Dishonored, which remains one of the best games of the last five years, was a game of clear ambition and smart intention. It offered up an intelligent immersive sim in the vein of actual-best-game-ever-contender Deus Ex, but with the RPG elements replaced with exciting action sequences and the augmentations switched out for dark magic. It was a game that could be played in many different ways, in which any approach you took was just as valid as any other approach, where you could kill everyone or kill no-one, explore the whole level or forego your powers at all.
Dishonored 2 lets you do all of these things as well, but this time there’s more choice embedded into the game, from the big game-changing choices through to the moment-by-moment gameplay beats. In the first game, for instance, breaking into a sword fight often meant killing your opponents, if you wanted to see them through to the end but didn’t have enough sleep darts. In Dishonored 2, a well-timed parry lets you stun an opponent and choke them out. There are more non-lethal weapons than before too, and more non-lethal stealth options than before as well. This is an important change, as it means that ‘low chaos’ players can better adapt to combat situations.
There’s also the all-important choice, offered right at the start of the game, between playing as either veteran series hero Corvo Attano or his daughter Emily Kaldwin. Both offer up an entirely different set of powers, and the game seems to suggest, without ever outright stating, that you should play through twice – once as a low-chaos stealth character, once as a high-chaos vicious murderer – to see everything. Because of this core design choice, there’s a feeling throughout the game that the developers want to show off a bit, that they didn’t want to build in so many choices and changes and then not have the player experience all of them. This means that the game’s actual conclusion feels slightly hollow, but it rewards those who prefer to play their games through more than once.
Dishonored 2 picks up fifteen years after the original Dishonored, although the choices you made in that game don’t factor in (which is understandable for a series that has spanned two console generations). In the opening minutes, Emily Kaldwin— ruling empress of Dunwall with a convenient penchant for sneaking out and skulking around her kingdom’s rooftops— is overthrown by the conspiratorial union of Duke Luca Abele and witch usurper Deliah Copperspoon, last seen in the original game’s DLC. You choose your character and the other one is immediately turned to stone (your chosen character is spared for plot convenience, I suppose), and soon enough you’re out for revenge because your captors are bloody useless at taking prisoners.
Dishonored 2 expands beyond Dunwall, sending you off to Karnaca, a land with more vibrancy and color than Dunwall but with about the same level of wealth inequality. The art direction is not only gorgeous, but it also effectively communicates a sense of place, especially in some of the game’s more elaborate levels. The Clockwork Mansion, which featured heavily in previews before release, is a great example of Dishonored at its world-building best – it’s a mansion created by a genius scientist, a mechanized house that can be changed and shifted by pulling levers throughout. The technological advances of the last fifteen years are evident throughout, and simply existing within this world, getting a sense of what has happened since the original and how different regions operate, is very enjoyable.
The thrill of navigation is one of Dishonored 2’s most pronounced pleasures. Both Corvo and Emily have a ‘quickly jump a long distance’ power that allows them to scale buildings, survive long drops, and plot out paths through each level that take them away from danger. The level design is wonderful , and although some of the interiors can blur together a bit over the course of the game, new gimmicks and twists are thrown at you throughout to keep things as fresh as possible. Exploring each level, finding new story content, overhearing guard conversations, hunting down the runes and bonecharms that grant you extra powers and (if you play like me) slowly rendering every single guard unconscious remains as tremendously enjoyable as it was in the first game.
The series’ other big thrills often come from how you use the powers you earn throughout the game. Corvo retains his set from the original game, but Emily has entirely new abilities. By far the best is Domino, which lets you connect multiple people together with threads visible only to her, linking their fates. Hit one guard with a sleep dart, and the guard he’s attached to will drop for a snooze as well. You can mix your powers together as well: you can summon a clone with Emily’s Doppelganger ability, Domino link that clone to an enemy, and then stab your clone to take them out. Emily’s powers are geared more towards non-lethal play than Corvo’s; while Emily can turn into a sneaky shadow or mesmerize her enemies with an apparition, Corvo can hit enemies with blasts of wind, summon flesh-eating swarms of rats, and take possession of his enemies.
It’s great that Emily and Corvo play so differently, because neither makes a huge impression as characters. The plot sometimes feels like a re-tread of the original game (especially when played as Corvo), but with some of the mystery of the world removed. It still works as a narrative, though, and hunting down all the little scraps through books and audio logs is more enjoyable here than it is in most games.
There has been a lot of talk about the game performing poorly on PCs beyond a few specific set-ups,, but it’s worth noting that things aren’t exactly perfect on PS4 either. I encountered several weird visual and aural glitches that were often fixed by reloading an old save, some odd flickering around the ‘seams’ in the game world, and in the Dust District (which is frequently assaulted with dust storms) I experienced occasional severe frame-rate drops. I’ve also been told anecdotally that the game runs like utter garbage without the day one patch, which is something to consider if you have limited Internet access.
Whether or not this game is actually better than the first, I’m not sure yet – I think it’s probably about as good, which is still remarkable when the original Dishonored remains one of the best games of the last decade. It’s certainly an improvement in terms of raw systems, but it’s perhaps not as compelling; it doesn’t have the thrill-of-the-new that Dishonored had, and it suffers from a lack of enemy variety and characterization. But despite this it’s still, by far, the best immersive stealth game since Dishonored, and an entirely worthy follow-up.