He used to be an assassin. Now he's just a groundskeeper at a church in Sicily, grappling with the things he's done, and praying to, one day, be forgiven for his crimes. Then, one day, his only friend is kidnapped and ransomed by mobsters. To save him, Agent 47 literally digs up the past, and goes back to work.
It's an old game by this point, and its sequel has already been released, but Hitman II: Silent Assassin is still one of the more cerebral experiences on console. If you're an action fan, and you haven't played it, consider this a wake-up call. We here at Game Over Online care about you, man, and want to make sure you're not missing out.
Hitman II can be played like any other third-person shooter, with bullets flying and bodies dropping, but to do so misses something of the point. You are meant to be a stealthy and silent killer, not a bald Caucasian take on Chow Yun-Fat, and the game provides many options for you to go about doing so.
Here's an example. One level of the game is set in and around the German embassy in St. Petersberg. Your job is to somehow get in, kill a Russian general who's planning on defecting to the West, swipe his briefcase from a locked safe in one of four offices inside the building, and get back out alive. Standing in your way are a few dozen paranoid security guards, as well as a random element, in the form of a Spetznaz agent who is also here to steal the briefcase.
It's entirely possible to beat this level by stealing a submachinegun from one of the bodyguards and mounting a frontal assault. You'll have to shoot quite a few innocent people, to say nothing of a bunch of bodyguards, and there is the small problem that you might get killed doing it.
Instead, you can slowly creep around the embassy, using your fiber wire and silenced handgun to dispatch the guards, and work your way ever closer to the unwary general. If you want to get sneakier yet, you can acquire a waiter's uniform from one of the hired help, walk straight into the embassy via the service entrance, and slip the general a glass of poisoned champagne.
All of the missions in Hitman II share that degree of freedom. There are usually several different and equally valid ways to accomplish each goal, from the needlessly violent to the subtle. If you can pull off the assassination without being seen, your cover being blown, and ideally without using firearms at all, you'll earn the coveted title of Silent Assassin.
Another element of Hitman II is the strangely addictive weapon collection. Between stages, you'll return to the Sicilian church where Agent 47's been hiding out, and where his gardening shed has become an armory. Any weapon that you leave a level with will wind up in the armory, ready for use in a subsequent mission. Since you can replay completed levels at will, this adds a certain degree of strategy and entertainment that those levels would ordinarily lack. A full-bore stealth mission gains an entirely new element when you're allowed to begin it with an assault weapon.
The game's not perfect, though. A Silent Assassin run, which is arguably the way the game is "meant" to be played, requires a heavy reliance on two things: nonlethal attacks, and stealth. When 47 goes into his stealth mode, he moves about as fast as a snail on Percocet. A casually strolling NPC will outpace you easily, making sneaking up on anyone who isn't standing still nearly impossible.
The second problem is that there's only one nonlethal weapon in the game, and it's worthless. Chloroform requires you to sneak up behind an enemy to use it, and lasts an almost insultingly short period of time. I put one guy out with it, and he stayed under for about fifteen seconds, so I wound up shooting him anyway. For his fourth outing, 47 needs to pack something like a tranquilizer dart gun, and he needs to load it with the kinds of drugs that they use to shut up uppity rhinos. Having an entire mission blown because some goofball noncombatant is running around in his underwear causing a fuss, when you tranquilized him barely five minutes ago, is a new and exciting definition of frustration.
Of course, the latter problem only applies if you're like me, and tend to think in terms of the minimum force applied. If you're just in this to shoot a few dozen people dead, then you'll find Hitman II to be fun, albeit somewhat short. To really get some playtime out of it, you'll want to take each of its twenty levels slowly, exploring all your options and seeing what approaches actually work. You'll be surprised with how many potential plans of attack you can come up with, if you exercise a little creativity.
Since it's on the Greatest Hits, Platinum Collection, and Player's Choice labels these days, Hitman II: Silent Assassin is a cheap buy. It's one of the smartest, most atmospheric third-person shooters to come out in recent memory, combining strategic thinking with intense gameplay, and you'd be foolish to overlook it.