with a real one just before the critical scene, for example — has always been the most rewarding way to play. Before you master a level, Hitman 2 (and the previous Hitman) gives you a chance to explore it with a sense of wonder.

The first level of Hitman 2 unleashes Agent 47 upon a race car event/tech exhibit. In the same mission, you can push a women down an elevator shaft dressed as a flamingo while also tricking a robot to kill its creator. It’s the kind of ridiculous black humor that Hitman fans have come to expect with their murder.

But the first time you walk through the stands filled with fans, you have to take in the grand scope of the map. Nothing is familiar, and everything is potentially a murder weapon in Agent 47’s hands. The first time you explore Miami is the last time you’ll ever have that wide-eyed experience where you’ll find something new around every corner — and probably get caught once or twice doing it.

The start of every new mission is all about discovery in Hitman. This super assassin gets to walk blindly through a new location like a kid through a toy store. “Why does that robot have a gun? I wonder how I can kill someone with that. Oh, look, a conspicuous shark hanging from the ceiling. I wonder when my target walks under that.” Every new room offers a new opportunity.

That joyful discovery of increasing your own murderous possibilities with every step you take, is fleeting. Eventually, you’ll relaunch into the mission, and the true Hitman experience really begins. Hitman 2 begs you to replay each map, dangling shiny new spy toys in front of you as a reward.

But these second, third and fourth times through don’t hold the same magic as before. Instead, they take on a new feeling of mastery, which is just a sweet as discovery, but with the price of never seeing the map with fresh eyes again. It’s how the game is meant to be, and the transition from novice to expert feels instantaneous.

Hitman 2 - Agent 47 aims a scoped rifle at a racetrack IO Interactive/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

My first time through Miami, I wandered around and started multiple different murder threads before something else shiny would catch my eye. In the end, I just poured rat poison in a man’s eye drops and then drowned him in the toilet. It wasn’t the sexiest kill, but it was efficient.

The second time through, however, I was a shadow. I took down and then became a mechanic, loosening one of the tires of my assassination target’s race car. She lost control and her car exploded mid-race. And for her father — the man I unceremoniously drowned my first time through — I used a kill method that took serious planning, knowledge of the map and was designed to look like an accident.

Because of my first, more leisurely playthrough in Miami, I knew the exact location of the volatile, experimental fuel that the target was testing on vehicles. After taking out the driver, I made a beeline for the fuel and carried it to the expo center, where my second target waited. After finding his prized racer prototype, I caused a malfunction in the engine to draw his attention, doused the open engine in that deadly fuel ... and waited.

As the target ran by, I waited in the hall and took out his trailing bodyguard with the swift throw of a wrench — I’d need his disguise later, and more security meant more obstacles in the way of what I was about to do. After hiding the guard, I moved onto the show floor to assist my target in his own demise. Thinking I was a mechanic, he had me test the engine once, twice and ... boom. The back of the car exploded, taking out my target with it.

In the chaos, I returned to the hallway and picked up the bodyguard uniform. With my new duds, I walked upstairs and past the increased security so that I could delete all the camera footage from my actions that day. Once the evidence was gone, I picked a lock to get on the roof and take off in a helicopter. Two kills, both of which appeared to be accidents, and a mission well done.

Hitman 2 - Agent 47 crouched near bushes Image: IO Interactive/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

My first run through the level — clumsy and slapdash as it was — created more opportunities for me the second time around. I was no longer the inexperienced Agent 47 from earlier that day; I was a killing machine ready to take on every obstacle with ease.

The game of Hitman shifts so radically from one map playthrough to the next. The next map I start will go the same way, and I’ll be just as curious as I was in Miami. But I’ll learn, remember and execute in all the runs afterward — transforming me into the perfect weapon.

With games, it’s so common to wish that we could go back and experience something for the very first time. But in Hitman, each run through helps you become exactly what the game wants. The goofy antics of Agent 47 are fun, but ultimately it comes down to how close can you get to that Silent Assassin rating.

Every attempt is a learning experience, and you grow up so fast in Hitman that it can be easy to miss the childlike joy from the first time through a level. But without that knowledge and those early blunders, you never gain the expertise you need to fulfill your mission as it was intended.

Hitman isn’t just about being a master assassin; it’s about becoming one.