The second episode of the Hitman (Xbox One) content sees the titular assassin leaving the bright lights of Paris and heading to the idyllic Amalfi coast in Italy. The peaceful town of Sapienza hides a dark secret, as a troubled genius has set up home in a mansion in the town, and is busily creating a devastating bio weapon in the en suite laboratory. You, as Agent 47, have been given the mission of taking out him, his assistant, and the virus. Two hits and a spot of espionage, then home in time for tea.
As the episode opens, you find yourself sat on a bench in the market square, taking your ease and blending in with the people bustling about the place. Straight away, the feeling is much more expansive than the Paris content, which was set in and around a single building. It appears that there is an entire town here to play with, including a coffee shop, safe house and church, as well as the rooftops to explore. Another thing that sprung to our minds was that our character should really be wearing a hat in the bright sunlight, given that he's somewhat follicularly challenged, but we were wearing cool shades, so we'll let it slide. Sitting on your bench, you have a good view of the mansion just across the square where your targets are sitting, unaware that doom is due to be swooping down upon them. As we were saying, a quick look at the place using Instinct Mode reveals a large number of armed guards, staff members, gardeners and so on, making a frontal assault a somewhat risky proposition. Indeed, this time around, it feels like Agent 47 is even more fragile than he was in Paris, and the chances of winning any kind of open combat scenario are quite slim, so sticking to stealth will be your best bet.
Also returning in this episode are the opportunities that you can track, to give you a little nudge towards possible ways that you might gain access to the building. Just one of these involves a psychiatrist sent to visit the main target by the company he works for. Standing close by him (but not too close, as in a nice touch, if you stand too close or look at them too openly when eavesdropping, your subject will ask you if there's a problem) you learn that the target has been acting strangely and that the doctor has been sent to straighten him out. As luck would have it, the doctor is tall, slim and bald! Surely then, it's a simple matter of choking him out and stealing his clothes, yes? Well, not quite. Hes in the coffee shop, surrounded by people going about their daily business, but ready at a moments notice to bear witness against you should you perform any suspicious acts. With a little lateral thinking, it's possible to make the doctor ill and then get his outfit while he's being sick, but we're not going to tell you exactly how, as a large part of the enjoyment of this game is the "lightbulb" moment when you figure out what to do.
Once you gain admittance to the mansion, the fun really begins. There are a lot of bodyguards, domestic staff and various sundry people hanging about, and as such it's quite hard to get away with any sort of anti-social behaviour. Somehow, in the midst of this madding crowd, you need to find, isolate, assassinate and then dispose of any evidence of your act in order to continue your mission, without having bullets flying from every angle. Another layer of complexity this time is that there are a lot more people who can tell you're not quite right, despite the disguise you are wearing. When you look around with your Instinct Mode, certain enemies will have a white dot over their heads. These enemies are the ones who are able to recognise that you aren't a genuine bodyguard, for instance. Interestingly, bodyguards can only recognise other bodyguards, and servants other servants. If you wander past a bodyguard dressed as a member of the kitchen staff, for instance, he wouldn't know you from Adam, but if you go into the kitchen, chances are someone will twig. Having the right set of clothes isn't just a carte blanche to do whatever you fancy.
For obvious reasons, we don't want to go into too much depth about the main story mission, because we don't want to spoil it. In addition to the main mission, the second chapter also includes more of the Escalation challenges, where you have to achieve five increasingly difficult objectives. One we tried had the first objective being the assassination of a chef, followed by an esacpe. The second level had us kill the chef, but then to go into a different part of the mansion to hack a laptop, before escaping. We'd love to tell you what the third objective was, but sadly we couldn't manage to find the laptop! This was the only issue with Escalation mode that we found, but it did jar a little, having to find a safe refuge, pull up the map and try and find out where we supposed to be. It turns out that just wandering aimlessly around a mansion full of people draws attention, and not in a good way.
Speaking of unwelcome attention, the AI of the NPCs seems to have had a tweak this time around. You may remember from the first episode's review that if you were being pursued, it was possible to hide in a bin and the pursuers would give up and walk away. This no longer works, as our deaths while cowering in a laundry hamper will testify! Having four annoyed bodyguards outside your hidey hole suddenly open fire into the hamper will ruin any assassin's day, so this time around you must at least break line of sight before trying to hide if you want to get away with it. The NPCs who can tell you're not who you're pretending to be have also been given a hyper vigilance pill, it would appear, On one occasion, a maid spotted that we weren't Bob the Butler from outside a window, as we were stood in shadows and she was outside in the bright sunlight. This causes a little inconvenience as you'll then have to break off your approach to the target and replan, so our advice is to duck when passing windows. Also, the AI has been tightened up this time with regards to jogging everywhere, so now being circumspect and keeping a low profile will pay dividends. That's not to say a quick run won't get you out of trouble, of course...
Hitman's second episode continues the good work that started in the first installment. The concerns we raised last time with regard to the AI have mostly been addressed, and possibly over-compensated for, which greatly increases the difficulty of the mission overall, and makes obtaining a Silent Assassin rating almost a forlorn dream, at least without a serious investment of time spent in learning the layout and the patterns of the targets. Of course, this has always been the case with Hitman games, but the jump in difficulty from Paris is quite a large one. The level design is great, with lots of possible approaches to choose from, but somehow it seems to lack focus, being more of an open-world approach to a mission than before. Overall, we can recommend a second dive into Agent 47's murky world.