There's something special about bank levels. Whenever a stealth game or an immersive sim asks me to sneak into a bank of any description, I find it hugely exciting. Walking into the gleaming marble lobby, taking a mental note of the armed guards, security cameras, bulletproof glass, and laser grids. Looking for holes in the security that I can exploit. Vents to creep into, keycards to pickpocket, loot to snaffle. Then pulling off the perfect heist without being seen or heard by anyone and strolling casually out of the front door.
A bank level is a puzzle, really. A seemingly impenetrable fortress you have to figure out how to infiltrate, using your imagination to game the systems, cleverly navigate the level, and outsmart the AI. The Palisade Bank in Eidos-Montréal's Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a recent example of a great bank level, being a colossal, monolithic citadel filled with sensitive data to steal, complex, interlinked security systems to bypass, and heavily armed guards to outwit. Much of this level is optional, but spending time there is enormously entertaining.
Back in 2017 I interviewed (opens in new tab) Clémence Maurer, lead designer on the Palisade Bank map, for a making of feature. In the interview she described the level she designed as a "tough, rich, and super dense map" where players are given all the tools they need to infiltrate it, but never a way how. "The bank rewards smart, adventurous players who explore every corner of the map," she says. "The pieces of the puzzle are not meant to be given away, but earned."
And that's a big part of why I love bank levels like this. Those moments when you're standing back, hiding in the shadows, or even in plain sight, and just figuring the thing out. Observing the guards, studying their patrols, and looking for interesting ways to navigate the environment. In a lot of cases you can just brute-force your way in, but for me the best bank levels really shine when you slip in and out unseen and unheard—doubly so if you've managed to fill your pockets with loot, because why infiltrate a bank and not take anything?
These levels are also appealing to me in the same way heist movies are. A period of meticulous planning leading up to the big caper in the final act, and that simmering tension of whether the plan will work or not. Except, in the case of videogames, this feeling is more pronounced because you're the one actually doing the job. The heists in games like Payday and Grand Theft Auto V are dramatic and undoubtedly loads of fun, but I prefer it when staging the crime is left entirely up to me, rather than prescribed by a developer.
I spent hours gutting every corner of the Palisade Bank. Opening every safe, rifling through every desk, and hacking every computer. And when I slowly strolled back out to the streets of Prague through the lobby, the security staff oblivious to my crimes, it felt amazing. Immersive sims always turn me into a terrible kleptomaniac, and I guess this loot-stuffed map is the natural conclusion of that style of play. And let's be honest, it's just fun to steal things in games and get away with it.
Which leads me to the latest level released for Hitman 2. This new assassination, titled Golden Handshake, takes place in the New York branch of the Milton-Fitzpatrick Investment Bank: a grand, temple-like financial hub catering to the city's elite. It's the perfect setting for a Hitman level, with tight security, a target whose every move is shadowed by a team of guards, and IO Interactive's usual high standards of atmosphere, world-building, and architecture.(opens in new tab)
Grand Central Station seems to have inspired the bank's lavish, ostentatious architecture, with shafts of light streaming through tall glass windows. The sense of scale in the main hall is dizzying, and I like how Miltzon-Fitzpatrick has augmented the old building with modern elements. Dotted around the lobby are modern metal cubes containing meeting rooms, lit by the old chandeliers above. IO is particularly good at this kind of spatial contrast: see also, the glass structure sitting atop the crumbling stone castle in the Isle of Sgàil map.
But the real meat of the level is found in the basement, where the vault is housed. You can actually get into the vault area without a disguise, as long as you don't have any illegal items on you. Here you can access the private lockboxes, a few of which can be lock-picked to find some interesting items. But to access the room where the imposing vault door is, you'll need to disguise yourself as an elite security guard and find a keycard. And even then there are several other steps required to actually get into the vault itself.
On the upper floors of the bank you'll find a bustling stock exchange with stressed investment bankers shouting into telephones, ordering people to buy or sell. The grease-stained, half-filled pizza boxes are a nice touch too: a clue, perhaps, that these people basically live here. Climb another floor and you'll find the office of the bank's director, the cruel and unscrupulous Athena Savalas. One of the best mission stories in Golden Handshake involves 47 posing as a worker who's being theatrically fired by the cold-hearted director.
Savalas' office is one of the highlights of the map, looking like something you'd see in a Bond villain's lair. A massive glass clock overlooks the main hall of the bank, and her office is located behind it. You can imagine her standing there, watching the staff below, making sure the business is running smoothly. When 47 turns up for his firing, if you choose that particular route, it's a genuinely intimidating place. But, well, the clock is made of glass, and there's a drop below, and… you know what I'm getting at. It wouldn't be a Hitman level if it didn't give you a satisfyingly brutal way to kill a horrible person.(opens in new tab)
The bank is something of a curio compared to Hitman 2's other levels, however. It's smaller than usual, which initially disappointed me, but after completing it a couple of times I realised that this is actually one of its strong points. In the bigger maps there's a luxury of space: large, unpatrolled areas where you can sneak, explore, and observe without being hassled. But because the bank is so tight and confined, you always feel on edge, under scrutiny, on the verge of being spotted—even when you've found a high-level disguise. That gives it a really interesting energy, and makes the bank feel appropriately secure. After all, breaking into a place like this should feel like a challenge.
The map is full of personality and detail, like the glimpses of New York you catch through the rain-splattered windows, or the nerdy posters pinned up in the IT department. I love the depth of detail in IO's environments—something I took a close look at for Kotaku (opens in new tab)—and it's always a delight to explore the places these artists build. Their genius lies not only in creating a palpable sense of place, and a memorable aesthetic, but in building levels that interplay beautifully with the game's systems, opening up countless possibilities.
Honestly, I'd be happy if they just kept releasing new levels forever. If Hitman became an ongoing, evolving service, for want of a better word, instead of a series with numbered sequels, I'd be into it. Hitman 2 is one of the best stealth games on PC, and now, thanks to the Milton-Fitzpatrick Investment Bank, it joins the likes of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, and Thief 2 as a game featuring a great bank level. Seriously, if you're making a stealth game, put a bank in it, and let me rob that bank.(opens in new tab)