Honoring Intelligence and Creativity
When I think back on the greatest games I enjoyed when I was younger, games like Ultima Underworld and Thief II: The Metal Age , they all have one thing in common. They honored player intelligence and gave us endless possibilities for our creative impulses. Admittedly, those games were rare even then, and today it can seem impossible to find these masterpieces among the hordes of titles relying on scripted action sequences and QTEs. Dishonored 2 is one of those masterpieces, a first person stealth-action title polished and primed for modern gamers but based on the best traditions of interactive entertainment.
Little Emily Kaldwin from Dishonored has grown up into a… so-so empress, despite the best efforts of her devoted father (and Dishonored protagonist) Corvo, who seems best at training her how to be a canny assassin rather than a courtly ruler. You can hardly blame her for her failings, given the plethora of problems faced by her empire and the number of schemers she deals with on a daily basis. She’s trying, but often finds herself wishing for sweet freedom away from the stifling demands of court. It’s not surprising, then, when she falls prey to a dastardly plot at the start of the game. Playing as Emily or Corvo, you’ll find yourself journeying to the southern city of Karnaca in order to unravel the plot and defeat a coup backed by a powerful witch and fearsome mechanical creations.
The most interesting themes of Dishonored return – figuring out who to trust (and perhaps more importantly, who not to trust) and choosing when to kill or not kill. This time, however, they are backed with a healthy dose of passion and personality that the first game often lacked. Emily and Corvo both speak; a welcome improvement. I spent most of my time with Emily, and she’s delightfully sarcastic (though determined to make things right), yet ultimately conflicted in a way that feels real. Her enemies are fantastically characterized in ways that make you determined to take them down, and they inhabit the areas in which you’re tracking them in ingenious ways. Perhaps you’ll largely read about them in scattered notes, or perhaps they will taunt you endlessly via a loudspeaker as you attempt to defeat their booby-trapped manor (just PERHAPS – that jerk). Either way, you’ll never forget why you are where you are at any given time.
The sights of Karnaca create a distinct sense of place, different yet connected to Dunwall. There’s no citywide plague this time, so there are more civilians around in the main areas that you pass through on the way to your ultimate destinations, and it feels more like a real city with locations that are connected to one another. I do feel like it was a bit gray and washed-out for a place supposedly based on Mediterranean Europe, but my tastes run more colorful than the average gamer. What can’t be contested is the masterful use of light and shadow, used both in service of the stealth gameplay and to create dreadful displays, such as the distended, flickering shadows of bloatflies against the wall as you approach a nest (they are totally gross and far creepier than Dishonored ‘s plague rats, but thankfully a bit more contained to specific areas).
Sound design is, of course, vital to stealth-action gameplay, and Dishonored 2 fully excels here as well. You’ll want to pay attention to every sound cue you get, as it will help you track guards and learn vital information about the areas you’re in. At the same time, the game uses music, voice, and effects to throw you off and scare the pants off you from time to time. There’s nothing like creeping up behind a bad guy only to have the squeal of a loudspeaker or the shout of a guard you didn’t notice make you jump in fright.
The main star of Dishonored 2, however, is its ingenious level design. This game cements the Arkane team as the absolute best in the business for creative yet eminently playable levels. Each mission area is unique and sizeable, but designed like a set of nested magic boxes that you’ll have to pick your way through carefully in order to reach your objective. Even the most bizarre levels feel like real places, via a thorough grounding in reality and fantastic attention to detail. There are no incoherently maze-like buildings or corridors that make no sense, and you’ll note that every single mechanical object has an identifiable (and interactive) power source. At the same time, all the design is in service to gameplay; every nook and cranny contains a tool, a treasure, a secret way to achieve an objective, or a juicy secret about the world. I’ve never seen a game so good at feeling real while also displaying so much creativity and so many gameplay options. There is never just one way to solve a problem. If you think there is, you’ve missed something.
And how do you defeat all these dastardly locations in order to take out your enemies and rescue your loved ones? Dishonored 2 remains primarily a stealth title, and even the most stab-happy player will be glad to know that sneaking around is simple and intuitive. Level traversal, in fact, feels better in general than it did in Dishonored. If it looked like I could jump onto a ledge, I generally could do so. And if I was spotted by a guard, I could always figure out what I’d done wrong. Combat also feels responsive but properly weighty. Some advanced maneuvers can be a bit fidgety – drop assassinations seem oddly difficult to perform, as many of my attempts resulted in me landing in front of my target even after desperately jamming the appropriate button. I also had trouble doing things like making a flying leap onto a climbable chain. I couldn’t quite tell if I was doing it wrong, so feel free to excoriate me in the comments if it was easy for you.
Emily and Corvo’s supernatural powers are plain fun to use; teleporting is zippy, and Emily’s shadow creeping ability actually feels creepy while you’re executing it. It’s jittery, your point of view is oddly distended, and even its non-lethal takedown animation is designed to make you shudder. Nearly every power is multipurpose and can be combined with other actions and powers to do crazy things. Use a doppelganger of yourself to lure a nasty killer robot into an arc pylon. Take out an inconveniently placed guard by mystically chaining her to a closer-by guard, then shooting that close guard with a sleep dart, putting them both to sleep. Every level presents new challenges and possibilities for your powers, although you can also “just say no” to magic juju and play through with just your crossbow, mines, and other fun goodies.
One of the biggest critiques of the first Dishonored was that you had access to a ton of toys and powers, but if you wanted to go non-lethal, much of that fun was closed off to you. As a non-lethal devotee, I admit I spent much of the first game knocking out buildings full of guards one by one, then dragging them all into a huge guard pile in some out-of-the-way location. This time, non-lethal players have a full toolbox of gadgets and powers to support them. If you get into a sword fight, you can choose to strike back lethally or perform a well-timed block, knocking your opponent off-guard and knock them out instead. You have the same choice with drop “assassinations” and with all of your powers. It’s still more difficult to play non-lethally (you’ll have to work harder to discover non-lethal assassination options and you don’t want to get surrounded by foes with no backup plan), but you’ll now have so many more options for creative gameplay at your disposal, just like those dirty, dirty lethals.
Speaking of which, yes, Dishonored 2 keeps the low-chaos to high-chaos system of the first game. Playing cleverly and mercifully will indeed grant you more boons along the way and a more upbeat ending than slaughtering everybody in sight. I know that not everybody appreciates this about the series, but I feel like it’s a strong design choice on the part of Arkane. It’s choice-and-consequence gameplay without the hokey dialogue wheel, where you are in full control of the decisions you make but come to the understanding that your actions affect the world around you in positive and negative ways. It’s brilliant.
The only thing that keeps me from telling stealth and action-adventure fans to go play this game right now is that it’s much better if you’ve already played Dishonored . This is an intricate world, and while Dishonored 2’s main story makes perfect sense on its own, there’s a lot of background an nuance that you’ll miss if you start with the second game. For instance, early on you’ll have the option of infiltrating an Overseer enclave in order to obtain the assistance of a local gang leader. Who are the Overseers and why are they wearing creepy masks and chanting about the Outsider? You’ll know them only too well if you played Dishonored , but the second game doesn’t really bother to explain them.
That said, Dishonored is an excellent game that can be had for pennies, and playing it will only make you appreciate the improvements in Dishonored 2 all the more. This is a title by a studio at the top of its game, lovingly crafted for players who enjoy lavishly crafted worlds and delightfully creative gameplay challenges. It’s for the thieves, the mischief makers, the lovers of experimentation. It’s for playful thinkers, for explorers, and for idealists and cynics alike. Dishonored 2 is stealth-action at its finest, and deserves every one of the awards it will no doubt be lavished with this winter.
Note: This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of Dishonored 2. PC players may want to look into major technical issues that have been reported with that version of the game. Arkane is aware of these issues and working on resolving them, but for now, PC buyer beware.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.8 Graphics
Perfectly atmospheric, with a unique style all its own. Perhaps could use a touch more color, but employs light and shadow masterfully. 4.0 Control
Traversal is intuitive, combat is weighty, and powers are plain fun to use. Controls are a bit finicky in some advanced maneuvers. 5.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Sound design is fully supportive of the stealth gameplay, and also supportive of scaring you out of your pants. Excellent performances by the voice cast. 5.0 Play Value
Experience the very best level design in the business, with tons of replayability and a ridiculous number of treasures and secrets to uncover. 5.0 Overall Rating – The Best
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best