Most video games are about as subtle as a jackhammer. You don't dive into "Call of Duty" or "Gears of War" with the expectation of nuanced characters or finely detailed environments; you want things to blow up as noisily as possible.
"Dishonored 2" (Bethesda Softworks, for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, $59.99) is a different beast. Every step you take needs to be carefully measured. Every location rewards patient investigation. Every sound, from the footsteps of a security guard to the buzzing of an insect, could lead to disaster.
It's been a good year for sneaky players, with top-drawer stealth games like "Deus Ex: Mankind Divided" and "Watch Dogs 2." ''Dishonored 2" is the epitome of the genre — it makes you feel like you've failed if you engage in combat. Sure, you're armed with a sword and pistol, but every corpse you leave behind bends the world toward chaos.
Like its 2012 predecessor, "Dishonored 2" is set on a decadent continent resembling 19th-century Europe. Early on, the throne of the city of Dunwall is usurped by a mysterious woman claiming to be its rightful heir. Playing as deposed Empress Emily Kaldwin or her father, Corvo Attano (the hero of the original game), you have to escape Dunwall, find out who's behind the coup and take back the palace.
Emily and Corvo both have skills that make them particularly adept at life on the run — mainly, the uncanny ability to sneak up behind their pursuers and render them unconscious. They both also have supernatural talents that let them see through walls or zip silently from rooftop to rooftop. They do have their differences: Corvo can slow down time or possess other characters, while Emily can summon a doppelganger or turn into a shadow.
Neither character comes equipped with all these powers. Instead, you must earn them by finding runes and "bonecharms" that are carefully hidden all over the cities. Often you're forced to decide whether to risk exposure by going after runes or just getting out while the getting's good.
Each chapter of "Dishonored 2" takes place in a relatively cramped environment, whether it's a crowded slum or a trap-filled mansion staffed by clockwork robots. However, each setting is so packed with details — like books, blueprints and audio recordings that flesh out the history and politics of Dunwall — that it takes hours to properly explore one location.
I have a few gripes with "Dishonored 2." The story is somewhat predictable, and Emily and Corvo don't develop much over the course of the adventure. And I wish the populations of Dunwall and its sister city, Karnaca, were more diverse; instead, just about every stranger wants to kill the outcasts.
Still, "Dishonored 2" has so many breathtaking moments — literally, in the sense that you may forget to breathe — that it's an essential change of pace from the usual video-game bombast. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter @lkesten.