It has been an exceptionally noisy year for first-person video games. “Overwatch,” “DOOM,” “Titanfall 2,” “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare,” “Far Cry: Primal,” “Battlefield 1” – if you like to blast things in the face, 2016 has over delivered.
But those with a taste for more…delicate…ways to dispatch bad guys have had few options. “Deus Ex: Mankind Divided” did the trick, but there’s an even deadlier sneak lurking about in the form of “Dishonored 2.” The sequel to the 2012 gem “Dishonored,” the new effort by Bethesda and developer Arkane Studios is a master class in world building and level design, and while it misses a bit with its narrative, you’ll be too busy slyly choking out guards to care.
“Dishonored 2” encourages choice, going so far as to offer two totally unique playable characters in the form of original “Dishonored” star Corvo Attano and his equally deadly daughter, Emily Kaldwin. Now the Empress of the Isles after the events of the first game, Emily and her royal protector dad are framed, their lordship usurped by Emily’s evil aunt. You play as either the ousted leader or her potent father; either way, you find yourself fleeing the imperial capital Dunwall for the port city of Karnaca in an effort to undermine your aunt and right a wrong.
Powers beyond reason
Once you choose, you are locked into that character for the ensuing 15 hours, though you can’t really make a bad choice here. Both Corvo and Emily wield a trusty sword for up-close-and-personal dirty work, but more exciting is a wealth of awesome abilities used to navigate Karnaca’s gritty steampunk world and deal with its legions of unfriendly sorts.
The newer of the two, Emily has a few very clever tricks up her sleeve. Domino lets you psychically link enemies so that what affects one will affect the others. One sleep dart and three dudes are laid out. She can also summon a lifelike Doppleganger to throw enemies off her scent, or transform into a smokey creature to scuttle through hard-to-reach grates. Corvo retains most of his powers from the first game, though some have been upgraded significantly (Possession, for instance, can now be used on corpses.) Using abilities like Blink (Corvo) or Far Reach (Emily), both characters can zip past guards and sneak through windows. They’re equally fun and eminently playable.
“Dishonored 2’s” really shines when you’re mixing and match abilities. You can, for instance, combine Doppleganger and Domino to create a sort of voodoo doll. Upgrade Far Reach and you can pull an enemy off a lookout ledge and fling him into a stash of explosive whale oil for an impromptu bomb. The more you experiment, the more “Dishonored 2” pays off.
Of course, triggering a whale oil explosion isn’t optimal if you’re trying to stay stealthy, though technically you don’t have to.
Avoiding detection, keeping civilians safe and knocking out guards instead of killing them leads you down the “low chaos” path, which will yield a more positive ending. Alternately, you can invest in offensive-minded powers and/or straight up weaponry, chucking grenades, firing pistols, and slaughtering foes to create “high chaos” for a darker ending.
Ostensibly, you can follow either playstyle, though like its predecessor “Dishonored 2” not so subtly suggests that “low chaos” is preferable. It’s certainly not easy. The hypersensitive A.I. will see and hear you if you aren’t exceedingly careful, and once you’re detected, escaping can be a real challenge. The stealth approach creates a pretty standard loop: you’ll explore a bit, find some enemies, try to be slick, screw it up and get caught, reload to try again, and eventually live with a mediocre performance so that you can move on. If you plan on being stealthy – and for your first playthrough, you probably will — save early, save often.
Worlds within worlds
Repeating sections isn’t a drag, however, thanks to “Dishonored 2’s” brilliant design. Karnaca is broken into traditional game levels – this isn’t one big, interconnected world – but each section is a dense, labyrinthine playground that never feels too small.
Arkane takes a cue from its publisher by channeling the kind of rich lore building you might find in an “Elder Scrolls” or “Fallout” game to give its fantasy world a believable backbone. Some of this is found in collectible scraps and books, but the real joy is in the finely-detailed environments; the constricting grime of hidden back alleys, the soaring verticality of once-gilded structures that have fallen into disrepair, the pooling blood beneath fishhooks. Every nook and cranny has been handcrafted, it seems, despite the fact that it’s impossible to experience the totality of “Dishonored 2” in one go.
That’s a testament to the game’s stunning level design. There truly are multiple ways to attack each level, and you’re bound to discover a few depending on your play style. They grow in complexity and offer fascinating twists. One level is a mind-warping, user-controlled time-travel bit that amplifies the stealth into something truly unique. Another, a masterful, confounding clockwork mansion made of moving walls and floors, is its own piece of art. “Dishonored 2” is level design done right.
I would have appreciated a bit more non-hostile life, though. Some of the game’s brightest moments come when you stumble upon a quest giver or overhear an interesting conversation. I could have used more of that; other than a handful of civilians here and there, Karnaca is crawling with people who will shoot on sight.
But where I struggle most with “Dishonored 2” is in its storytelling. For a game bursting with creativity in its style, gameplay and environmental design, it musters a pretty flat tale.
The core plot — take revenge on the mysterious family member who ruined your life — fails to really ignite and the villains never really have time to be villainous. The story beats don’t flow well; one moment you’re rescuing a lost scientist; the next, you’re digging up dirt on a new character. A whaling ship acts as your central hub and even contains a makeshift evidence wall like you might find in a lunatic detective’s dank apartment. But the strands just never come together, and despite the messiness, the big points are pretty predictable.
Look past it, though, and you’ll see another gorgeous, enticing location in which to test out your powers. “Dishonored 2” puts its money in the right places, offering finely-tuned gameplay that’s as challenging as it is thrilling. For a game all about choice, the decision to add this sneaky genius to your collection is a no-brainer.
What’s Hot: Incredible level design; wonderful world-building; cool powers; rewards multiple play styles
What’s Not: Story struggles to find its footing; save/reload loop can be a little frustrating
Platform reviewed: Xbox One
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Ben Silverman is on Twitter at ben_silverman.