Arkane Studios' supernatural stealth sequel takes the formula of the original and improves it in (almost) every way.
Developer: Arkane Studios
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC (reviewed).
Reviewed on: i7-4790k @4.0GHz, GTX 1070 8GB @1.6GHz, 16GB RAM.
When it first launched in 2012, Dishonored was regarded as the game that captured the essence of what makes the stealth action genre so great, and also everything that Eidos Montreal's Thief reboot apparently lacked. With the sequel to Arkane Studios' franchise returning in 2016, a number of changes were brought about to ensure that the already endless freedom granted in the first game was expanded upon even more.
Set 15 years on from where its predecessor left off, Dishonored 2 sees the rightful heir to the throne of Dunwall, Emily Kaldwin, forcibly removed by a woman claiming to be the half-sister of Jessamine Kaldwin, former Empress of Dunwall who lost her life to assassin-for-hire Daud at the very beginning of the Dishonored story. As one of two playable protagonists, the player must slowly pick apart and eliminate each of the key figures responsible for the coup that sees their character on the run, aiming to ultimately free the other from a casing of stone.
Perhaps the biggest changes in Dishonored 2 stem from the breathtakingly beautiful and expansive landscapes that seem far more vast and intricate than anything we've ever previously seen. City streets are lined with tidbits of lore and NPC dialogue that can occasionally grant mission clues, such as the whereabouts of a hidden equipment stash or knowledge on a key assassination target. This is first noticed in the game's second mission, which also serves as an introduction to Karnaca; a new portion of the Empire of the Isles, and your playground. It's a living, breathing world that showcases the technological advancements that have occurred in the time between the two games. What this also means is that the grey and bleak setting of Dunwall that was so prominent in the original title is able to take a backseat for this second outing, hosting only two of the nine missions in the sequel.
Available to the player are more fleshed-out upgrade trees and gear options. Masterwork upgrades provide irreversible but useful character perks such as a damage buff in combat, or more sophisticated optics and sturdier crossbow bolts. They're also the single most expensive upgrades in the game, costing 700 coins each. Once you've installed one of each Masterwork for the traits that allow them, however, you cannot switch them out at a later date.
Combat remains as fluid and fast-paced as ever, with your flurries of sword attacks and parries combined with charged lunge attacks that stagger enemies. In non-lethal stealth playthroughs, the latter also comes in useful against a new form of enemy. As the Tallboys from the original game do not return in Dishonored 2, the void has been filled by a certain Kirin Jindosh; a master of his art, Jindosh is the creator of the patented Clockwork Soldiers - menacing whale-oil-powered killing machines equipped with colossal, sharp blades on each of their four arms. Designed to provide high levels of security within the properties of the extremely wealthy, these are the very first enemies in either of the two games that have the ability to see infront and behind at the same time. This, understandably, throws a spanner in the works of those looking to remain as inconspicuous as possible; even more so if you're gunning for the "Shadow" achievement. Lunge attacks effectively provide a way to neutralise a clockwork enemy without being seen, (and if the attack is carried out in a very specific, meticulous manner) provided you have first removed its head with a well-placed crossbow bolt. Recordings of Jindosh's voice will play as the soldier becomes alerted of your presence or momentarily spooked by a noise in their vicinity, explaining the "emotions" it is currently feeling as you navigate around it.
Whilst the story isn't perhaps the most fantastic element of Dishonored 2, it is helped along quite significantly by the incredible actors and actresses who lend their voice talents to the game. These names include but are not limited to Stephen Russell, Rosario Dawson, Robin Lord Taylor, Pedro Pascal of recent Game of Thrones fame, as well as Vincent D'Onofrio who provides the voice of the scheming leader Duke Luca Abele. He'll often be heard throughout the game on the numerous loudspeakers in Karnaca that blare out his unusual ramblings and passing thoughts to everyone in the city. The exposition on the side, away from the game's main plot, are what makes the experience so special. It's up to you in how much of this information you take in, as the proportions are quite remarkable.
Easily the most impacting issue with Dishonored 2 lies in its technical inconsistencies. Widespread publicity was directed at its poor performance on PC at launch and to some extent, this continues today. As I myself reviewed the game on a system running an 8GB GTX 1070, framerate drops were clearly evident at different intervals, most notably and unsurprisingly when I was moving through large open areas. During my two playthroughs of the game from beginning to end, I could say that the game would run from anywhere between 25 frames per second all the way up to its 120 cap at max settings. Even when I reduced some of the graphics settings including the more hefty lighting and shading options, no real performance gain could be felt; or rather none that seemed worth sacrificing the higher visual fidelity for. All of these issues are likely down to the fact that Arkane have since ditched Unreal Engine 3, seen previously, in favour of their own in-house modification of id Tech 5, branded as the "Void" engine.
No matter how often I reminded myself that the game may have lost frames here or there, I never really felt as if it truly detracted from the overall experience. I by no means endorse the state of the game as it is, however, and I hope that these problems are not present when Prey, Arkane's next project (using CryEngine) arrives in May of 2017. I made do with it during combat and I'd be stretching the truth if I said it had distracted me in any major capacity. Those with graphics cards of less than 6GB of VRAM may want to play the game on console if possible, though.
Dishonored 2 expands significantly on what its older brother was able to offer back in 2012, with more ways to achieve objectives, eliminate targets, and explore the world as a whole. The signature "painting in motion" visual flair is largely lost this time around, but a smart (if choppy) new engine provides equally impressive eye candy throughout. Brave it on PC if you wish, wait for updates, or grab a console copy to play it safe.