This is more like it. This is so much more like it that it feels like the gap year abroad next to that disappointing overnight stop in Paris. In Sapienza, a colourful and complex Italian town, IO's new Hitman [official site] has found the ideal location for a spot of sightseeing and silent slaughter. I've spent more than ten hours playing and feel like I'm still scratching the surface, and almost every hit has been a complete joy.
After struggling to find the fun in Hitman's first episode, I was hopeful that the second location would be an improvement but I didn't imagine it'd be this much of an improvement. Whether that's a vindication of the episodic model or an indictment of it, I'll leave for you to decide – until the whole game is in my hands I'm reserving judgement on the model. It'd be a shame if Paris were to dissuade people from sticking with the game but perfectly understandable and I can't pretend to know how much of the feedback has had an influence on development.
There's evidence of a learning curve, signs that IO have applied lessons learned from the first episode to the second, but Sapienza is a better sandbox right down to its foundations. I picked apart the Opportunities system and some of the stealth mechanics in the Paris episode, but most of my complaints were aimed directly at the level design. The fashion show was a box, an imperfect cube with multiple entrances and exits. It was isolated from the city, a relatively simple stage with Paris as its backdrop.
Sapienza has layers. Wander down to the beach and you can look back at the town and figure out new routes through the streets and buildings. There's a much greater sense of being dropped into a living area, incognito, and either fitting in as best you can or creating chaos as you go.
The differences between Sapienza and Paris are clear as soon as the level begins. In the first episode, Agent 47 arrives at his destination as the mission begins – you're right there, at the venue, ready for the kill. In this episode, you're in a town and the mansion where your targets are secured is at the other side of town. You're on the outside looking in and you could play for ages, meddling in the lives (and deaths) of the townspeople before even setting foot in the mansion.
In Paris, the level was the objective; in Sapienza, the objective is one part of a much larger and more vibrant location. There are so many stories to find and places to visit that the intricate design, as it relates to infiltration and assassination, isn't immediately obvious. It's a credible location, on the surface, rather than an obvious playground for the usual Hitman antics, but scratch beneath that surface and the brilliance of the architecture as a game-space becomes obvious.
It's evident in the way that residential buildings have been used as low-threat passages between the streets. You're trespassing when within them, and can be spotted when passing by windows or lingering on balconies, but the consequences aren't punishing. For one thing, it's easy enough to vanish into the warren of corridors and apartments until the heat has died down, and for another, it's difficult for the authorities to interfere given the verticality of the town. Because of the time it takes the AI to reach the scene of a crime, you can take a shot from on high and make your way to a bench in a square to watch the investigations into your actions rather than having almost every moment of visible violence devolve into a clumsy chase or firefight.
All of the systems that came in for criticism in the first episode are allowed to flourish here. The Opportunities feel less obtrusive, by virtue of the many distractions to be found in the town, and stealth of all varieties shines now that there's a less linear progression between low- and high-security areas. Even in the mansion itself, where a locked-down underground lab acts as a military-standard target, the game remains playful even as the difficulty and restrictions ramp up.
Even the plot works in the game's favour. Sapienza is home to a weapon that is conceptually horrifying and also serves as a potential bullet in the heart of 47's trade. Hitman's morality has never been entirely clear – sometimes he appears to be a scalpel carefully applied to cut out rot that might spread, sometimes he's a more traditional wire-for-hire – but here, he's definitely the hero of the piece. Sure, you can make him push innocent people into the sea for a laugh, or greet every person in town with a knife to the back, but if you take out your targets, you'll make the world a better place even if you soak Sapienza in blood.
That's a good thing. IO haven't made 47 into a noble hero and they've smartly tied the mission into a hideous technology that has the side effect of making assassins obsolete – there's a selfish element to the mission that also touches on the mythology of the agency in Hitman's world. It's as good a piece of Bigger Picture storytelling as the series has ever done and it doesn't intrude on the self-contained stories that you can create from one playthrough to the next. That opening, 47 on a bench hiding his face in a newspaper, is an invitation to all manner of escapades: it's Bond, it's Bourne, it's The American. Within its sandbox you can play however you want to play, and make 47 whoever you want him to be: mindless murderer, sleek assassin, sightseer, pilgrim, chef, gelato connoisseur...
The star of the show is Sapienza itself though. It's a beautiful maze of possibilities, flowing toward the sea with vantage and access points sprinkled throughout. Wherever and whenever you create a disturbance, the ripples spread, causing all of the systems that make the game tick to trigger, and creating thrills and farce as they combine. I'm excited to see new targets and contracts as both the developers and players explore every nook and cranny of the town.
Though patches have been applied in the short time since launch, there are some technical issues, sadly. I haven't seen any crashes or glitches but do experience some slowdown when large crowds react - bumping the graphics down to medium makes things slightly smoother but doesn't fix the issue entirely. It's not a severe enough problem to detract from my enjoyment but it is noticeable and all of my PC's specs are equal to or higher than the recommended requirements here.
The slowdown is a small price to pay. It may have taken a while but Hitman is back and this Italian adventure is up there with the best of Blood Money.
Hitman Episode Two is out now.