Dishonored 2 review

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Bethesda Softworks
Developer Arkane Studios
Release Date Nov 11, 2016

Dishonored 2 is a sequel in a classic vein.

When Dishonored was released in 2012, it was a throwback shot across the bow of AAA games. It largely avoided the spectacular action and setpieces of big-budget titles, and instead went back to the well of the late-'90s/early-'00s renaissance of first-person action games on the PC platform — particularly the Thief series. That Dishonored developer Arkane so liberally borrowed from defunct developer Looking Glass' formula and ideas wasn't a bad thing, because it capitalized on a desire for something different from the status quo. That Dishonored's world and fiction were so distinctive and powerful, driven by phenomenal art direction, also helped.

In the era of Thief, sequels were the opportunity to follow through on ideas not fully realized, rather than to change dramatically, and in that regard, Arkane continues to follow that old legacy. In almost every way, Dishonored 2 is a refinement of the original game's ideas and concepts, an elaboration and improvement. Levels feel more like places than ever, and there's even more room for exploration and collectible mining. But in some ways, Arkane's desire to make things "better" doesn't always feel for the best.

Industrial revolution sits next to dark ritual magic

Dishonored 2 is a first-person stealth-ish game set in the Empire of the Isles, a Dickensian steampunk fiction full of wonders and nightmares alike, where technology and science are powered by oil harvested from a whale population being driven to extinction. Sitting next to a miraculous era of industrial revolution is a shadow world of dark, ritual magic and mysterious, godlike powers.

Amid this unstable collision of progress and the past sits the Empress of the Isles, Emily Kaldwin, daughter of the murdered Jessamine Kaldwin and the disgraced-then-redeemed Royal Protector, Corvo Attano. As whispers and rumors seek to undermine the throne, the empire is thrown into chaos as the Duke of the island of Serkonos and a powerful witch named Delilah stage a violent coup.

This all happens almost immediately, and at this point, Dishonored 2 gives you a choice — to play as Dishonored's protagonist, the Royal Protector Corvo, or as his daughter, the Empress Emily. Once you make your call, things happen quickly, and your chosen character must escape Dunwall, unravel the conspiracy at hand, retake the throne and save their only remaining family.

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The way you do that is up to you. Dishonored 2, as with the original game, offers a fairly broad toolset. Corvo and Emily are both extremely nimble Victorian ninjas, and you're given the appearance of carte blanche to judiciously distribute murder or nonlethal beatdowns to anyone who gets in your way — or to avoid almost everyone entirely as you skulk through alleys and across the rooftops of the empire.

That freedom isn't without consequences, however. Watching your every move is the mysterious Outsider, a supernatural force who rules the Void, a parallel shadow universe that exists outside of Dishonored 2's physical reality. Early on, the Outsider offers his help in your efforts to retake the throne in the form of his Mark, a black brand that grants a host of powers and abilities, should you choose to accept it.

dishonored 2 outsider mark

As in the first game, this isn't just lip service to presentation or story — you're given the option of forgoing the Outsider's brand and giving up on all of Dishonored 2's supernatural abilities. It's a tacit acknowledgment of the kind of game this is, one with old-school sensibilities and design ideas within the trappings of a modern game. If you want to make things harder on yourself, then Dishonored 2 is more than happy to help you with that.

But regardless of whether you accept the Outsider's help, he's watching how you conduct yourself, and so is the game. If you cut a bloody swath through the world, it will become a more grim place (bodies everywhere attract lethal vermin, which leads to more dead, more misery and a generally bad time for everyone). If you can avoid a lot of killing, then the empire might hold itself together when things are all over.

The combat system has been improved and refined somewhat since Dishonored, if you don't really care about how the empire fares. But, Corvo and Emily's swordsmanship notwithstanding, the game's unforgiving difficulty, and the sheer number of guards and their propensity to call in help, makes direct conflict a Pretty Bad Idea until you've leveled up some of your abilities.

You can build for fighting, though, if you want to, and there are some pretty awesome combat abilities, most of which make their return from the original game. But for every kill you land, you're adding to the overall level of resistance you'll meet later in the game, per the aforementioned Chaos system — not to mention the passive-aggressive nagging of the Outsider and his dislike for excessive murder.

In general, this isn't that big a hardship, because for all of Dishonored 2's gameplay options, it feels most geared toward stealthy play. Many of the combat powers are cool, it's true, and there are many environmental means of disposing of enemies. But the coolest abilities are traversal-oriented.

The meat and potatoes of Dishonored 2's movement toolset is a short-range teleport, which both Corvo and Emily have a version of — a phantom pair of arms pulling her forward for Emily, and a more conventional dash forward for Corvo. These help you navigate upward and around conflict, as well as providing a means of accessing all manner of apartments and shops and other places you're maybe not supposed to be in, legally speaking.

I practically crawled through every inch of every level

These abilities were always my priority, because one of Dishonored 2's biggest strengths, and biggest improvements, is the density of its game world. There were plenty of buildings to navigate and alleys to stalk through in the last game, but in Dishonored 2, each city and environment provides a much greater sense of verticality and fullness. Arkane has given in fully to the old-school PC FPS/RPG hybrid tendency of "stuff in every container," and it's deeply engrossing for it.

I practically crawled through every inch of every level, looking for runes to upgrade my abilities, bone charms — which grant modifiers and improvements to your character, like invisibly teleporting — and even paintings and other baubles. This was in part to gather stuff, true, but Dishonored 2 also does an excellent job of leaving its world-building and fiction everywhere.

That world is probably Dishonored 2's greatest inherited strength. Dishonored was so memorable in part because it was something no one had ever seen, taking some familiar elements of the Thief series and its vaguely steampunk setting and blowing it wide open with whalers, gods and technology.

Dishonored 2 is an excellent elaboration on that, and moreover, it takes the technological advances of the modern console era and applies them to fantastic effect. There are at least two levels in Dishonored 2 that shift and change in real time in ways I don't think I've ever seen in a game before, and certainly not with the audacity and ambition they do here. Even when Dishonored 2's levels aren't acting as a technological tour de force, they generally display a remarkable amount of complexity and flexibility, and I rarely grew tired of exploring every corner I could, and finding ways into the corners I wasn't sure I could access.

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I found myself less thrilled with the enemies I found in those levels, however. Granted, the powers at Emily's and Corvo's disposal allow for some truly breathtaking bits of ingenuity (my personal favorite power is Domino, which allows you to link the fate of multiple targets), and part of the reason this works is the increased awareness of enemies. Sound is a much more common trigger for enemy AI than it was before, and the range of awareness is considerably expanded.

Enemies also have literal tunnel vision that rarely extends upward, which encourages a Batman-style perspective on things whenever possible, which is just about always a cool way to make things happen. But Outsider protect you if you're on the ground.

Guards in Dishonored weren't morons, but the AI in Dishonored 2 makes them look like corpses in comparison. The stealth model in the game isn't based on light and shadow. Rather, it's primarily about field of view, and AI units in Dishonored 2 have 1) excellent peripheral vision, and 2) see extremely goddamned far. As the game is entirely first-person, there's a lot of risk in even leaning over cover to see where guards are, because they can quickly see you while you're doing it.

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My brain may be playing tricks on me, but this seemed more pronounced with Corvo than Emily in my time spent with both characters — maybe the Royal Protector's body is bigger and thus more difficult to hide or obscure? Regardless, when you're seen, enemies go from relaxed to curious to alarmed to Holy Shit Get Them with varying degrees of rapidity. The default is quite fast, even on normal difficulty, and once enemies are alarmed, they just about immediately call out to their friends.

There are ways to nip that in the bud and quickly react. There are sleep darts or spells or a quick stab through the throat, but regardless, it's a pretty big wrench in the plans of a stealth player — especially considering the game gives you a performance rating when you're finished, showing how stealthy you were, whether you were ever seen, whether you were completely nonlethal, etc.

For me, as a stealth player, this meant a lot more saving and reloading than in just about any stealth game I've played in recent memory, especially when I was trying for no-kill, ghost playthroughs of missions. And while the satisfaction of overcoming particularly challenging sections was more pronounced in some ways, it felt like a bit of a buzzkill constantly going to the pause menu to use the newly added — and greatly appreciated — quicksave feature.

This is by far the thing that irked me the most in Dishonored 2, but the game isn't without some other annoyances. For one, despite the fantastic in-world storytelling and fiction development, the voice acting in Dishonored 2 is, once again, often really, really bad, especially with two of its Hollywood leads. Vincent D'Onofrio and Rosario Dawson are excellent actors, but their performances here are almost unbearable. Many cutscenes are also strangely framed or jarringly placed, with out-of-place dips to black that are disruptive to pacing.

But some of the weirdest problems are possible deal-breakers for the most hardcore fans of Dishonored 2's basic design ideas. First, there's currently no way to replay a mission — not from the mission clear screen or another menu or the main game menu. I learned this the hard way when I was devastated to find at the end of the penultimate mission that a guard had mysteriously died in a way I was deemed responsible for. My last manual, hard save had been several levels and many hours earlier, which functionally meant I was screwed, my attempt at a Merciful — read: completely nonlethal — playthrough dead.

There's also no current new game+ option in Dishonored 2, a truly bizarre omission for a game so clearly designed for multiple playthroughs on escalating levels of difficulty. I'm sure it will arrive at some point — this is 2016, games almost always get new features — but … why wasn't it here now, in a game aimed at passionate fans of the original?

Wrap Up:

Dishonored's 'whalepunk' world remains stunning

In becoming even more itself, Dishonored 2 occasionally stumbles under the weight of the almost too-intelligent denizens of its "Whalepunk" setting. But despite a murderous new sense of difficulty and a few surprising, if minor, shortcomings, Dishonored 2 is a much more fleshed-out realization of the world of Dunwall and the star-crossed Kaldwin family. For such a miserable, conflicted place, Dunwall and the Isles are a place worth exploring, something gaming could use a lot more of.

Dishonored 2 was reviewed using a PlayStation 4 disc provided by Bethesda, as well as a "retail" digital Xbox One copy purchased by Polygon. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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