With an inventive mix of sneaking, combat and magic all wrapped up in an unforgettable steampunk aesthetic, the original Dishonored was the first-person stealth game we didn't know we needed. The game was just begging for a sequel that kept the same basic structure while refining and expanding both the gameplay and the world, and Dishonored 2 ($60, PS4, Xbox One, PC) is exactly that. With two playable characters, nine long missions and countless ways to play, Dishonored 2 is one of the year's best games, and a must-have for any stealth fan.
Gameplay: Choice and Consequence
Describing the gameplay in Dishonored 2 is actually somewhat difficult, if only because no two people will ever experience it quite the same way. You can play as Corvo Attano, the protagonist from the first game, or Emily Kaldwin, his royal daughter. You can engage enemies in open combat or sneak your way past them. You can kill foes or leave them alive, and either way, you can hide the bodies or leave them as a warning to enemies. You can customize your character with a whole host of stealth- or combat-oriented magical powers, or eschew them entirely.
Apart from all that, each level is simply enormous, and how you navigate them is entirely up to you. You can stick to the ground and move from shadow to shadow, or take to the rooftops and hope that your foes don't look up. You can spend hours finding cleverly hidden runes and bone charms to upgrade your abilities, or you can take a straight shot for the end of the level. Almost every stage pits you against a distinctive antagonist whom you can either kill or incapacitate in a clever (and usually ironic) way.
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One level, which pits you against a mechanical mastermind in a mansion that reorients itself with clockwork technology, deserves a special mention as one of the most ingenious levels ever devised in a video game. To say more would spoil it; you have to see this one to believe it.
No two people will ever experience Dishonored 2 quite the same way.
If you insist on ghosting each level (never being spotted) and sparing every life, the quick save and quick load buttons (both cleverly pinned right to the pause menu) will be your best friends, and you won't have much use for the upgradable combat skills, bullets, incendiary bolts and grenades you come across — or even your default weapon, a very cool sword that folds in half.
You may instead opt for a magical power that allows you to "link" enemies together and another one that lets you teleport to higher ground, then spend your hard-earned cash on black market sleeping darts. Teleport above the enemies, link them all together, land a dart to one's head, and an impossible challenge just became trivial.
Or perhaps you'd prefer to run in, guns blazing, mowing down two with your pistol and parrying the last one with your sword for a retaliatory instant kill. The game doesn't judge; it simply adjusts to your behavior. Killing makes the world a more "chaotic" place, making levels more dangerous and the ending dourer, but the choice is yours.
Whichever path you choose, the controls are tight, and the enemy AI is devious (but just gullible enough to give players a fair chance). With two playable characters and two possible story paths for each one, Dishonored 2 is a game you could play for a long time beyond your initial adventure, which will still probably be pretty substantial.
Story: Life and Death in Karnaca
Fifteen years after Royal Protector Corvo Attano rescued his daughter, Emily Kaldwin, from domestic insurgents, Emily has grown up and taken her rightful place as Empress. Her rule could be cut short, though, when a woman named Delilah shows up, claiming to be her aunt, and the throne’s rightful heir. Delilah, with a host of magical powers at her disposal and the support of the powerful Duke Luca, is more than meets the eye, but what is she really after — and how will a deposed Emily and a displaced Corvo stop her? (Although you can indeed play as Corvo, Dishonored 2 is very much Emily’s game.)
Like the first Dishonored, the story in Dishonored 2 is perfectly good, although the real draw here is the setting. While the previous game took place in the Victorian London-inspired city of Dunwall, the action in Dishonored 2 moves south to Karnaca: a setting that combines a variety of different Mediterranean influences. Imagine coastal Greece, Turkey, France and Italy mashed into one (but the characters still have British accents), and that's Karnaca in a nutshell.
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Life in the southern reaches of an empire feels satisfyingly different from its foggy, gas-lit capital. Seeing the interplay between the first game's returning cast and the more outlandish characters in Karnaca is also a treat. Medicine, science, religion, politics and technology in Dishonored 2 all feel like natural extensions of the setting rather than contrivances for the plot, and finding the maps, letters and books scattered around each level can feel just as satisfying as seeing the more expository cutscenes that bookend each mission.
As far as the main plot goes, it's a bit similar to the first Dishonored, in that a jealous force endangers the throne, and it's up to you to set things right by slowly pruning said force's supporters. Delilah is a more engaging and dangerous villain than Hiram Burrows, however, which helped keep me invested in the plot as well as the much-more-interesting world.
Graphics and Sound: Just Unreal Enough
One of Dishonored's defining characteristics is its unmistakable art style, which paints fairly realistic character models and buildings with a subtle watercolor filter. Playing through Dishonored 2 feels a little bit like making a high-end graphic novel or 19th-century painting come to life. The particle effects for the magical powers are both subtle and striking, while the levels themselves are gorgeously designed, from sprawling seaside cities to dilapidated solariums. Setting the game in a warmer environment also allows for a lot of rich blues and greens, which were harder to find in the previous installment.
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On the other hand, one thing Dishonored has yet to address is its less-than-stellar voice cast. All of the characters in the game have competent voice work, but it never rises above that level of basic proficiency. Almost every character in the game, including the protagonists, sound like they have somewhere else to be in half an hour, and really need to just get this line done and go. The one exception, though, is character actress Erin Cottrell as Delilah, who amps up the evil without ever going over the top.
Playing through Dishonored 2 feels a little bit like making a high-end graphic novel or 19th-century painting come to life.
The game's music and sound design are both good, otherwise, although nothing in particular stands out about either one.
Bottom Line: Great Expectations
The only serious criticism I can level against Dishonored 2 is that it's exactly what you would expect from a Dishonored sequel, and nothing more. It's bigger, cleverer, and allows players to forge their own paths even more than before. Toss in a new playable character, a new location and a new chapter in a decent ongoing story, and it's not hard to see why fans of the first should probably invest in the sequel.
Although Dishonored 2 holds few surprises, it delivers great stealth gameplay and a deep dive into one of mainstream gaming's more inspired settings. Newcomers will probably want to pick up the first game, though; this is one of those series that hits the ground running.