Honoring Intelligence and Creativity
When I think back on the greatest games I enjoyed when I was younger, games like Ultima Underworld and Thief II: The Metal Age, they all have one thing in common. They honored player intelligence and gave us endless possibilities for our creative impulses. Admittedly, those games were rare even then, and today it can seem impossible to find these masterpieces among the hordes of titles relying on scripted action sequences and QTEs. Dishonored 2 is one of those masterpieces, a first person stealth-action title polished and primed for modern gamers but based on the best traditions of interactive entertainment.
Little Emily Kaldwin from Dishonored has grown up into a… so-so empress, despite the best efforts of her devoted father (and Dishonored protagonist) Corvo, who seems best at training her how to be a canny assassin rather than a courtly ruler. You can hardly blame her for her failings, given the plethora of problems faced by her empire and the number of schemers she deals with on a daily basis. She’s trying, but often finds herself wishing for sweet freedom away from the stifling demands of court. It’s not surprising, then, when she falls prey to a dastardly plot at the start of the game. Playing as Emily or Corvo, you’ll find yourself journeying to the southern city of Karnaca in order to unravel the plot and defeat a coup backed by a powerful witch and fearsome mechanical creations.
The most interesting themes of Dishonored return – figuring out who to trust (and perhaps more importantly, who not to trust) and choosing when to kill or not kill. This time, however, they are backed with a healthy dose of passion and personality that the first game often lacked. Emily and Corvo both speak; a welcome improvement. I spent most of my time with Emily, and she’s delightfully sarcastic (though determined to make things right), yet ultimately conflicted in a way that feels real. Her enemies are fantastically characterized in ways that make you determined to take them down, and they inhabit the areas in which you’re tracking them in ingenious ways. Perhaps you’ll largely read about them in scattered notes, or perhaps they will taunt you endlessly via a loudspeaker as you attempt to defeat their booby-trapped manor (just PERHAPS – that jerk). Either way, you’ll never forget why you are where you are at any given time.
The sights of Karnaca create a distinct sense of place, different yet connected to Dunwall. There’s no citywide plague this time, so there are more civilians around in the main areas that you pass through on the way to your ultimate destinations, and it feels more like a real city with locations that are connected to one another. I do feel like it was a bit gray and washed-out for a place supposedly based on Mediterranean Europe, but my tastes run more colorful than the average gamer. What can’t be contested is the masterful use of light and shadow, used both in service of the stealth gameplay and to create dreadful displays, such as the distended, flickering shadows of bloatflies against the wall as you approach a nest (they are totally gross and far creepier than Dishonored’s plague rats, but thankfully a bit more contained to specific areas).
Sound design is, of course, vital to stealth-action gameplay, and Dishonored 2 fully excels here as well. You’ll want to pay attention to every sound cue you get, as it will help you track guards and learn vital information about the areas you’re in. At the same time, the game uses music, voice, and effects to throw you off and scare the pants off you from time to time. There’s nothing like creeping up behind a bad guy only to have the squeal of a loudspeaker or the shout of a guard you didn’t notice make you jump in fright.
The main star of Dishonored 2, however, is its ingenious level design. This game cements the Arkane team as the absolute best in the business for creative yet eminently playable levels. Each mission area is unique and sizeable, but designed like a set of nested magic boxes that you’ll have to pick your way through carefully in order to reach your objective. Even the most bizarre levels feel like real places, via a thorough grounding in reality and fantastic attention to detail. There are no incoherently maze-like buildings or corridors that make no sense, and you’ll note that every single mechanical object has an identifiable (and interactive like aces up) power source. At the same time, all the design is in service to gameplay; every nook and cranny contains a tool, a treasure, a secret way to achieve an objective, or a juicy secret about the world. I’ve never seen a game so good at feeling real while also displaying so much creativity and so many gameplay options. There is never just one way to solve a problem. If you think there is, you’ve missed something.
And how do you defeat all these dastardly locations in order to take out your enemies and rescue your loved ones? Dishonored 2 remains primarily a stealth title, and even the most stab-happy player will be glad to know that sneaking around is simple and intuitive. Level traversal, in fact, feels better in general than it did in Dishonored. If it looked like I could jump onto a ledge, I generally could do so. And if I was spotted by a guard, I could always figure out what I’d done wrong. Combat also feels responsive but properly weighty. Some advanced maneuvers can be a bit fidgety – drop assassinations seem oddly difficult to perform, as many of my attempts resulted in me landing in front of my target even after desperately jamming the appropriate button. I also had trouble doing things like making a flying leap onto a climbable chain. I couldn’t quite tell if I was doing it wrong, so feel free to excoriate me in the comments if it was easy for you.
Emily and Corvo’s supernatural powers are plain fun to use; teleporting is zippy, and Emily’s shadow creeping ability actually feels creepy while you’re executing it. It’s jittery, your point of view is oddly distended, and even its non-lethal takedown animation is designed to make you shudder. Nearly every power is multipurpose and can be combined with other actions and powers to do crazy things. Use a doppelganger of yourself to lure a nasty killer robot into an arc pylon. Take out an inconveniently placed guard by mystically chaining her to a closer-by guard, then shooting that close guard with a sleep dart, putting them both to sleep. Every level presents new challenges and possibilities for your powers, although you can also “just say no” to magic juju and play through with just your crossbow, mines, and other fun goodies.