Dishonored 2 Review
An enthralling return to the world of Dishonored
In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of any stealth-oriented game is the setting and level of environmental detail. No other genre has you spending so much time learning the intricacies of each area as you endeavor to hide from enemies, plan surprise attacks and find places to hide bodies. Even though the original Dishonored had some excellent gameplay mechanics, it was the setting and the carefully crafted environments that made it so memorable. It is clear that Arkane Studios realized this was a strong point, as they have doubled down on creating large, intricate levels that are remarkably detailed and atmospheric. It is a real shame then that the developers have opted to switch to an inferior engine that results in visuals no better than what the original had, but with worse performance and stability.
Dishonored 2 takes place fifteen years after the original game, with Empress Emily Caldwin and Royal Protector Corvo Attano living the high life in Dunwall Palace. It doesn’t take long before a usurper shows up, claiming to be Emily’s aunt and the rightful Empress. At this point, you get to choose if you want to play as Corvo or Emily throughout the rest of the game. Whoever you choose to play as will manage to escape the clutches of the usurper, Delilah, and flee to the distant city of Karnaca to start the process of revenge and to work towards rescuing the other character.
As with the original game, the overarching plot is forgettable, with weak character development, stiff writing and vague super-natural elements. You will once again take trips to the Void which serve as ham-fisted exposition dumps. There is still a lot of meaning in which character you choose to play as, however. Not only do the powers you have access to change between Emily and Corvo, but the general feel of the game changes as well. Unlike the first game, both protagonists are voiced, and will make comments as you explore levels. Even though the gameplay and major plot points are nearly identical aside from the different powers, playing as the grizzled, hardened Corvo results in quite a different feel from the younger and less experienced Emily.
Even with the uninspired overarching narrative, Dishonored 2 excels at environmental storytelling. The original game took place during a plague, which resulted in largely abandoned streets apart from the guards who stalked you and the packs of rats roaming around. By contrast, Karnaca is a fully functioning city with civilians, with many levels featuring various shops that can be robbed, and black market store keepers who will sell you equipment (they can also be robbed). If a civilian sees you doing something you shouldn’t, like choking out a guard or trespassing, they will run for help. The presence of civilians adds further texture to the setting, as you will overhear conversations that flesh out the world and often contain clues about where to find things to steal.
Dishonored 2 contains nine chapters, and they are all lengthy, large and full of intricacies. Most chapters contain multiple large areas, and usually have some interesting hook. The Clockwork Mansion is full of levers that when pulled change the layout of the level, and enemies that are both incredibly tough and literally have eyes on the backs of their heads. Another mission takes place in a region with two warring factions, and in order to get some information necessary to proceed, you can either choose to help one side deal with the other or snoop around for the necessary intel. Dishonored 2 is both more varied and longer than its predecessor with some truly great level design.
If you simply chase objective markers you will miss huge swaths of the game. Aside from tracked optional objectives, paying attention to written notes and overhearing conversations can lead you on some surprisingly elaborate scavenger hunts. In one case, I overheard a conversation that led me to a location, in combination with stealing a key, led me into yet another location, and after further following a series of notes, I was able to talk my way into the back room of a black market shop where I knocked out the proprietor and stole all of his goods. This wasn’t a quest tracked in my journal, just a trail of breadcrumbs set up expertly by the developers. The game is full of locked doors, safes and secrets that are all accessed just by paying attention to your surroundings.
At first glance, the gameplay mechanics themselves seem very familiar if you played the original Dishonored. Regardless of which character you pick, you can choose to play quietly and non-lethally, or as loudly and deadly as you please. Both characters have powers that let them traverse short distances instantly, access to ‘dark vision’ that lets you see enemies through walls, and access to the same arsenal of upgradable weapons. Things do start to vary as you progress with some powers that are completely different.
Corvo has the same powers as the original game, with possession and the ability to slow or stop time remaining highly useful. Emily on the other hand has a set of powers that are all-new to the Dishonored series, and some of them are a lot of fun. Domino lets you link the consciousness of enemies or civilians together, so that whatever you do to one linked individual will affect all others. This includes knocking them out or killing them which can be highly useful for clearing out areas. Emily can also summon a doppleganger to distract foes, and turn herself into a horrifying shadow-creature that crawls around and is harder for enemies to detect, and can fit through small openings.
Of course, the powers only compliment the core stealth/action gameplay, and can even be forgone entirely if you so choose. As with the original Dishonored, killing foes will increase your Chaos rating, which impacts the ending you get, and how many bloodfly infestations are present throughout levels - a disgusting, buzzing form of insect that make nests in abandoned buildings and will sting you if you get too close. While the original Dishonored required a stealthy approach if you wanted Low Chaos, the combat has been tweaked such that you can now go loud and still take out guards non-lethally. If you win a cross-blade encounter or successfully parry an enemy attack, you can choose to deliver a final blow lethally or non-lethally, letting you engage in open combat but still keeping your chaos level down.
While this is a nice option, the sword-play still feels a bit one-dimensional, and combat is much more satisfying if you start using grenades, mines and your pistol to clear out enemies in cathartic murder-sprees, especially in light of the great kill animations that have you stabbing your blade through enemy’s skulls or dismembering them. Just as playing Dishonored 2 as a straight action game can get a bit one-note, a pure-stealth approach requires a lot of patience.
Sneaking feels more challenging in this sequel, as enemies will spot you very quickly from unexpected angles, and the aforementioned civilians will run for the guards if they see you doing something unsavory. The AI are much sharper this time, quickly investigating unusual sounds and even becoming suspicious if a fellow guard on their patrol goes missing. There are moments when I had a hard time telling if an enemy would be able to see me or not, especially when hiding in seemingly dark areas; the inclusion of some kind of light indicator would have been helpful here. I found myself reloading saves constantly when I wanted to go through a level unseen, and this can become a bit of a drag.
Once I stopped doing this and decided to do my best to adapt to discovery, I had a much better time, as I would try and fight my way out of situations with only a handful of enemies and flee from larger more threatening crowds. Of course, experimentation is key here given the impressively flexible gameplay mechanics, and it will likely take most players a few hours to find a play style they are most comfortable with. You can experiment with different bone charms which let you improve certain aspects of your character, most of which are geared either towards stealth or combat. The large levels with multiple completion methods, flexible gameplay and multiple characters mean the replay value with this title is excellent.
The first Dishonored had a great art style that mixed a steam-punk whaling town design with an oil painting aesthetic. The sequel retains this unique style, though the southern town of Karnaca has an overall more colorful, vibrant look to it. There is still a good deal of grit as you explore bloodfly-infested houses and find beggars on the street, but the city is not quite as gloomy as the plague-ridden Dunwall of Dishonored 1. I found myself taking a moment to appreciate the creativity of the artists whenever I came to a vista.
Unfortunately, Arkane have been shackled with VOID Engine (based on Id Tech 5) in place of Unreal Engine 3, and this remains an inferior engine. The first game looked sharp and ran great, but the sequel looks a bit more blurry overall, and even when using a beta version of an upcoming performance patch, I had to reduce graphic settings significantly to get decent performance, and even then, the frame rate can get choppy in some spots. This engine is not a deal breaker, but it is frustrating that a game the developers clearly put a lot of time and care into is let down by the underlying technology. Unless you have a very high end PC, you will need to do some careful research to determine if your setup will be able to run this game at a playable frame rate.
The audio in Dishonored 2 fortunately fares much better, apart from the stiff voice acting during cutscenes. The soundtrack is subtle and creepy, but also very important if you choose to be sneaky, as different audio cues play depending on if a guard has only caught a glimpse of you or spotted you outright. Listening for footsteps is important as you hide in cover and wait for a guard to turn around and walk away, and I was generally able to tell how close someone was based on how loud their voices and footfall sounded. It feels to me like the sound assets from the first game are used when combat breaks out, and they remain serviceable, though not exactly a high point.
In almost every regard, Dishonored 2 improves and expands upon the original which was already a very impressive experience. While the overarching narrative remains underwhelming, the stellar environmental storytelling more than makes up for it, especially in light of the larger and more varied levels on offer here. Add to this the inclusion of a second playable character and the ability to go loud and non-lethal, and you are left with one of the most flexible gameplay experiences around. While performance seems improved with the latest update, the choice to use Id Tech 5 is still a black mark against this title, and hopefully this is its last appearance in a new game.