Fight to reclaim your throne from a ruthless, shadowy foe.
PC Release: November 11, 2016
By Ian Coppock
The 2016 video game holiday gala continues this month, as more and more big-budget studios contend for Christmas cash. Activison and Electronic Arts punched in with their yearly dose of shooters, while other major studios like 2K have climbed into the ring with heavy-hitting sequels. Now it’s Bethesda’s turn as they usher Dishonored 2 into the fray. The sequel to Arkane Studios’ 2012 electropunk stealth’em’up, Dishonored 2 is the latest in an unusually crowded field of sequels to fight for the wallets of holiday shoppers. What effort does Dishonored 2 make to stand above, or sneak past, the rest?
When Dishonored hit shelves in 2012, it was acclaimed for its electropunk setting and stealthy gameplay. Corvo Attano’s mission to rescue a young heiress was not new narrative material, but Dishonored‘s grim atmosphere and apt blend of Victorian and Orwellian themes helped make it a standout game. Arkane Studios fell silent as their creation grew louder, and it was only at E3 2016 that Dishonored 2 was revealed, four years in the making. Like its predecessor, Dishonored 2 espouses an electropunk setting and a narrative that blends redemption with vengeance.
Dishonored 2 takes place fifteen years after the events of Dishonored, in which royal bodyguard Corvo Attano avenged the death of his empress and rescued their daughter Emily from traitorous conspirators. Only a little girl during the events of Dishonored, Emily Kaldwin is now in her early 20’s, and administers the Empire of the Isles with her father’s help. Corvo has also spent the 15 years since Dishonored training Emily in the same arts of assassination and combat that made him such a menace in the first game, fearing that though the empire is secure for now, new threats will appear on the horizon. Emily herself is fearful that she’ll never be the empress her mother was, despite Corvo’s advice and encouragement.
Dishonored 2‘s story kicks off as Emily marks the 15th anniversary of her mother’s death, an event attended by dignitaries from all over the isles. Anticipating a long, hot day, Emily is shocked when a mysterious woman named Delilah arrives to her throne room, claiming to be her aunt and the rightful empress. It’s at this point that the player chooses to play Dishonored 2 as either Emily or Corvo; whomever the player does not choose is imprisoned by Delilah as her men capture Dunwall. The character who escapes makes their way to the Dreadful Wale, a ship captained by Corvo’s old friend Meagan Foster, and escapes.
Clues from Delilah’s coup prompts Emily/Corvo to travel to Karnaca, the capital city of the empire’s southernmost island. Karnaca serves as the principle setting of Dishonored 2; Corvo was born and raised there and remembers it well, while Emily is a complete stranger to it. Not long after fleeing Dunwall, Emily/Corvo receives a visit from the Outsider, the same black-eyed wraith that bestowed his dark powers upon Corvo in the original Dishonored. The Outsider speculates that Delilah has much darker schemes than “merely” taking over the Empire, and either restores his Mark to Corvo or gives it to Emily for the first time. Interestingly, players can choose to reject the Outsider’s mark and play Dishonored 2 powers-free. It’s insanely difficult, but hardcore stealth fanatics will be sated.
Like its predecessor, Dishonored 2 is a first-person stealth game set in Hitman-esque open levels. Players are given a target to assassinate and a variety of possible paths to that objective. Just like in Dishonored, players can choose to non-lethally remove big-name targets from the picture, and can directly influence the game’s final outcome by how many people they kill. Killing few to no people will result in a, shall we say, “calmer” ending, while leaving a trail of corpses wherever the player goes will destabilize Karnaca.
Players have a diverse arsenal of tools with which to effect stealth, assassination, or all-out war. Corvo and Emily can dispatch enemies directly with a wickedly sharp blade, or from afar with an array of pistols and crossbows. Each character also receives an array of powers from the Outsider; Emily gets a whole new set of abilities, while Corvo gets retooled and reworked versions of the powers he had in Dishonored. Most abilities in Dishonored 2 revolve around the environment; specifically, getting around it easier or being more aware of enemies. Emily and Corvo can upgrade their powers with special Outsider runes found around Karnaca.
For better and for worse, Dishonored 2‘s gameplay is difficult to distinguish from that of Dishonored. Some fans will see this as a positive, as the original game is a genuinely good stealth title, but players hoping to find a uniquely Dishonored 2 experience will be sorely disappointed. Dishonored 2 offers few innovations for the series’s stealth formula, choosing instead to be in lockstep with the original Dishonored. Just like in that game, players are delivered to the mission area by a battle-scarred mariner in a little boat, given a bunch of different possible paths to a target, sneak past guards, eliminate the target, and then escape out the back door. Emily and Corvo will avoid guards, climb up ledges, disarm traps, and pass by electrical barriers just like Corvo did in Dishonored. None of this is objectively bad, but it does make Dishonored 2’s gameplay feel derivative.
Luckily, Dishonored 2‘s gameplay is not a complete carbon copy of it’s predecessors, at least if players choose Emily Kaldwin. Some of her powers, like the Shadow Grapple ability, are little different from Corvo’s powers in the original game, but others are entirely new. The domino effect power that unleashes one guard’s fate upon others in the area offers interesting, if seldom, new gameplay activities. Dishonored 2‘s guards return little smarter than those of Dishonored, though they now notice when their comrades are missing, which represents an added challenge. Dishonored 2 also introduces new enemies like witches and clockwork robots, but their appearances in the game are disappointingly rare.
Dishonored 2‘s reluctance to innovate extends beyond its gameplay. As Dishonored fans might have inferred from the introduction to this review, Dishonored 2‘s plot is virtually identical to that of the first game. Sure, fifteen years have passed and Emily is now a playable character, but take a look at the plot points. Some shady aristocrats conspire, they attack the throne, their leader becomes the new ruler, Emily disappears, and now a whole bunch of conspirators have to die so that she can be restored to her rightful place. That is the exact storyline of Dishonored. Even if the game introduces a new setting and a few new characters, the underlying narrative structure is every iota the same as that of Dishonored.
That said, Dishonored 2 does manage to raise the stakes higher than in the narrative of Dishonored. Delilah is no ordinary conspirator, and unlike the conspirators in Dishonored, possesses some shadowy powers of her own. Though Dishonored 2‘s narrative is not that innovative, it adds a lot of exposition on the Outsider and other underpinnings of the Dishonored universe. Most of this exposition is woven into the narrative; it doesn’t save the story from feeling stale, but it will offer hardcore series fans more tidbits of lore to enjoy.
Speaking of the world of Dishonored 2, how’s the level design? Well, it’s… about the same as that of Dishonored. Karnaca’s sunny avenues and Greco-Italian architecture make for a welcome change from the dour Victorian visage of Dunwall, and yet the two cities’ levels are nigh congruent. Corvo/Emily is dumped off at the limits of a city district filled with guards and hidden paths, and needs to sneak their way to a target. It’s nice that Dishonored 2 has preserved the original game’s sense of freedom, but anyone who was hoping for a change from infiltrating police stations and sneaking through abandoned apartments is in for a disappointment. The one exception to this rule is the Clockwork Mansion, a house whose rooms shift and transform with the press of a button and mark an impressive feat of level design. It’s just a shame that not all of Dishonored 2‘s levels received the same amount of attention.
Arkane Studios also introduces the exact same slate of woes to Karnaca that it did to Dunwall, inadvertently quashing this new setting’s uniqueness. A plague is ravaging the streets of the city (although this time it’s spread by giant mosquitoes instead of rats), the plague creates zombies that are the spitting image of Dishonored‘s weepers, and the city guard has set up Wall of Light checkpoints everywhere. Just in case it wasn’t enough for Dishonored 2 to copy its predecessor’s plot, gameplay and level design, it also replicates the original game’s socioeconomic situations. With Dishonored 2, the apple hasn’t fallen that far from the tree so much as gone right back up the tree and ossified into its very bark.
The icing on the cake with Dishonored 2 is the same icing that’s affected almost every big-budget release this year: bugs! Lots and lots of them. Like Far Cry Primal, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, No Man’s Sky, and Mafia III before it, Dishonored 2 was delivered glitchy on arrival. The prevailing issue for the PC version is a dramatic framerate drop, which no amount of graphics and visual effects lowering seems to fix. Arkane Studios has pledged a patch, but for the moment, only a tiny handful of PC gamers have been lucky to hit even 60 fps. The game has a nasty tendency to slow down to the 10-15 FPS range, especially in crowded areas and, worse, during combat. It can take upwards of five minutes merely for the game to load its main menu.
Furthermore, Arkane Studios did a poor job of rendering distant objects. From far away, the environs of Karnaca and indeed every distant landmark look like they’re covered in glitter. Reducing the draw distance only amplifies the problem, obfuscating everything from miles away to across the street with bright sparkles and really bad shadow striping. This devalues the novelty of Dishonored 2‘s new setting, while the constant system crashes make gamers forsake it altogether. The game boasts improved textures and lens flare effects over its predecessor, but only under ideal conditions.
The tragedy with Dishonored 2, as with all mediocre sequels, is the chance that it missed. With Dishonored 2, the developers had an opportunity to spring into an entirely new story, with improved mechanics that do more to advance what the original game introduced. Half-Life 2 and BioShock Infinite are perhaps the best examples of games that took what their predecessors did and undertook the hard work to meaningfully advance it.
Instead, even more than the other big-budget sequels that have been released this year, Dishonored 2 just replicates what the original game already did. It’s difficult to believe that Arkane still has the same confidence and sense of adventure that it did when making Dishonored, because all that can be inferred from this game’s overwhelming fealty to the original is a sense of fear. A fear of doing something different. A fear of innovation.
Dishonored 2 is not a bad game, but it feels more like a DLC for Dishonored than its own title. Dishonored 2‘s reluctance to deviate from the path that Dishonored already blazed is deeply disappointing. Sure, the game introduces a handful of new enemies and backstories, but these aren’t enough to save the game from feeling stale. Even if Emily has a few new powers and the world of Dishonored has some robots, the story that all of this informs is functionally identical to the first game’s. No one should pay sixty dollars for a game that feels like a DLC and that’s loaded with bugs. As such, new arrivals to the series and core fans are both better off just playing the first game until Arkane introduces a big patch and an even bigger price discount. Meanwhile, the search for a well-running and truly innovative big-budget game this holiday season will have to continue elsewhere.
You can buy Dishonored 2 here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at email@example.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.