I am terrible at stealth games. Where I should be a ninja, I’m more like a Labrador puppy – with bells attached my feet. I have the grace and style of an epileptic hippopotamus at a disco, so my choice to try play through the game in low chaos, uber stealth mode was an odd, and eventually frustrating one.
While I won’t go so far as to say that the game’s AI is much improved, its guards are certainly more aware of you, with sightlines that seem impenetrable as they go about their guard duty. And for a long time, I struggled. I’d sneak up behind some unaware solider of misfortune, putting him in to a chokehold with intents to stash his sleeping, snoring body in a dumpster so that the sight of his unconscious body didn’t raise alarm. All too often though, some other patrolling guard would catch sight of my actions, and I’d end up having to face an army of armed guards, all wanting to acquaint their blades and bullets with my insides.
If not for the quick save and quick load features (present, even on consoles) I’d probably have given up in frustration. It was slow going – saving and then, reloading whenever I made a mistake – which was far more often than it should have been. But then, my attitudes changed. Instead of trying to do perfect stealth runs of the game I decided to do what the game suggested I do all along; play it my way.
Dishonored 2, even more than its successor, is a toy box, giving you the tools and abilities you need to just have fun and be adaptive. It’s a game about choice, and that starts off with the choice of who to play as.
Set 15 years after the events of the first game, Dishonored 2 kicks off with Dunwall’s royals memorialising the assassination of Empress Jessamine, whose death at the hands of a political conspiracy fuelled the narrative of the first game. No longer a scared little girl, her daughter Emily is now empress – and one of the characters you get to play as, joining her perpetually masked father and royal protector Corvo Attano.
A new political conspiracy takes hold, when Delilah – Jessamine’s supposed sister usurps the throne as heir apparent. The character you didn’t choose to play is turned to stone and you’re captured, setting off a grand adventure of revenge as you unfold the mystery of the usurper and her confederacy of conspirators. Through serendipity or happenstance, you find yourself aboard The Dreadful Whale. It serves as a sort of hub that you return to between missions – each of which are set out as discrete chapters.
The Whale takes you away from the streets of Dunwall and in to Karnaca. If Dunwall was a steampunk Victorian England, Karnaca is a clockwork Southern Europe. Beautiful, a little more lush and colourful. The narrative framework for each mission is unbearably similar. Wake up aboard the Whale, set off to a new locale to kill or non-lethally dispatch of one of the co-conspirators, find a clue leading to the next target, return to the ship and then do it all again. Thankfully, it’s not really as dull as it sound. Thanks to the open-ended gameplay and the tools at your disposal, you can have as much (or as little) fun as you like along the way.
Corvo’s powers largely return unchanged from the first game, and he’s still able to possess humans, rats and other creatures, bend time and blink about the place. Emily’s own powers – once she receives the mark of the Outsider, of course – are a little more interesting, and the way that you’re able to link them together begs for playful experimentation. One of her powers, Domino, lets you spiritually link up to four human targets – so that what happens to one of them, happens to them all.
I abused this, along with the sleep darts in my handy, silent crossbow to great effect – letting me knock four people unconscious with just one dart. In one scenario, I noticed that the religiously zealous overseer guards were executing a man for heresy. Restoring a save, I snuck up to them, and applied the Domino to them and their prisoner – so that his death at their hands resulted in their own. As Corvo, you can lay down a mine before inciting the guards, then bend time, walk behind the guards and boot them straight in to explosive oblivion. The game both implores and employs you to be creative, letting you handle just about any situation you find yourself in. It’s pure supernatural power fantasy. And man, does it make you feel good when something like that pans out, making you feel both delightfully clever and godlike.
Your choices are compounded thanks to brilliant and intricate level design, which rewards and encourages exploration. Should you take to the rooftops, skulk through back alleys or look for alternate routes? You’ll probably want to try for all three, as the world Arkane has built is rich with lore and emergent storytelling; newspapers, adverts, graffiti and conversations between non player characters often help fill in the blanks.
And though the framework is repetitive, Dishonored 2 keeps things interesting by perpetually adding new ideas. Some of the levels are sublime, expertly-crafted places to lose hours in. The Clockwork Mansion – home to an eccentric inventor – is built on a system of levers, pulleys and gears, where the flick of a switch changes and contorts – a puzzle within itself. Later levels have you going up against enemies who have their own supernatural abilities, forcing you to change your approach. Another level, easily one of my favourite in a game this year, has you flitting in and out of a temporal anomaly – making way for some great puzzles.
It’s a meaty game, too. My first playthrough, a low chaos, not especially stealthy affair totalled 17 hours. My second – which is all about killing everything I can – is going much quicker. At its core, it doesn’t play too dissimilarly to the first game – but it more than makes up for its lack of meaningful change, by just being a blast to play.
While its PC version seems to be beset with issues, it runs rather well on PlayStation 4. The PC can eventually be fixed though. What can’t be patched out is the game’s stilted and bizarrely emotionless voice acting. It makes no real sense. The game has a stellar voice cast, including the likes of Rosario Dawson, Stephen Russell and Vincent D’Onofrio but pretty much all of it misses the mark. The audio in general is just a little off, with voice cues not originating from where they seem to – but the monotone delivery by just about single character detracts from whatever emotional resonance its writers were hoping to impart.