It’s been 15 years since Royal Protector and Master Assassin Corvo Attano was framed for the murder of his Empress. Her daughter, Emily, was stolen away and a cruel Regent put in her place. Now, Emily rules over her small empire, with Corvo watching over her. Unfortunately for the pair, as Dishonored 2 begins, history starts to repeat itself.
Dishonored 2 has every chance of joining our list of the best PC gaming has to offer.
Betrayal, usurpers, a nasty frame job – familiar story beats make this The Force Awakens to Dishonored’s A New Hope. But if you’re concerned that this means Arkane’s sequel is a bit conservative, don’t be. Dishonored 2 is one of the best stealth-action games ever made.
Much of what made the original game such a success has been thankfully retained, but at double the size. Emily and Corvo’s new adventure has allowed the developers to lavish it with improvements and unexpected twists, leaving it as novel as it is dense. The first of these is the ability to not just play as a no longer mute Corvo, but Emily as well, and it’s an incredibly welcome change. Stephen Russell (Garrett from Thief) and Erica Luttrell (Steven Universe’s Sapphire) put in admirable performances as the duo, emphasising the game’s personal stakes in a way the first did not.
While the game’s missions are the same regardless of the character, they provide differences in both perspective and abilities. Corvo has his tricks from the first game, while Emily’s sinister skills are more shadowy and manipulative in nature. This obviously gives you even more reasons to replay the game. There were plenty of pre-existing ones too, like taking different routes, of which there are many, or choosing to play either as a pacifist or murderer, depending on how you went through your first run.
A new game also means a new playground, and Karnaca is every bit Dunwall’s equal. The coastal city is a vertical sandbox rich in hidden dangers, winding alleys, and expansive town squares with spotlight towers, which you’ll mostly see from rooftops and balconies as you attempt to avoid the ever-vigilant guards. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Dishonored 2’s enemies ‘intelligent’, which is good because if we’re honest with ourselves, properly smart foes would probably turn a stealth game into a nightmare. What they are, however, is alert, reactive, and blessed with much better vision than their predecessors. If you peek around a corner, for instance, they’ll eventually spot you, and when they are hunting you down, they are dogged pursuers, investigating nooks and crannies and working together.
Ultimately, it’s still relatively easy to escape after being spotted, but when it often comes at the cost of health and energy (and the vials that refill the meters), it still feels like a mark against you if you’re going for a full stealth playthrough.
Karnaca is very much Dishonored 2’s third protagonist, and occasional cruel antagonist. It’s filled to the brim with character and striking scenery: the blood-soaked trenches near the fish market, the towering windmills that power the city’s various mechanical elements (welcome back, Walls of Light), and a monorail system with quaint carriages that evoke their horse-drawn counterparts. Though it may be blessed with distinct areas and buildings, the city is nevertheless a cohesive, logical place, making planning routes across rooftops and down alleys fun rather than frustrating.
On your way to missions, you’ll be able to explore different districts of the city in the most free-form part of the game. It’s in these hubs you’ll prepare for your mission by purchasing new equipment and upgrades for your pistol and crossbow in shops, which you can also rob, get extra information, and find secondary objectives.
These areas are sprawling playgrounds, perfect for testing out any new abilities that you might have unlocked by spending Runes scattered all over the world. Their open nature, neutral, enemy free areas, and lots of places to hide in mean that exploration is significantly less stressful, which makes it easier to get to grips with the game’s constantly expanding mechanics.And as you dip in and out of buildings, most likely through windows left carelessly open, you’ll learn more about the world, largely through some exceptional environmental storytelling. No space has been ignored, and Karnaca feels like one of the most lived-in and tangible cities I’ve had the good fortune to explore.
Letters, books, corpses and grisly tableaus subtly fill in the blanks, teaching you about the city’s history and the trials and tribulations of the residents. Perhaps more importantly, these things also provide key information for your next mission. Letting the world itself do much of the heavy lifting, narrative-wise, means that the game avoids tiresome exposition and long, drawn-out conversations, so it never feels like you’re waiting around for interesting things to happen.
In fact, surprise is Dishonored 2’s greatest weapon. It’s Corvo’s and Emily’s as well, obviously, but I’m specifically referring to Arkane’s ability to treat each mission and city hub as an excuse to introduce interesting features and enemies. Little is recycled, and as a result the game constantly keeps your attention. There’s always something new and exotic waiting right around the corner. A labyrinthine clockwork mansion that shifts and rises as levers are pulled; mechanical warriors with spindly legs and terrifying, bird-like skulls; sneaky witches, complete with demonic canine pets and monstrous plant servants; time travel! Yes, a level featuring time travel. The latter might be one of the most ingenious levels ever designed, which I would also have said about the clockwork mansion if, a few hours later, I hadn’t become a time traveller.
Arkane have shown off this time travel feature in videos, but if you want to go in blind, look away for a paragraph.
Ok, are they gone? Folks, let’s talk about about timey-wimey stuff. In the second half of the game, you’ll end up in a ruined mansion, with most of its rooms completely blocked by impassable obstacles. Luckily, you’re given a device that lets you see the past, when the mansion was still enjoying its glory days, through a strange, gossamer lense. The device’s second feature lets you travel back to that time. Not only does this open up previously impenetrable routes, you’ll also have to jump between past and present to avoid guards, set up ambushes, and even make dramatic changes to the timeline. It strikes a perfect balance between making you feel incredibly powerful, while introducing new challenges that require lateral thinking to overcome. This is the sort of massive feature entire games are designed around, but in Dishonored 2, it’s been created as a single mission’s hook, completely transforming how you’ll play the game temporarily, before moving on to the next surprise.
You can come back now!
There are just so many ‘Holy crap!’ moments contained within the game’s 12-20 hours that it sort of boggles the mind. It makes the otherwise fantastic Deus Ex: Mankind Divided or Metal Gear Solid V seem almost pedestrian. And this isn’t really a criticism of those games; it’s just that Dishonored 2 is at a whole new level. It helps, of course, that the game is quite short, even though it’s almost double the size of its predecessor, giving Arkane more time to make each mission unique.
Even more impressive, then, is just how much freedom is offered to players as they navigate these diverse, hand-crafted levels. Dishonored 2 effortlessly transitions between stealth and action, and is just as enjoyable when you’re throwing caution to the wind and constantly getting into fights as it is when you’re trying to avoid all conflict entirely. When you make a mistake and all hell breaks loose, instead of feeling like a huge failure, it’s a chance to play with different toys and abilities. Stealth makes way for exhilarating, fast-paced action, and the transformation is seamless. This is a stealth game that I’d honestly recommend to people who don’t really enjoy stealth games, because there’s a multitude of gadgets and powers that cause mayhem, from grenades and mines to fancy bullets that terrify and blind, and the action is incredibly refined.
Indeed, even some ostensibly sneaky powers can be augmented, giving them incredibly unsubtle, but ultimately satisfying, extra abilities. Take Emily’s Far Reach power (essentially Corvo’s Blink), for example. Spend four Runes, and you’ll be able to teleport out of danger or to previously unreachable locations, avoiding enemies and obstacles. Spend a few more Runes, however, and you can start using the power to pull items toward you. A few more, and you’ll be able to do the same with humans, yanking them into the air and onto your hungry blade. It might not be stealthy, but crikey, it’s fun.
There are consequences to engaging with your more bloodthirsty side, though. The more you kill, especially if your victims are ‘good’, and the more you are noticed by enemies, the more chaos you spread. This makes Corvo or Emily more jaded and violent, while also contributing to a darker ending and a more dangerous world. This does not feel like a punishment, however, instead just making Karnaca more reactive. Personally, I like to mix it up a little. Some levels I’m the picture of sneakiness, and in others I’m a whirlwind of death and destruction, slitting throats, getting into tense duels, throwing people through windows. All the neat party tricks.
You can get very creative, too. My go-to ability for mischief-making as Emily is Domino, which allows you to connect enemies or NPCs together, so they all share the same fate. Thus, one bullet can be used to kill three people. Below is a wee clip of me using it to avoid using even one bullet.
While the ability to create clones, hypnotise enemies and even transform into a horrific shadow monster that rips foes in half are all wonderful, it’s just as often the simpler things that make Dishonored 2 such a joy to play. Traversal is buttery smooth, with Corvo and Emily effortlessly climbing, leaping and sliding their way through missions. Basic combat is flashy and responsive, where victory requires well-timed strikes and liberal use of your block, which can also be used to parry and counter guards. Fights can be very difficult when you’re surrounded by enemies with guns and swords, but Emily and Corvo’s combat prowess means that even inexperienced players should be able to pull off impressive moves and feel incredibly deadly. It’s a good thing too, because I expect a few of you will fancy the challenge of playing through the entire game without the Mark of the Outsider, and thus unable to use any abilities.
If you choose this extra-challenging path, you’d better be prepared to be as stealthy as possible. Being a master sneak requires, obviously, staying low, moving softly, and sticking to the shadows or, better yet, the rafters, balconies and roofs. Sometimes, however, being loud will also save your ass. Enemies react immediately and logically to sound, so a smashed bottle or thrown object can serve as a life-saving distraction, turning heads long enough for you to sneak by. This is where clutter becomes very handy. The game is filled with junk items, bottles, alarm clocks, and interactive objects that, at first don’t seem to serve a purpose, but quickly become solutions to stealth puzzles. The environment is part weapon, part distraction, and begs to be played with.
Not all foes are as easy to distract, though. There are the aforementioned mechanical warriors, the Clockwork Knights, which are tough to kill and can see behind them, but the worst of the lot is the seemingly humble, but utterly grotesque, Bloodfly. These large insects are born from corpses, and create elaborate, alien nests throughout the city. In small numbers, they are largely passive, but a swarm is utterly deadly. They react to proximity and sound, and as you get closer, they change colour and their buzzing grows louder, deafening and intimidating. They serve as an effective metaphor for the corruption at the heart of Karnaca, the cruel Duke, the usurper Delilah’s closest ally. But they also represent the transformative power of death that’s central to the game’s narrative.
Corvo and Emily’s greatest power is not their magic, but their willingness to kill however many people it takes to achieve their goals. And through assassination and murder, they remake the world. Seeing the impact of their one-person war against Delilah and the Duke is empowering, and also a little terrifying.
I got a bit distracted, navel-gazing about metaphors, when the main reason I mentioned the Bloodflies was to give me an excuse to continue to write about the game’s excellent sound design. Surviving in a building full of Bloodflies, especially if you’ve run out of flammable liquids or incendiary bolts, requires listening to their buzzing, and it’s no different when you’re dealing with humans. Footsteps, whistling and brief conversations are alerts, and help you create a vague mental map of enemy placement. And those conversations also do something rather horrible: they humanise people that you might want to kill.
It can be a bit harder to shove a sword into a guard’s neck after you’ve heard them nattering away to their pals. And if it gets too much for you, do not, whatever you do, use the Heart on them. It returns from Dishonored, showing you where to find the Runes and bone carvings that unlock abilities, upgrades and perks, but it also serves a secondary, creepier purpose. Squeeze it and it will make observations about the world. Direct it at a person, and it will tell you what’s in their heart.
He was the only person to jump overboard to save a drowning woman. He needed to buy medicine for his dying daughter, but only made it as far as the pub. She would do anything for her husband. He loves his wife. They love their kids. Sometimes the heart speaks of tragedy, of flaws, but also of heroism or passion. It’s disturbing, and I’ve stayed my blade several times because a talking heart told me that a digital person cared about their fictional family. On other occasions, however, it has helped me justify killing someone, which is equally troubling.
It’s just a shame that for such a smart, inventive game, its PC port does come with some problems (check out our port review for a more in-depth look at this).
Players have been complaining of several issues relating to the frame rate, some which will undoubtedly be on the user side, but there are so many that it’s clear there are some noticeable performance issues. I’ve been one of the lucky ones, though. On high and medium settings with my 970, and with HBAO+ turned off, I get an acceptable frame rate most of the time. But it does bounce around. A lot. It might be 50 one moment, and then 100 the next, though it’s generally lower. I’ve also had an issue with a specific area, the Dust District, which caused my frame rate to tank, sometimes going below 30. And more annoyingly, the graphics options just don’t seem to matter. Only a few elements seem to make any difference, and even they sometimes don’t change anything.
It’s especially frustrating because Dishonored 2 has so clearly been created by attentive hands, but its performance obviously needs to be addressed. And I’m only able to tell you this after it’s launched, because Bethesda’s new policy, purposefully or not, allows them to hide issues. There’s no way to know how it will run on your system, it’s that inconsistent, so your best bet is to test it out and maybe get a refund on Steam if there are too many issues. The worst thing that will happen is you’ll be briefly disappointed, which is a small risk to take for such an impressive game.
In a lot of cases, these technical problems would necessitate a slightly lower score, but after doing a lot of thinking, I find myself unable to give Dishonored 2 anything less than the highest accolade that I can. It is, by a significant margin, the best game I have played this year, and you owe it to yourself to take a trip to Karnaca at the earliest possible opportunity.