It’s already been a banner year for Bethesda, what with Doom proving to be better than we could have hoped and another version of Skyrim keeping the game in our minds five years after its initial release date. To really cap the year off, Dishonored 2, the sequel of one of the best games of 2012, has entered the fray. The first game opened our eyes with its open ended objectives and variable gameplay. This time around, we know what to expect. That puts the pressure on to deliver a greater overall experience. To put it simply, that challenge has been met and then some.
Set fifteen years after the events of the first game, this one picks up with Emily Kaldwin as the reigning Empress of the Isles. Corvo, her father and the protagonist from the last game, advises her as Royal Protector. The game wastes little time before a witch named Delilah shows up, claims to be the true heir to the throne, and perpetuates a bloody coup. The player then chooses either Corvo or Emily as the playable character. From there, it’s much like the last game. You escape the immediate danger, search out allies, and hunt down every member of the conspiracy in order to put the right person back on the throne.
As an overall story, it’s predictable and retreads ground for the first game. There are few surprises and little to no attempt to have things flow as a singular narrative. However, the story is really told through exploration, reading, listening to conversations, and using a device which allows you to see a little into the hearts of various characters. Through these methods you pick up on how the Empire has moved forward in the past decade and a half. You’ll also hear musings from Corvo/Emily throughout the game, which lends weight to your actions. It’s a formula that pays off for those willing to work for it. If you don’t, it will end up being a bit bland.
It’s important to note that, despite there being two different main characters for you to choose from, the story will be the same no matter what. Some specific lines will change to accommodate your choice, but don’t expect different missions or plot lines. On one hand, this allows you to play the character you want without fear of missing out on content. On the other hand, it feels a little cheap.
Visually, the game is a sizable upgrade from its predecessor. Everything that made that last game great has been amped up. You still have a fun painting come to life vibe with enough realism to tide you over but a preference for artistry over authenticity. The violence is hyper stylized, with characters being split in two while you gaze upon horrified expressions. The level designs are where the game really shines, though. Each mission feels completely different from the last due to changing locales and structures. One mission might have you go through a dreary institution, while another might have you go through a clockwork mansion that would make your steampunk friends green with envy. There’s also a strong use of color to keep things interesting, and each location is jam packed with details. Often, the environments will tell a story of their own thanks to strategically placed objects and maybe even a corpse or two. It’s not without problems however. Some of the textures don’t load properly, the final level seemed to be coming apart at the scenes, and one character’s outfit fluttered as if alive. These issues are rare, but stand out even more so as a result. It’s a blemish on an otherwise beautiful face.
Dishonored is a series that uses sound cues to let you know when you’ve been spotted or are being chased. As such, the music focuses mostly on ambient tunes and light themes. Daniel Licht, who composed the first game (as well as the Dexter series), returns with much the same kind of flair. Expect high strings that creep you out as you sneak about. It never interferes with the sound cues you need to play with the game, but it ups the atmosphere quite a bit. The vocal cast also does well, although they too keep things low key. There almost seems to be an intentional decision here to keep as much emotion out of the voices as possible. As such it comes off as cold and calculated, which ends up fitting the game like a glove. The key here is the game does more with less. The sound benefits the feel and tone of the game above all else, and the result is something that elevates what could otherwise be a less impressive package.
Dishonored 2 is a stealth action game with emphasis on exploration and experimentation. While you have two different characters, the controls are identical. You move with the left stick, move the camera with the right, jump with the cross button, use the left shoulder buttons for your powers/gear, and the right shoulder buttons for your sword. The combat mechanics are still a little spotty and require getting used to, but the whole package feels good when you’ve gotten accustomed to it.
When it comes to exploration, the streets, buildings, and other locations you visit will be chock full of rooms to examine, hidden paths, locked doors, and guarded passageways. When in neutral areas, you’re free to run around and look all you want. Move toward a hostile area though, and enemies will attack you on sight. To stay hidden, you typically want to crouch down in stealth mode. While in stealth, you can lean around corners to get a peek without setting off alarms. Throughout each location are various items you can pick up and/or interact with. Consumable items such as potions and ammo are frequent, as is money to spend at shops. You can also find various written material that delves into the lore of the game. These can be newspaper articles, journal entries, books, or even something as mundane as a maintenance list. You can read this right away or at your leisure from the menu. Finally, you can find objects such as bottles that can be picked up and thrown to create distractions or be used in combat.
When it comes to experimentation, the game is aces. The choice is yours to go lethal, non-lethal, stealth, less stealth, weapons only, powers only, mixtures of the two, and so on. When you sneak up on someone, you can choose to kill them or choke them out. Bodies left lying around can be discovered and put guards on alert, so you’re encouraged to hide them. If you’re good enough, you can even avoid the enemies altogether. There are various lethal/non-lethal gadgets to use, and more non-lethal than last time in particular. Things like your sword, your pistol, a crossbow, and grenades are great at killing people. Sleep darts, stun mines, and your own fists keep your enemies alive but incapacitated. If you get into direct combat, you can now perform a lethal or non-lethal takedown when parrying enemies, and you can even do non-lethal takedowns instead of drop assassinations. Those latter two additions are huge if you’re trying to go low chaos.
Chaos, you ask? Depending on your body count, the game will enter either “low chaos” or “high chaos”. These can change as the game progresses based on your play, and mostly determine the ending you get. However, you’ll hear characters get more cynical during high chaos, and there will more of a pesky enemy type called bloodflies as well.
While Corvo and Emily control the same, they come equipped with different powers. Corvo retains his magical suite from the last game, although his progress has been reset for plot reasons. They’re logical plot reasons at least. He can blink across distances, slow down time, possess enemies, and summon a swarm of rats to devour his foes. Emily gets a mostly new collection of powers. Domino, for example, is an ability that allows her to tie the fates of multiple enemies together. After using this ability, whatever happens to one linked enemy happens to them all. This means you could used one sleep dart or bullet to take down up to four foes in one shot. Her other abilities include a doppelganger that attracts enemy attention and a second form that can be used to get through certain spaces as well as take down enemies in a stealthy, if brutal, fashion. She’s also got a teleport-like ability, but this one is more physical. Basically, the power grabs things and moves her towards them. This can be upgraded to allow her to grab items from afar in order to throw them, or even snatch foes to her position.
You power up your abilities by finding runes and bonecharms. Runes must be spent to unlock new powers, although there aren’t enough runes in the game to level up all your skills. Bonecharms give you various passive boosts such as increasing how much loot your find to reducing the energy cost of certain skills. You can even learn a skill that allows you to destroy your bonecharms in order to create new ones with extra powers.
What’s great about this game is what was great about the last one. Each of the game’s nine chapters gives you a large playground to experiment in, and you are free to play them as you wish. Beyond simply rushing in and killing your target, you could explore and hunt down a non-lethal approach. Maybe you could de-power a magical foe instead. Exploring locations yields new pathways, items, and approaches. There’s are some truly unique and interesting levels here. One has you able to physically shift the nature of a large mansion that is designed to be modular. This lets you find creative solutions to getting through locked doors and getting past guards, and becomes a puzzle unto itself. Another level has you switching between time such that you need to alternate in order to avoid guards and possibly make changes that echo into the future.
Replayability here is off the charts. Playing through the game once will likely last you upwards of twelve to thirteen hours depending on your style, which subsequent attempts likely going faster once you know how it all works. Not only can you switch characters to try an entire different suite of powers, you can try different styles of play to completely change the game. Choosing not to accept magic, for example, leaves you with no ability to blink to high spots in order to scout your next move. Going for ghost run where no one spots you means carefully timing every move and decision you make. You can simply try another version of a playthrough with different powers. Maybe don’t use Emily’s domino ability and see if you can still find a way to clear a room effectively. You can even switch up various game options to hide objective markers or turn off the HUD. Both of those make a huge difference as well. None of these things are forced upon you by the game, but all are encouraged thanks to expertly designed levels and mechanics.
Short Attention Span Summary
Dishonored 2 might not have that new car smell that made the first game such a stand out hit, but it is a damn fine game from top to bottom. There are now even more ways to play thanks to new tools and a whole new character, and the various levels are larger and more varied. While the main plot leaves a little to be desired, and there are some graphical hiccups, this is still one of the best games to come out all year and a more than worthy sequel.