Hitman 2: The Golden Handshake Review
This first expansion level doesn’t quite hit the series’ high bar
A few months ago, I wrote at length trying to capture what it is about IO Interactive’s new Hitman formula that is so enticing: chiefly, how the game teaches, but never tells. Hitman 2’s underdog story (where it once looked unlikely to get a look in on my personal games of 2018) was an exciting and refreshing one. After some assuredly hard times — their massive layoffs in 2017 the undoubted nadir — IO put out arguably their most accomplished title, and a realisation of their ‘World of Assassination’ pitch that fell flat in 2016 came back refined two years later.
Hitman 2 is a fantastic package — bringing over the levels from the previous game and adding new targets and challenges periodically since release — but it has been crying out for something brand new for months now. In the last week of June, “The Bank” was ready for Agent 47 to traverse, explore and… err, open a new bank account, too, if he has time.
The setup is familiar for “The Golden Handshake,” the location’s main attraction. There’s a bad, bad woman running this bank, and 47 needs to neutralise her. He also has some sensitive data to recover, either by robbing the bank’s closely-guarded vault, or looting it from a few unwilling big-wigs. As always, 47 — and you — are left to solve this puzzle in almost any way you see fit. Mission Stories return as guided experiences, but these can also be disregarded in favour of more unconventional or creative methods. As long as those two objectives are met, and you make it out alive, the mission will be at least a qualified success. The challenge, just like every Hitman level, lies in being a ghost: no witnesses or evidence of your actions will improve both your score and your location mastery.
The bank itself is closer to IO’s ‘fortress’ design, as opposed to the ‘snail houses’ of Sapienza or Mumbai. The large public area is free to roam, but 47 will be met with some resistance should he stray towards the vault or the trading floor. Fittingly, even with disguises, the bank’s high-security areas are still difficult places to stay undetected. Lots of enforcers add a sense of realism: if you’re part of the 5-man security detail that guards a bank’s vault, you’d probably get a memo if a lanky, pasty bald dude had been hired, right? With practice, you’ll be expertly ducking in and out of corridors to avoid these goons, and by level 15 — where the mission’s mastery tops out — you’ll be doing the whole thing in a couple of minutes without any disguises.
That the level’s mastery tops out at 15 — as opposed to the standard 20 for most of the other missions — might tip off what my primary complaint about this mission is. There’s not a whole lot here, both in terms of variety and just total content. The target, Athena Savalas, errs more toward being a ‘dweller’ than a ‘roamer’, which always limits the variety of ways she can be dealt with. In the past, IO have paired ‘dweller’ targets with a ‘roamer’, someone who moves around the map more freely and generates more opportunities for ‘accidents.’ Instead, Savalas is coupled with the data recovery objective, which, at its worst, involves breaking into the same vault every single run. You can mix it up by recovering the drives from some of the bank’s head honchos, but those interested in being either fast or quiet will always prefer the former option.
That data recovery objective does not hold up well with multiple playthroughs, something Hitman has been designed for. Hitman missions have always been at their best with human targets to track, plan for, and adapt to dynamically changing situations. Though you can experiment to some degree with how you eliminate Savalas, the process for breaking open the vault is identical every time. Sapienza, one of my favourite levels from the first game of IO’s reboot, suffered from this problem with the laboratory, but there were at least a few different ways to infiltrate it, including more creative plots such as shooting the stalactite that teetered above the bio-weapon sample. The vault has one entry point, and requires only some basic local exploration from the player to circumvent its security measures. The first few times this is fine, but those who find their fun in repeating Hitman levels will eventually find the sequence boring and chore-like.
This isn’t to deride Hitman 2’s new location as bad, or even mediocre: the game’s formula is so fun that even an average level makes for compelling gameplay. However, with the heights the series has scaled — Hokkaido being a personal high-point and, more recently, Whittleton Creek — accepting something middling is a much harder proposition. The Milton-Fitzpatrick Bank sits somewhere in the middle of Hitman’s hypothetical tier-list, only because it never innovates the same way the best levels do. The series’ masterstroke levels always have a unique spin or mechanic that stops the player from simply repeating the strategies that worked the last time around. Hokkaido’s disguise-dependent security system forced players to think two steps ahead, and made a suit-only run a stiff challenge indeed. Sapienza’s sprawling map gave players freedom to try almost anything, and trigger inordinately complex assassinations simply because they could. That spark just isn’t here. The location’s size, objectives and layout ultimately stifle player creativity, the kind of creativity that, as I mentioned in my last Hitman piece, makes the game such a joy.
“The Golden Handshake” is the first of two bites at the cherry for Hitman 2’s Expansion Pass (there’ll be two new ‘main’ locations, along with some new sniper maps), so maybe having a level that treads water is fair enough in terms of keeping players happy and giving people more of the same content they’ve vocally expressed their enjoyment of. That said, there’s room for experimentation and risk-taking here. All in all, the first of the two main expansion levels is just a Hitman level: nothing more, nothing less. It’s working from the fantastic formula that made Hitman 2 one of my favourite games of 2018, which makes it very difficult for it to be anything less than pretty good. It never scales the heights that Hokkaido from the previous game did, nor does it plumb the depths the disastrous Colorado mission did either. It sits safely ensconced in the middle of the pack. More Hitman is always welcome, but something more adventurous and mould-breaking would really justify the cost of the Expansion Pass: lord knows that the folks at IO Interactive are capable of it.