Like its new protagonist, Emily Kaldwin, Dishonored 2 has a lot to live up to. She, of course, is the youthful Empress of the Isles and the daughter of its most feared and notorious assassin – Corvo Attano. Dishonored 2, meanwhile, is the sequel to a game many hold dear as a classic in a line stretching back to the glory days of Looking Glass Studios, when the likes of Thiefand System Shock redefined what a first-person action game could be.
And thankfully, neither disappoints. Emily is as strong and versatile a lead as her illustrious father, while Dishonored 2 is a worthy follow-up. Just be aware that both play differently, and that those looking for a simple, wham-bam action game might be better off looking elsewhere for their thrills.
You don’t, of course, have to play as Emily. After the optional tutorial and a quick scene-setting prologue you have the choice of playing on as the Empress or as her protector, Corvo, giving you a choice of characters, capabilities and play styles to explore. Corvo works pretty much as he did in the last instalment, with the same basic line-up of powers (though some have been adjusted), and the kind of strength and athleticism you’ll remember from his escapades in Dunwall.
If you spent hours blinking from balcony to balcony, bending time, possessing rats and flinging swarms of rodents at your enemies, playing as Corvo once again will be like jumping back into the driving seat of your old car.
Emily is different. Sure, the actual mix of first-person stealth, supernatural powers, ranged weapons and swift swordplay doesn’t change completely, but the minute-by-minute experience is transformed. Emily can’t match Corvo’s rock-hard constitution, but she’s tough, smart and fast.
On gaining supernatural powers from the Outsider – one of several characters returning for the sequel – she gains her own version of Blink, called Far Reach, but while it has a longer range and additional pulling and grabbing uses, it’s not a teleport and it can’t shift Emily unseen. She can’t slow down time and those possessions and mini rat swarms are off the menu.
Instead, Emily gets a range of more complex and interesting powers, enabling her to create her own double to act as a decoy or battle for her with Doppelganger, while with Domino she can link enemies together so that the fate of one becomes the fate of all. She even gets her own version of Dark Vision to spot security systems and guards behind walls plus the ability to mesmerise and enthral humans and animals. Take the Shadow Walk ability and she becomes a slighter shadow of herself, harder to spot and capable of squeezing through small openings.
The result is a protagonist who encourages new, creative play styles. Dishonored was never a game that encouraged mindless aggression, but with Emily it’s fatal. You need to plan, combine your powers and be even sneakier about how and when you act. Go unprepared into close-quarters combat with three or four guards and you’ll almost certainly die, so you need to think, combine your powers and act decisively every time.
At times, it feels like there’s less room to improvise on the hoof, but there’s something really tense and exhilarating about playing as Emily. You come to learn that the Domino power can be supremely effective against groups of guards, transforming Emily into a veritable angel of death, come for vengeance. Combine it with Doppelganger, however, and you can clear a room in seconds without taking a single blow.
Throw in your passive abilities, building up your reflexes or turning corpses into ash, and she’s very much her father’s daughter.
And what a world and what a story Arkane Studios has given her to do her deadly work in. With the prologue done, Dishonored 2 leaves Dunwall behind for the sunnier climes of Karnaca, a city on the southern fringe of Emily’s empire. Just as Dunwall blended London and Edinburgh in an unholy Steampunk dystopia, so Karnaca merges elements of Naples, Venice and Barcelona in a heady mix of Mediterranean architecture, wind and whale-oil-powered tech and airborne pestilence, in the shape of the monstrous bloodflies that infest the city.
With more soldiers and citizens pacing the streets and more corrupt aristocrats haunting its interiors, it feels alive despite the fact that, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s Prague, it’s heavily fragmented into bite-sized chunks. Everywhere you go there are secrets to discover, apartments to explore, conversations to listen into that connect to where you’re going or what you’ve done. Weighty tomes and audiologs can be found in offices and labs, filling you in on the details of the back story, even turning monstrous figures into sympathetic human beings.
The missions allow for a certain amount of wandering the streets, disrupting the local gangs and authorities and using the weird heart device to scry for runes and bone charms. That said, it’s when they focus down on their set-piece locations – the lairs of your adversaries – that Dishonored 2 really shows its mettle.
A creepy, abandoned asylum haunted by a murderer is just for starters, to be followed by an incredible, ingenious mansion of shifting mechanised rooms and a gothic museum where you’ll face new threats.
It’s no hyperbole to say that Dishonored 2 features some of the finest, most memorable levels you’ll have experienced all year. If you’re looking for areas that could go down in gaming history with the first game’s Lady Boyle’s Last Party, Bioshock’s Fort Frolic or Thief’s Return to the Cathedral, Dishonored 2 delivers at least two and possibly three. In this respect, it’s a fantastic piece of work.
And did we mention that it’s beautiful? Dishonored triumphed by wedding its ornate, goth-meets-steampunk visuals to a painterly style that was more about personality and visual impact than blunt photorealism. Dishonored 2 takes that up a notch, creating a dazzling run of stunningly detailed interiors full of light and period texture, combined with characters who could have come straight from the pages of a European graphic novel. The sound is incredibly immersive and absolutely vital to locating targets, opportunities and threats.
This is one of those games that envelops you completely in its world.
It’s a game you’ll admire immediately, but not necessarily one where you’ll instantly fall in love. Arkane has reworked the enemy AI and how it ‘sees’ you, even changing the way guards will react when they find a comrade missing or – if you’re sloppy – dead. They’re not dumb, they’re quick to react, they act in force and don’t often fall for a simple ambush. And the result is that, until you learn to master stealth and really understand your surroundings, you’ll spend a lot of time dying and reloading – even more so than in the original game.
Some of the enemies, particularly the witches and clockwork soldiers you’ll encounter, are brutally difficult to conquer and hard to even give the slip. Frustration, it seems, goes with the territory.
For a while, it’s tempting to see this as the game’s problem, Arkane going overboard in the name of producing a more demanding and rigorous experience. With time, though, it becomes obvious that, actually, you’re the problem.
You’re not being smart enough, noticing enough, taking care enough not to get caught. You’re not using your powers sensibly to move silently or tackle groups of foes with brutal efficiency. You’re playing stupid. And once this clicks and you start playing smart, Dishonored 2 really comes alive.
It’s almost a cliché to call it a thinking person’s action game, but it is one of those rare games where the more you engage your brain, the more rewarding and absorbing it becomes.
Dishonored 2 honours its brilliant predecessor and then goes on to surpass it, delivering one of the richest game worlds and some of the strongest levels you’ll have encountered in any game for donkey’s years.
Having a choice of characters gives you even more choice when it comes to playing styles and strategies, with Emily’s developing powers giving you superb, creative combinations you can use to reset the sometimes overwhelming odds.
Most of all, it’s a game you’ll remember for its settings, its atmosphere, its characters and its stunning art, not to mention some impressively nuanced and fascinating storylines and the feel that how you play has a real impact on this world.
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