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How Hitman 2’s changes are designed for its bigger, deeper levels

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Is bigger always better?

Hitman 2 - Agent 47 disguised as a guard in Colombia IO Interactive/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

The Hitman series, in which players take the role of an international assassin known only as Agent 47, has always been defined by its levels. Each one is like an intricately designed puzzle box, with new paths and strategies opening up as 47 explores his surroundings, gathers intel and dons disguises. In 2016’s episodic Hitman, released in six chapters over seven months, developer IO Interactive explicitly made the levels the star of the show: Players had to sit with each of the six locations for weeks and weeks, learning all the characters, corners and clockwork mechanisms. Yet how would the studio top itself for Hitman 2, in which all six chapters are playable from the get-go?

To hear IO Interactive tell it, reverting to a traditional release model didn’t change much about the way the team made the sequel. The developers did want to create larger, more complex playgrounds for 47 and his adversaries in Hitman 2 — but they knew that bigger wasn’t necessarily better.

“We definitely don’t design these locations just for the sake of that they’re big,” said IO’s Sven Liebold in a phone interview with Polygon last week. “We want to make sure that you have gameplay, or that you can create gameplay, essentially in every single little corner if you want to.”

I recently took a crack at Hitman 2’s mission in the town of Santa Fortuna, Colombia. Agent 47 is sent to a rainforest village that’s in the grasp of a drug kingpin named Rico Delgado and his cartel, and the assassin is tasked with taking out the cartel’s top three leaders: Andrea Martinez, cocaine cook Jorge Franco and Delgado himself.

As a video game level, Santa Fortuna is a sprawling setting that includes the backwoods village itself, a laboratory with coca fields, a construction site, and the heavily guarded cartel compound — along with caves that connect some of those locations. And true to Hitman tradition, the three targets initially hang out in certain zones, but will move around to different areas as they interact with each other, Agent 47 and the personas he assumes, and the events that the player sets in motion.

IO hasn’t delivered major overhauls to the way Hitman works for Hitman 2, but the few changes the developers did make were driven by the level and mission design. Liebold described the levels as “a bit more elaborate” this time around, and said that the team wanted to be able to maintain its philosophy of giving players as much feedback as possible. That way, they’ll better understand that the world will react to everything they do.

In some situations, you still don’t see what you’d expect in Hitman 2. I threw a coin into some grass, and a nearby guard left his post to investigate — as if he’d heard the coin echoing off the ground, which of course makes no sense. Still, Liebold said that it’s important for players to be aware of Hitman’s action/reaction philosophy: “You think differently and you start to experiment more, and you start to be more creative because you know the rules better.”

Hitman 2 - Agent 47 disguised as a guard firing at another guard IO Interactive/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

One of the key new features, Picture-in-Picture, is exactly what it sounds like: In the middle of a mission, a window may pop up with real-time video of something that’s happening elsewhere in the level. These missions can take a long time to complete — sometimes upwards of an hour, if you’re exploring everything. It’s easy to lose track of something you did a while back, and how it may have caused a fail state.

“Let’s say you choked out a guard and you totally forgot about it, and he’s just, like, somewhere under a tree,” Liebold said. “And you forget about it; you do your thing. Twenty minutes later, you’re surrounded by guards, and you really don’t know why.” This feature should reduce the wait, what? confusion and frustration that players may have felt upon seeing the “Body Found” notification in 2016’s Hitman. We clarified with Liebold that players will be able to disable this and another new element, visible camera grids, if they want a more challenging experience.

Other folks may be more story-oriented, and Liebold said that IO wanted to cater to those players as well. In the previous game, 47 and his handler, Diana Burnwood, gradually uncovered a plot to control global events that was put into place by a shadowy cabal of elites. Much of that story was confined to cutscenes that bookended each mission; it sometimes felt like the season’s narrative elements were an afterthought. Hitman 2 is a direct sequel, so its story follows directly from Hitman’s plot. This time around, said Liebold, IO focused on using the game’s expansive, detailed levels to convey the story.

Hitman 2 - Andrea Martinez flanked by two guards in Colombia
Andrea Martinez flanked by two guards in Hitman 2’s Colombia level.
IO Interactive/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

“If you follow all these locations and meet all these characters, you get a much better picture of the story — what is actually happening around you [...] with these characters,” said Liebold. He added that Hitman 2’s cutscenes “sort of tie the story together so the next step of the story is actually happening in the next level, not in the next cutscene.”

IO also sprinkled more story into the first game. When the developers went back and remastered Hitman’s six levels — the updated versions will be available free for anyone who already owns that game — they didn’t just improve the environments and add Hitman 2’s new gameplay features. Now, when players check out the new iteration of the Paris level in the Hitman 2 Legacy Pack, they may catch a cameo appearance by Andrea Martinez, one of the three targets in the sequel’s Colombia mission.

Since before the release of Hitman, IO has been referring to its grand plan for these new games as a “World of Assassination.” It seems that with Hitman 2, the studio is doing more than ever to flesh out that universe. We’ll find out on Nov. 13, when Hitman 2 is released on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.