Dishonored 2 Review

2012's Dishonored was critically well received but overlooked by many gamers until long after release. Over the past four years the first game has slowly developed a reputation as being one of the best stealth/action shooters, so anticipation has been high for Arkane's sequel. Although marred by some graceless plotting and uninspired writing, Dishonored 2  moment-to-moment is clever and option-rich, allowing for a near infinite variety of stealthy or more aggressive approaches.

It's a good thing the game builds in so much flexibility, because Dishonored 2 practically demands at least two playthroughs. Its pair of main playable protagonists -- Corvo Attano, returning from the first game, or Emily Kaldwin, his daughter -- each have a suite of unique abilities and powers, unlocked through runes and bone charms found by scouring the environment. While many of Corvo's powers will be familiar to players of the first game, they have been made more powerful through branching upgrades, and Emily has access to several unique abilities. There are so many viable weapons, traps, and magical abilities that every enemy encounter can be legitimately -- and enjoyably -- approached either through stealth or more violently. Ammunition scarcity means that creativity is always in order, and there is great satisfaction in dispatching enemies through combinations of magic and more conventional weapons.

In other words, Dishonored 2's gameplay is fantastic and while the range of enemy types is relatively limited, sneaking around the Steampunk-inspired environment is interesting and entertaining. Eschewing the drab and grimy industrial world of Dunwall, Dishonored 2 is set in a Mediterranean-like Karnaca, fifteen years after the events of the first game. The story begins -- rather abruptly -- with a coup as young Emily is about to ascend to the throne and the rest of Dishonored 2 is a tale of conspiracy and retribution. While there are side missions that help in small measure to add depth to the plot, Dishonored 2's main story definitely feels under-written and disappointingly banal. The undercooked story isn't helped by voice acting that often seems to lack conviction or passion, despite the presence of some celebrity talent. The plethora of modern American accents works against the game's alternative universe.

The game world is absolutely stuffed with things to read, examine and pick up and its a great example of environmental storytelling. Filled with NPCs, puzzles, contraptions, and alternative routes, Karnaca is a fully-realized place with a consistent logic and design aesthetic that mashes up the Victorian Steampunk and the magical. Some missions -- like the one set in the clockwork mansion --are cleverly designed around mechanical switches and environmental puzzles, and the game world's verticality and hidden pathways offer multiple approaches. While pursuing a life of violence or a more benign path doesn't much impact the story, the choice is reflected both in the game's epilogue and the fact that leaving a trail of corpses can increase the swarms of bloodflies.

While the design of Karnaca is artistic and even painterly, Dishonored 2's graphics are inconsistent. Karnaca is awash in convincing light and full of architectural detail but its human figure models particularly look like only slightly prettified artifacts of an aging engine. Music is spare and disappointingly adds little emotional content to the narrative. More problematic is the game's aural design, which has a hard time placing enemy sounds in the world in a way that is truly helpful to the player. In game where stealth and the ability to pinpoint just where an enemy is moving becomes critical, accuracy of sound placement should be a higher priority.

Anyone who played and enjoyed Dishonored will recognize that its sequel meets or exceeds what players enjoyed about the first game. Excellent level design and a convincing world are coupled with a rich suite of weapons and abilities, guaranteeing that every enemy encounter is an opportunity for creative mayhem (or cleverly avoiding it). An underwhelming story, rote voice acting, and aging graphics aren't enough to do more than tarnish what is at core a fantastic and fun experience.