I've been playing Dishonored 2 [official site] for nine hours but I'm not here to spoil any surprises for you, so don't worry about precisely how much I've seen or what beans I might spill. What I want to do is to reassure you that developers Arkane haven't fluffed their lines with this sequel. Quite the opposite in fact – they're firing on all cylinders.
Even if the remaining levels are so badly designed that I find them intolerable, and there's absolutely no reason to believe that would be the case, I've already explored enough beautifully realised and densely packed areas to see this as a sequel that understands what its predecessor did well, and knows precisely how to do it better. Here, with no spoilers, are my thoughts on what I've seen so far.
The best level design in the business wouldn't be worth a damn if the spaces weren't enjoyable to navigate, and before getting on to what feels fresh here, it's worth reiterating a few points about the original Dishonored. It brought kinetic energy to the first-person stealth game, allowing protagonist Corvo not only to bampf across city blocks like a murderous superhero, but providing all the tools necessary for escape, concealment, confusion and acrobatic combat.
Stabbing and slaughtering your way out of a situation often feels like an unsatisfactory last resort in stealth games – all the ingredients for the perfect steak were there, but too much slicing and dicing left you with a casserole – but Dishonored went some way toward making violent alternatives satisfying. The perfect non-lethal, ghosted playthrough is still a worthy ambition but improvising with sword, pistol and razor-traps isn't a dull or ineffective enough solution to make an instinctive quickload occur as soon as a guard raises the alarm.
All of that has returned, with a new selection of lethal and non-lethal options, as well as additional ways to navigate the scenery. As in the first game, there's an occasional helping hand, with the aiming tips for the teleportation skills and the like, but movement is manual- there's none of the automated parkour of Assassin's Creed here. That can make for uncharacteristic clumsiness on the part of the protagonists, but the precise control it provides is precious indeed.
And, yes, on current evidence, the pleasing flow of movement is matched with some of the best level design in the business.
I've been playing as Emily, the new Empress. Corvo is playable as well but for my first run through the game I wanted to try out Emily's new abilities and the framing of the story makes it seem like her tale, though I might be unfairly excluding Corvo simply because he's already had one grand, grim adventure. Let someone else have a go, old man.
Upgrades to existing skills and the unlocking of new ones requires runes, as in the original game, so if you want to dart around causing supernatural havoc you'll need to explore, using the returning Heart as a divining organ to track down bones and runes. Here's the first bit of extremely good news – it feels like there's an entire world to explore this time around.
Dishonored 2 hasn't quite gone open world but the hubs in between mission areas make the city blocks in the first game seem like tiny little tableaux. Though it doesn't have the crowds of Hitman (what game does?), Karnaca feels inhabited in a way that Dunwall never did. There's no plague as an excuse for empty streets, though there are other sinister forces keeping things quieter than you might expect in such an important city, and when you first arrive at the docks, there are workers and wanderers aplenty. Even before you arrive, the Dunwall-set prologue is more than a simple single-route escape. I spent an hour and fifteen minutes exploring and only found half of the cash hidden around the place.
When I started exploring Karnaca, I spent three hours uncovering side stories and treasures before even approaching the first mission.
The areas, both in the streets and interiors, are larger, but the density is more impressive than the scale. During development, Arkane have been keen to point out the verticality of the city and the importance of looking up, for a pipe to climb or a window to enter, is immediately apparent. When you do find your way into a building, you'll usually find plenty of rooms to explore, all with their own stories, either written into the environment or told through letters and encounters with civilians. I loved the world-building in the original game, so much of it spilling out of background detail, and Karnaca feels like an oil painting next to Dunwall's charcoal sketch.
I loved the setting of the first game so much that I feared Karnaca would feel like a pale imitation, or – worse – so different as to feel like a city in a different world entirely. There are enough familiar threads to make it feel like another part of the same Empire, however, and its overall character feels far stranger and more novel than the Dickensian whalepunk of Dunwall, which always looked like it had crawled out of a drug-laced tributary of the Thames no matter how strange the stories within it became.
Karnaca is stranger still. Take the bloodflies, which might have been little more than an echo of the first game's rat plague. Instead, they're like a Cronenbergian nightmare, blistering infections that corrupt individual sections of the host city rather than running through its entire bloodstream. Despite all the weird and wonderful things, it's how well Arkane modelthe ordinary things that impresses me most strongly. Houses look as if people live in them and every drawer and closet contains items that belong there, and look like they could be used. The level of detail is fantastic and I adore the commitment to making the city feel like a possible place rather than a set of convenient passages and navigable stealth-spaces.
So far, I haven't experimented with many of Emily's unique powers, which you can see in the video below. Her first ability is almost idential to Corvo's short-range teleportation skill, 'Blink', but later unlocks focus on manipulation of enemies rather than avoidance. I'm not convinced I'll ever be the kind of high-level player who can use all of the abilities in combination to create exquisite scenes of controlled chaos, but I look forward to trying my best to put together a highlight reel before I'm done.
It's possible to commit to a full playthrough without any supernatural abilities at all, and if the level design is strong enough to support the skills of both characters while also allowing a 'vanilla' attempt, it's even more well-crafted than first impressions indicate. I'm already planning three playthroughs: this first with Emily on normal difficulty (I've picked normal to speed things along given that I want to complete the game twice before writing my review), a second with Corvo on hard, and a third with Emily untouched by the Outsider.
Ideally, I'd like my non-supernatural playthrough to use Corvo but I'm not sure if that's possible. He's already marked by the Outsider, carried over from the first game, and Emily's rejection of the mark is a player choice that may or may not have narrative consequences. The reason I'd like to play as Corvo without superpowers is for a slightly personal reason that gets right to the core of what I'm loving about Dishonored 2 so far.
Corvo, voiceless in the first game, speaks this time around. His voice is provided by actor Stephen Russell, who you're most likely to know as the voice actor for Garrett in the first three Thief games. He's not the only reason Dishonored 2 feels like the true Thief successor I've wanted since Deadly Shadows (TWELVE YEARS AGO), but his voice certainly helps to take me back. There's something of the gothic, grim mischievousness of Thief's nameless City in Dishonored 2 as well though. Machine cults, mechanical menaces, class warfare and ancient horrors scratching at the edges of reality.
Emily and Corvo have entered The Metal Age and, so far, it's as inventive and beautifully crafted as I'd hoped it might be. There are loads of options for visual settings, including a wide range for FoV, and I've had to move down to 'high' settings across the board to keep a consistent framerate on my GTX 970 at 1920*1080. It looks great though, stylised and detailed in its design rather than top of the tech tree. The only real technical issue of note is a habit of quitting, invisibly and without leaving an error message behind, if I alt-tab away and don't return quickly enough. Quicksaving is your friend.
I'll bring a full report about the game as a whole as soon as possible.
Dishonored 2 is out tomorrow, but can be played now if you preordered. It's available for Windows, via Steam.