Dishonored 2 [official site] creates a greater sense of place than just about any other game I've played. That's true whether you're standing on a balcony, looking out toward a distant objective across the chaos of the city streets between you and it, or picking through an apartment building, floor by floor, and seeing all the signs of life you'd expect to find. It's a remarkable game, and in many ways a true heir to the legacy of Looking Glass' immersive sims, and it features some of the most spectacular world-building you'll ever see.
Before I get into the good and the bad, I need to spend a few words on the ugly. At the time of writing, Dishonored 2 is still suffering from performance issues for many users on PC. I've been fortunate enough to run the game at a fairly steady framerate on high settings, even though my GTX 980 powered PC isn't top of the range, but many people (including our Alec) are experiencing framerates so erratic as to make the whole thing almost unplayable. Others are having to resort to lower settings than expected given their system specifications, and some are even unable to start the game at all. I've covered all of that here and we'll be reporting on promised fixes as they arrive.
Now, onto the review.
As places to explore and navigate, the levels Arkane have built are remarkable. I've played the game using supernatural powers to zip through crawlspaces and murder guards by the dozen, and I've also played like an old-school Thief using little more than drug-infused crossbow bolts, lullabies and mild strangulation to put my enemies to sleep. With two playable characters, each with a few unique skills and their own commentary on events, this is a game to played more than once. At its best, the entire design is based around freedom of approach, and instead of the Vent Or Door structure of some games that offer choices between stealth and action, Dishonored 2 is rarely so binary.
Every place you visit has multiple routes, hidden secrets and side stories. Play through a mission once and unless you spend hours exploring, with intentional and unnecessary backtracking, you won't see all that it has to offer. And these aren't single rooms and easter eggs, they're entire areas that are as intricately crafted and as much a coherent part of the world as any of the essential waypoints that you'll visit on your way through the major objectives. In fact, my main criticism of the game relates to those major objectives, and the waypoints that map out the central plot – Dishonored 2 tells a hundred small stories extremely well, but the tale of usurpation and revenge at its heart is overfamiliar and lacking in momentum.
From the opening rush of exposition and deja vu villainy, Emily and Corvo's movements and motivation are an excuse to move them from setpiece to setpiece, as is the case in many an action movie or thriller plot. Bourne or Bond arrive in Rome to have a car chase before nipping across to Hong Kong for some high-rise infiltration. There's not much in the way of globetrotting here, though there is a brief ramble in the first game's Dunwall before heading to the new city of Karnaca, but each objective takes you to a distinct district or location, with its own unique challenges and rules. Some, like the early Addermire Institute, don't have any explicitly extraordinary feature, but once you reach the Clockwork Mansion and its shifting architecture, the rulebook is torn to shreds.
The spectacle is sometimes breathtaking, not just in terms of the visual tricks and treats, but in terms of the intelligent remixing of stealth mechanics. Take the Clockwork Mansion, which riffs on Constantine's Mansion, the surreal mazelike setting of Thief: The Dark Project's sixth mission. Where Thief explained its impossible spaces through a story that was almost as tricksy as its level design, Dishonored 2 does all of the heavy lifting right there in the level design. These uncanny architectural feats can be seen moving and locking into place, and you can find your way behind the scenes and into the guts to see the machinery. Arkane are not afraid to lift the curtain, showing the cogs that put the world into motion, and that speaks to their confidence in the world they've built.
In my previous feature, written after I'd reached the mid-point of my first playthrough, I compared Dishonored 2 to Thief 2: The Metal Age. With the game's conflicts between ancient faiths and new technologies, and an even greater use of a city as a microcosm for a world and its disorder than seen in Dunwall, it's not a stretch to say that Arkane are working with some of the same raw materials. Thief knitted together those larger themes and the fate of its protagonist in a way that Dishonored and its sequel don't manage though – here, there are clockwork soldiers and mansions because those things are delightful to build and to play with, but despite their seats at the highest table in the land, Emily and Corvo don't feel like active players in the reshaping of the world. They're knives and shadows rather than intriguing agents of change.
I'm not using Thief 2 as a way to bludgeon Dishonored 2 through comparison, but rather to show that the similarities cast light on the differences. In Garrett, the Thief trilogy had a protagonist who was, accidentally and despite humble origins, a key player in events that threatened to overwhelm him and the City he called home. Dishonored and its sequel have two protagonists who, despite being as close to the political heartbeat of the world as its possible to be, exert little influence on the grander themes in play.
As characters, they're essentially performers who exist to do the stuntwork and acrobatics we require of them. That makes the city their stage and what an incredible stage it is. Taken as a whole, Dishonored 2's Karnaca is one of the greatest settings I've ever encountered. The density of detail is stunning and almost every asset feels like it's been built for the particular placement where you find it. Yes, you'll see the same toilets and closets again and again, but artwork is often unique and appropriate to the place that you find it. Karnaca looks and feels like a city of layers, constructed over centuries, and that is reflected in everything from the layout of the streets to the placement of cellars and drainage systems.
Brilliantly, very little of this is backdrop. The genius of the game is in the diverse approaches that the city offers, and that's where every detail of the architecture comes into play, along with powers new and old.
Emily's focus is on manipulation of the AI, whether in the form of doppelgangers that attract their attention or the Domino skill that allows her to link enemies together, so that the fate that befalls one befalls the rest. There are so many opportunities for pranks, both deadly and otherwise, that high-level players will be creating all manner of highlight reels in no time. The really good stuff comes from using powers in combination. Link a doppelganger of Emily to a group of guards using the Domino effect, for example, and then watch as they chase it down, run it through and effectively stab themselves to death.
Corvo is his old self, though with a few possible upgrades. He can possess corpses now, which is nice, and he has greater control of the rat swarms that he summons. Mostly, it's time-bending, wind-blasting business as usual though, should you choose those particular skills. Upgrades for both characters are handled through runes, as in the first game, and to find them you'll often have to travel off the obvious routes. The brilliance of the level design can be seen whenever hunting for a bonecharm or rune. A slight detour can become a half hour mini-adventure, only tangentially related to the main plot, but rewarding in its own right. Adventure and exploration snowball in a way that feels organic – a note, overheard conversation or interesting sight leading you around yet another corner, or through yet another unlocked window – but is actually a result of the carefully laid trails of breadcrumbs that crisscross all over the world.
Dishonored 2's approach to stealth forces exploration. Rather than allowing you to hide in close proximity to enemies as long as you're in the dark, the shadows here don't have great powers of concealment – you have to become the shadows to really harness their powers. It's still possible to sneak through the game by using the architecture to your advantage though. Instead of moving slowly and hiding from the light, you must be fleet of foot and willing to take high roads and low roads to pass by patrols unseen.
My only concern regarding the level design lies with some of the high concept ideas in later areas. They're wonderfully inventive but, clever as they are, they occasionally threaten to undermine the fundamentals of the stealth system itself. That, to an extent, is the point, and I like that I have to learn new techniques (or fall back on more brutal or direct methods) as a result, but structurally, the game is less a well-paced examination of its own systems than a pick 'n' mix or best of compilation. I enjoyed every level and almost every detail of every level, but even though they cohere beautifully when considered as pieces of a city, they sometimes felt disconnected as plot-points.
That I've criticised Dishonored 2 for failing to drive home its themes or to have a central story as strong as its wonderful setting deserves is a sign of the high standards it sets. Whenever the voice acting or character design (I love the Outsider described in the world's folklore and mythology; I am startlingly indifferent to the bloke who represents him in the actual game) fell short of the elegance of the environmental storytelling or the subtleties in the world-building, I felt slightly let down.
It's a spectacular game though. Every condemned bloodfly-infested building is a delightful horror and there are individual levels that are as strong as the best of Looking Glass, but it's the city as a whole that holds the game together. Karnaca is a marvel. Arkane could have built on the strong foundations of Dunwall but instead they've created something more varied, more credible and altogether stranger.
As with Dunwall though, it doesn't exist in isolation. The gestures to the wider world of the Empire and beyond make me hope that Arkane aren't done with Dishonored yet because despite my complaints, this is more than a triumphant return – it's an improvement on the original in almost every way, and as close to a masterpiece as anything I've played this year. If it had a plot as powerful as its setting, any doubts I have that it might be remembered as a masterpiece would vanish.
Dishonored 2 is out now for Windows, via Steam