There are so many ways that you can play Dishonored 2, and it's a credit to Arkane Studios that they've built a world and woven in systems that facilitate such a range of different styles. You can play it stealthy, you can go in blade first and kill everything that moves, or you can show mercy at every turn. It doesn't matter how you play, because everything is there to ensure that your experience is valid and authentic.
The first play-through is the hardest, but once you've seen the credits roll you can go again, this time taking a different path, emboldened by familiarity with the environments and the systems that govern them. There's two different characters, each with their own abilities that can be augmented in a huge array of ways that nearly all have meaningful and far-reaching consequences to your moment to moment experience. There's a truly remarkable range of possibilities open to the player, and despite this almost overwhelming assortment of options, Arkane has somehow managed to make it work exactly as you would want it to.
Corvo Attano, Lord Protector of the Empress of the Empire of the Isles, makes his return in this stunning stealth-driven sequel, and once again through his physical prowess and magical skillset, controlling him is an empowering experience. But for most people ol' Corvo will be relegated to the almost inevitable second play-through, as this time we can also step into the imperial shoes of his daughter and protégé, Emily Kaldwin. Early on in proceedings the player is presented with a choice of which role they will assume for the duration of the story, and then it's down to the business of stealth and murder (or not, as the case may be).
Dishonored was one of the most brilliantly atmospheric games of the last console generation, and this follow up retains that same compelling essence, while simultaneously trying new ideas and evolving the series. Dunwall was almost a character in its own right, bleak and opulent in equal measure, and it was populated by grotesque characters that lived long in the memory. The Britishness of that first city makes way for the more continental style of new setting Karnaca. The pestilence that afflicted Dunwall all those years ago has made way for infestations of deadly bloodflies throughout the city, and beyond that there's inequality and conflict to further charge the atmosphere. This is a city in decline, the gap continuing to widen between the haves and the have nots.
Events lead either Corvo or Emily from Dunwall to Karnaca in order to hunt down a murderous villain, and during your stay in this new city there are a few people that you have to visit. Like the first game the player has a choice when it comes to dealing with key characters, opting for either a deadly or a non-lethal approach. Arkane has ensured that playing pacifist is worked into the story in a purposeful way, and it's not always just a case of sparing a life; often you'll have to go out of your way to see things play out differently.
Everything is viewed in the first-person, the player sitting behind the eyes of either father or daughter. You can slow down action to crawl when you call up the radial menu that houses weapons and special powers. When it comes to your arsenal there's a crossbow that can be equipped with various specialist bolts. If you're happy to leave a trail of bodies in your wake then you won't much mind what you fire at your enemies, but if you're trying to be stealthy then you might want to be more selective and opt exclusively for sleeping darts, and darts tipped with poison that'll make a target panic and run away. There's a pistol, but it's a blunt tool that's only really worth busting out if you're content making some noise.
It's not just projectiles though, and many disputes are settled via the edge of your blade. Combat is challenging, and those engaging multiple enemies will need to keep their wits about them. A carefully timed parry will open your enemy up for a counter, but it is easy to get overwhelmed when confronted by an angry group of adversaries or if fighting in a confined space. Maybe there could have been a couple more takedown animations to keep things feeling fresh until the end, but it's a small gripe in the grand scheme of things. In terms of the rank and file enemies that you encounter, there's a decent variety and you have to change tack regularly; they all pose distinctly different challenges, whether they be run-of-the-mill city guards, the hard-to-kill clockwork soldiers, the sinister-looking nest keepers, or the witches and their magical powers.
There's mines and grenades to further flesh out your options in combat, but it's the special powers that have the most impact on the overall experience. Corvo's infamous Blink is back allowing him to teleport short distances, whereas Emily has Far Reach, which she can use to drag herself between locations at tremendous speed. Both characters are adept at traversing the world and moving between levels, and both of them feel and play differently thanks to their unique powers.
There's a whole range of these powers available, and they're unlocked via a system that has you spending runes that can be found around the world. You're equipped with a heart-tool that can help you identify their various locations, and as you proceed towards your primary objective it's worth stopping off and grabbing as many as you can. Whether you want to look through walls, slow down time, link NPCs together so that they all suffer the same fate when you strike, or possess the body of a rat and scurry around unnoticed, there's every reason to seek out these precious runes.
What's most impressive is how seamlessly the various abilities can be combined, and the versatility that they offer ensures oodles of emergent scenarios where you're the author of the action. Guards follow patrols or loiter in and around choke points, and it's up to the player to choose how the tackle each situation. Do you stick to the shadows, using powers to slink between rooms via the cover afforded by the environment? Or do you aggressively pursue guards, knocking them unconscious or slitting their throats, stashing their bodies and removing threats as you go? Over time you're equipped with more tools that increasingly support the way you want to play.
The potent mixture of weapons and abilities is augmented further by bone charms that buff Emily and Corvo in different ways. You can, for example, gently tweak the speed at which you move with weapons drawn, or reduce how much damage you take from explosions. There's loads of different charms to unearth (and you can craft more as you find the required resources), and taking the time to really explore the world is rewarded by an increasingly diverse repertoire of tricks.
Indeed, it's a world worth exploring, and not just for the unlocks. One of the most impressive things about Dishonored 2 is the attention to detail that has gone into its construction. Everything - every tiny detail - has been thoughtfully done. There's letters and newspapers and book extracts that litter the world, adding context to every conceivable part of the game, and beyond that there's lots of hidden secrets. Refreshingly, there's no overdose of collectables, and instead of searching endlessly for pointless trinkets, nearly everything you find has meaning or value.
Deliberate and functional this play space may be, but it's also beautiful to behold. Simply put, this is a work of art. Valuable paintings adorn walls, sketches lay here and there, and even artistry itself has been embedded in the story. Dunwall was one of our favourite digital places, and we think that Karnaca is very much its equal thanks to the painstaking attention to detail that permeates every room, building, and street. The imposing buildings, the dilapidated neighbourhoods, the private apartments, and the mansions owned by the elite; everything has been designed with purpose and a sense of style that's hard to fault.
Missions start with an approach through the city itself, where guards and religious heretics patrol, and you can explore bloodfly infested apartments off the beaten track. Certain areas are gated but there are ways to get around blockades, and players are encouraged to explore their options. Environments have been constructed so as to facilitate a multitude of play-styles, with multiple routes available via both open spaces full over cover, and buildings where traversal requires vertical exploration.
While the city itself is impressive, there are a handful of buildings that take the presentation to another level. We don't want to spoil anything and so we'll only talk about the Clockwork Mansion, a mission that has been highlighted extensively in the run up to launch. This building is exceptional in the sense that it changes shape thanks to built-in mechanisms that see rooms altered dramatically, but even beyond its shifting walls it's impossible not to be dazzled by the excellence of its overall design. Arkane has built some wonderful digital spaces for us to explore, and you'll only get a true measure of their brilliance if you venture into every corner to unearth its hidden secrets.
Regardless of which character you choose, or how you choose to play them, the story fits seamlessly around your decisions, and come the end you get a summation of your progress relative to your actions. When tackling your enemies you reveal more and more of the story, and in between missions there's cutscenes that add further context. Our one criticism of Dishonored 2 is that the story could have been given more room to grow. What's there is good, but they've tried to tell too much in too little time, and sometimes it can feel a little bolted together.
Similarly, and in the same vein, the characters aren't given enough room to grow. Corvo is a bit different, as we've spent plenty of time in his company before, but Emily's progression as a character feels accelerated to a slightly unnatural degree. Likewise, unless you really seek it out and read every piece of paper that you find, you might not get the amount of background you'd like on the ensemble cast.
From a technical perspective we have no complaints, but we're acutely aware that we're lucky in this respect. We played on two different PCs, one with a Nvidia graphics card and the other rocking an AMD GPU, and we experienced none of the technical issues that have been widely reported by the PC community, apart from perhaps to odd slight drop in frame-rate. It's disappointing that Bethesda's review policy meant that the problems only came to light once the game had been released, and we feel sorry for those early adopters who have experienced inconsistent frame-rates and worse. It's also worth mentioning that we also had a look at the PlayStation 4 version, albeit only for a short period of time, and the loading times seemed acceptable and it looked pretty decent.
The UI is thoughtfully arranged and simple to navigate, although we did want a little more room on the radial menu for the Blink/Far Reach abilities, as they're the special powers that we used most often, and we regularly selected the crossbow and fired off a dart in error, alerting nearby guards to our presence. Other than that, it's a simple and accessible setup that works just fine.
The soundtrack is solid, and when you notice it during key moments it certainly accentuates the mood, but it's the audio mix that's the most noteworthy. Sometimes it can be confusing when enemies are moving around on a different floor and it can be hard to differentiate between the shuffle of footsteps above/below you, and those that are just around the corner (being able to see through walls certainly helps in this regard, but during a "no powers" play-through we daresay it'd become more of an issue). Most of the time, however, we found the quality of the audio helped rather than hindered us.
There was some lovely writing, not just the main characters and the story, but also in terms of NPC dialogue, but this quality was negated a little when these great one-liners are repeated during different parts of the game. The sound effects, on the other hand, are great, and whether you can hear audio effects that tell you a rune is nearby, or subtle cues that inform you when you can use your abilities again, it all combines intuitively and effectively.
In fact, that's a statement that you could make about the whole game. Dishonored 2 boasts a range of mechanics that fit together naturally, and there's tremendous enjoyment and freedom to be had from its satisfying systemic gameplay. There are so many layers working together to produce an immersive and cohesive experience, and it constantly rewards creativity and experimentation. Our first pass at the campaign took around fifteen hours to complete, but the second play-through flows with greater speed, your increasing confidence leading to deeper exploration of the world and thus access to even more possibilities. You could easily lose yourself in Karnaca for upwards of thirty hours, although we missed the option to restart the campaign with our old abilities intact, and a New Game+ would have gone down a treat.
Arkane Studios has crafted an excellent stealth-driven action-adventure, and without doubt it's one of the best games of the year. A worthy successor to the brilliant original, Dishonored 2 elaborates on what made the first so good, adding even more variety on top of what was already a hugely compelling core. The art style ensures that it looks brilliant throughout, the level design is consistently top class, and it's many systems fit together effectively to give the player genuine autonomy over their experience. It's not quite perfect, but it comes pretty damn close; they don't make games much better than this.