Dishonored 2 (Xbox One Review)
Having the appetite for a stealth game is predominantly linked to how much patience you have with going unseen and how many times you’re willing to load an old save game when you mess up rather than saying “fuck it, I’m killing everyone”. Playing the game another way, a way that wasn’t the core focus for the developers. For me, Dishonored 2 bears that burden. My patience was shattered and not by my lack of trying but rather, I feel, a lapse in design by the developers.
Placed in a familiar locale, a mere fifteen years later, the opening cutscene preludes into a tale of deceit and betrayal in Dunwall. As Emily Kaldwin, Empress of the Isles, is usurped from her rightful throne by an unbeknownst relative, Delilah Kaldwin; Emily’s aunt. Claiming liege, Delilah has Emily locked up and has her father Corvo Attano (protagonist from the original Dishonored) frozen in marble. Depending on who you choose to play as at the start, their roles are simply reversed.
As Dishonored 2 sets up we see most of the opening cutscene and dialogue from Emily’s perspective, with Corvo getting in a few words here and there, but the story seemed to focus mainly on Emily and her empire. As such, I decided it’d be logical to play as the young empress for my initial play through as the plot did seem to pivot more in her direction than her father’s.
Playing as Emily or Corvo doesn’t change much of the gameplay and/or story if any, they are two sides of the same coin. Story cutscenes change minutely, in that it’s mainly pronouns that change (She, He) but the objectives and goals remain the same and missions play out in the same fashion. Powers are what differentiate Emily and Corvo from one another, but only slightly. Emily and Corvo’s cast of powers revolve around the manipulation of animals or individuals. Things like Possession and Mesmerize are rather self-explanatory and act similar to one another, stunning the target and/or taking control of him altogether. Emily can, however, perform a nifty move called Domino where in an enemy will be link to another enemy and they will both share the same fate; be it death or being knocked unconscious. Corvo’s cast of powers remain roughly the same as they did in Dishonored, in which he can stop time with Bend Time or summon familiars with Devouring Swarm. Each have their own perks but don’t necessarily overshadow one another, keeping a good equilibrium between both characters.
The playspace of Karnaca -the main city in which Dishonored 2 takes place- is where all these powers start to show their benefits and flaws. Powers like Far Reach and Blink are good for reaching high areas, but can be a nuisance to position and don’t have particularly long reach; nothing that a hop, skip and a jump won’t do just as good. Dark Vision, the ability to see through walls and see enemies, is somewhat short sighted. Only being able to see a few feet ahead of you isn’t all that good when the enemy could practicality sniff you out by the time you use the power. Regardless of the downfalls they have, they are an absolute must for have for a stealthy approach. That is, if you can stomach the mishaps that come with Dishonored 2’s detection system.
The stealth gameplay feels and plays exactly as you’d remember in Dishonored. Snaking around corners with agile and quickly dispatching an opponent with the fluidity of oil on water. Combine this with the powers that the “Outsider” gives our protagonists and you have one of the most streamlined FPS stealth experience in the industry. Yet, it’s one of the most troubling at the same time. Dishonored 2’s detection system drives the player to new heights of aggravation and the redefines the “quick save” and “quick load” system. Moving around the streets and alleys of Karnaca on the tips of your toes, trying not to be seen, is like playing a game of hide and seek and Marco polo at the same time. Noise differential changes drastically depending on the action you are performing and doesn’t tend to make any logical sense. Leaping from a high ledge to land directly behind a guard won’t even muster a jitter at best, but open a door three rooms away and the entire building is on alert. Being “detected” doesn’t function the way you’d expect either. A detection meter builds above an NPC’s head as they become more cautious of your whereabouts and their surroundings. Though, if they do spot you – for at least and fraction of a section-then an alert symbol will display above their head, one which I can only define as some sort of telepathic bond that links these solider into one formidable hive mind. I quickly scurry away to hide in a dumpster to only peer out a crack to see a mass of twelve guards -coming from all corners of the level – standing in one spot trying to figure out what all the hubbub was about.
Dishonored 2’s stealth and detection system’s interactions are constrained to a point of imbalance, never truly working in tandem. Dishonored 2 is quite obviously crafted to be more of a stealth oriented game, but the clash of these illogical detections and inconsistent levels of character and object noises (knocking over a trash can sounds like a grenade exploding) pushes the player to forgo being a ninja and become more of a samurai.
As I grew tired of reading the condensed gameplay tips on the recurring loading screen that I adamantly re-assured myself would lead to an eventual positive outcome in my stealthy pursuits. I decided that enough was enough and pulled out my blade and went to work. The ease of taking off someone’s head or stabbing them in the gullet is far too simple. Running forward headlong at the enemy is enough to overcome the adversity that faces you, spamming the attack button will get you very far as most battles boil down to enemies not blocking properly and a final execution animation so that the enemy can’t escape your clutches. There are plenty of other gadgets in your repertoire that you grow accustomed to, but their weight in combat is rather absent. Firing an Incendiary bolt or getting a Pistol headshot is all well and satisfying, but a sword strike would do just as well with fewer resources used. Combat is a clunky and unrewarding show of brutality with no substance or tact to it. Enemies fall dead with few hits and leave the player thinking if that’s all there really was too it? I was hoping to achieve a feeling of “Oh! I can’t believe I just done that” however, all I got was a “Ugh…. I can’t believe I just done that”.
The only thing that propelled me forward was the intuitive, yet elaborate, levels that Arkane Studios have masterfully crafted. Most areas will have you roaming streets and towns looking for individuals to slice up, jumping into apartment buildings and store fronts in a freeroam formality akin to Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. However, it’s some of the later levels that stopped me in my tracks just to have me look around and appreciate the craftsmanship of it all. One such level is Jindosh’s Mansion, a clockwork contraption of moving walls and sliding tapestry; a living labyrinthine puzzle that can have you lost for hours. Walls will fold in and out on top of you at the flick of a switch turning a grand hall into a mechanical art gallery, or a bathroom into an armoury. You can even fit in between the cracks of the walls to see how it would all logically operate, as if constructed in the real world; a “Level Up” on level design. One later levels make use of time travel in a unique way by overlaying the same exact level with two separate designs of past (pristine) and present (dilapidated). Using a device you can slip in an out of the past with the flick of a button, spawning in behind a guard in the past to quickly subdue him then jump back to the present, out of sight.
Even if you aren’t all that for exploration or even feel intimidated by Dishonored 2’s freeroam level design then nothings stopping you from firing onward, following the waypoint set out for you. Even so, you might still want to consider taking the occasional detour to pick up some Bone Charms or Runes for leveling up. These detours don’t have to be exasperatingly long either, as you have an equipment piece that shows you where all the collectables are. Leaving plenty of time to get on with what you wish to do. Runes are artifacts crafted from whalebone used to learn new abilities or upgrade existing ones, whilst Bone Charms act as accessories that can potentially be good and bad, increasing max health at the hindrance of depleting your mana reserves. Receive more damage but deal more too. You know, that sort of thing.
Ultimately, I was shocked by the overall design for Dishonored 2, from the creation of the environments of Karnaca to the way the A.I. interacts with the player and the world as a whole. Being in awe to the architecture of Dunwall’s palace to the offshore, prestigious mansion houses of Karnaca – I was simply mesmerised. I could not, however, bring myself to enjoy the moment to moment gameplay that Dishonered 2 had to offer. Choosing either to go stealthy had me constantly on edge for buggy interactions of A.I detection from nonsensical things. Or, going all Rambo and hacking and gunning down my opposition with far too much ease that the experience left me feeling empty and unrewarded. Being a fan of the original Dishonored, my disbelief in how Dishonored 2 performed on my end was eye opening to say the least. Maybe a few patches down the road could make Dishonored 2 more malleable to a consumer like myself but until then I’ll be setting my second playthrough aside and moving on to better and more operable videogames.