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Pre-review: Dishonored 2

More than a dozen hours into Arkane’s long-awaited sequel

Dishonored 2 Bethesda Softworks

Dishonored 2’s in-game clock says I’m about 10 hours in, but I’d guess I’m at almost twice that in real-world terms. I’m nowhere near ready to run a review yet, but my immediate impressions? It’s bigger, more fleshed out, more fluid. There are more ways to be stealthy, more ways to be clever. The scale feels larger, but in some ways, the game is slightly more disappointing for it.

Dishonored 2 feels more story-driven than its predecessor, and it doesn’t learn some important lessons it seems like it should have. Voice acting is often stilted and bizarrely delivered in cutscenes, for example, and the game halts the action, dips to black, starts a cutscene and dips to black again often. It sounds like a little thing, but it’s surprisingly disruptive, especially when you can look around during those cutscenes. Many NPC interactions also freeze the entire game world — even seagulls flying through the air! — and Dishonored 2’s excellent music.

It’s not like the original Dishonored’s voice acting was fantastic. It was home to some surprisingly underwhelming performances from actors like Susan Sarandon! But Dishonored felt like a subversive, under-the-radar release that relied on effective art design and old-school mechanical sensibilities to punch above its weight. Dishonored 2 is a Major AAA Fall Release, with a massive marketing budget and prime release date. The standard it sets for itself with regards to presentation is higher, and it doesn’t meet that heightened bar consistently.

Meanwhile, a move from Dishonored’s Unreal Engine 3 to the new “Void Engine” has also brought some changes in AI, apparently. On normal difficulty, guards in Dishonored 2 are extremely aware, with lines of sight that feel much more discerning than the last game, also providing little indication as to whether or not you can be seen. The last game’s lean mechanic is still here, and still useful, but guards can definitely spot you while you’re doing it.

This has slowed my progress somewhat, as I’m saving and reloading more often in my attempt to ghost my way through a non-lethal, no-chaos playthrough. But this also highlights some subtle, thoughtful improvements to the formula. In this case, that means hotkeys (or triggers, on PS4) for quicksaving and quickloading, which are enormously appreciated.

The good news? So far, four chapters in, Dishonored 2 otherwise feels like a very solid evolution for the series. As a stealth game, it feels just a bit less penetrable — I often find myself beating my head against a wall of guard placement and barriers that I can’t cross, looking for the chink in my target location’s armor. This even verges on the frustrating here and there. But whenever I find that weakness, the game opens up, with lots of possible solutions to its various sneaking puzzles.

Combat has been enhanced as well, and many of the new powers lend themselves to slaughter as much as they do a non-lethal approach, but it almost feels antithetical to Dishonored 2’s world design to treat the whole thing like a bloodbath waiting to happen.

This is in large part due to the vastly increased density of Dishonored 2’s world in comparison to the last game. Sneaking isn’t just what the Corvos do — though it is the family business — it forces a slow, methodical approach to the world, and now I’m finding stuff all the time because of it. This makes Dishonored 2 a captivating place to lose a lot of time in. There’s so much stuff, in fact, that Dishonored 2 gets caught up in the open-world genre’s distraction complex. I’m having a hard time moving on to the next objective as I scour a basement for another bone charm to upgrade my character with.

The scale that occasionally allows Dishonored 2 to sell itself short also follows through spectacularly at points, including a self-reassembling mansion that is, in a word, stunning. Its ambitions sometimes follow through in ways the game doesn’t need, exactly, but they certainly contribute to more of a sense of wonder and grandeur to accompany Dishonored’s “whalepunk” fantasy setting.

Dishonored 2 hasn’t forgotten its roots though, or the almost cult-like following and fandom that saw the first game to its success. There are numerous references to characters from the original game and their history, with a lot of lore and history to find and explore. And even the game’s primary plot and villain chart a direct line from the first game’s story expansion, making me very curious to know who will make a return appearance on the streets of Dunwall.

But this is all, as I said, still early days for me in Dishonored 2. Full review impressions will arrive soon.