Hollingworth: Arkane’s return to the world of its hit first person stealth action game manages a lot of impressive tricks. It gives you not one, but two playable characters, with some very dramatically different powers; it leaves Dunwall for the sunnier and wholly fresh climes of Karnaca, birthplace to one Corvo Attano; and it offers a whole third way to play.
We know about the high and low chaos options, whereby the world reacts to you if you’re a bloody maniac. There’s the various axes of stealth and action, lethal and nonlethal, and the now richer than ever cornucopia of powers opens up some incredibly emergent gameplay. However, early on in the game, you can make a very interesting choice – to play the game with no powers at all.
This is remarkable on a number of levels. From a storytelling point of view, it gives the player incredible control. Though the game unfolds the same way regardless of your choice, giving The Outsider the finger and writing wrongs the old-fashioned way is a big choice. It’s also impressive from a level-design perspective – these are levels that designed to be accessed by not only a range of powers, but none at all.
Dishonored is far from perfect, but when I realised the above, I was a little in awe. Daniel, did you tell The Outsider where he could stick his stinking powers?
Wilks: Nope. I like my Dishonored to be a crazy power fantasy, so I sucked up my pride and accepted the cryptic emo jerk’s offer. There’s a nice little fudge at the beginning that lets you choose between Corvo and Emily. After a rather unsatisfying and abrupt cutscene that sees Emily dethroned and labelled a traitor (all in the span of a few minutes), Corvo is turned to stone by evil otherworldly sorcery. While this hints that Emily should be the focus of an initial playthough, you can choose either character, rendering the other a rather unattractive lump of rock.
I had my fill of Corvo’s powers in the previous game, so choosing Emily seemed the right course for me. Although roughly analogous to Corvo’s suite of abilities, Emily’s are different enough to require entirely new strategies to progress. The base skill, Far Reach, functions somewhat like Corvo’s Blink ability, but has a truncated range and can be upgraded to pull objects or enemies to Emily. I upgraded Far Reach fully before investing in any other abilities and that was a wise decision – being able to grab a patrolling enemy from a distance and drag them instantly into an alley for a quick KO really made keeping the chaos low much easier than it otherwise may have been. That said, I did manage to Far Reach and accidentally throw a bunch of people from ledges or into the ocean, so my dreams of a non-lethal stealth playthough quickly went out the window.
Hollingworth: It’s one of the charms of the game, those horrifying accidents. Like, you’re up on a high building, and you need to take out a guard – so you shoot them with a tranq dart… and they fall backwards off the ledge to their death. Or those moments where you get surprised by cut-throats or that one guard you didn’t spot – but no matter badly I screwed up, I’ve never felt like I had to abandon the game and go back to an earlier save. The game is rich enough that you simply assume your failures are part of the fabric of the story. That was true of the first Dishonored, but it’s just as true in its sequel.
But you do touch on something that is definitely not the game’s strong point. The Dishonored franchise, it appears, is built around being a hardy outsider, thrown from the normal world to fight injustice – hopefully without causing too much of your own. In the first game, that’s the assassination of the Empress and the kidnapping of your – and her – daughter. So, suddenly Corvo’s a man with a mission, suspected of killing the Empress, and effectively alone.
Dishonored 2 tries to tell the same tale – a sudden reversal out of nowhere sees Corvo or Emily fleeing to Karnaca, and once again you’re assumed to be the villain of the piece by many people, and you’ve got to make things right and save your father/daughter. Only this time the plotting feels much looser, more of a convenience to get you alone and saving the Empire again.
I think that’s easily the game’s weakest link.
Wilks: Definitely. Each chapter seems designed not so much to tell a compelling story but rather to lead to a cool location or setpiece. In this respect the game really doesn’t disappoint. The clockwork tower in which one mission a few hours into the game takes place is amazing. Pulling levers and activating switches completely changes the topography of the building, necessitating the player masters the use of the switches to make their way up and down the tower. Of course, with a little exploration you can also find your way between the walls and into the machinery behind the transformations, giving players another approach. Or you could approach the building in the way I did, Far Reaching out of windows onto ledges and making my way up from the outside as often as possible.
The level design is, with few exceptions, excellent. I never felt hemmed in during my playthrough as there were so many avenues of approach that I could always find a way to reach my destination or target. The only problem I had was trying to find my way back to some of the hidden areas I’d bypassed due to lack of appropriate skills or gear. A way to place a waypoint on the map would have been nice for this, but that’s a pretty small gripe.
Did you find yourself limited in approach due to taking the no power option?
Hollingworth: Obviously you can’t just Blink across a street to avoid those pesky guards, no, but all that means is that you need to be a lot more prepared whenever you tackle a level. Spending time observing guards and their patterns can pay off, while exploring back streets and listening in on conversations can also reveal some handy tips for alternate routes to your destination.
As I said, the excellent level design means there’s always a way to approach a level without powers, but the game compensates you in other ways. You can still use the bonecharms scattered around the map – though I continue to feel they’re largely not worth the hassle of tracking down – but the runes convert straight into cash-money. This means you’re more cashed up than those players who take the Outsider’s angsty gift – you can buy more upgrades faster, afford more ammunition, and even toss a few coins at hungry beggars – another sure way to receive good intel.
So, without powers, yes – you’re basically Batman, and I am totally okay with this. Playing without powers makes the game a much grittier experience, and since the main villain of the piece is similarly gifted, it actually makes you feel like you’re taking the moral high ground. It also helps that I am aiming for as low a chaos level as possible, and many of your targets can be gotten out of the way non-lethally. That said, some folks just have to die and I gladly shot Paulo in the head from a ledge without even thinking about it.
Which brings me to one of the other weaker points of the game -– combat. Shooting stuff is fine, especially when you start getting nifty grenades and a whole mess of funky new crossbow bolts – but the swordplay feels really pedestrian compared to the rest of the game. Maybe it’s because I’m relying on it so much, but it’s a little boring.
Are you finding that?
Wilks: Swordplay isn’t really a thing in Dishonored. It’s a game built around single hit kills by and large, so any confrontation that lasts beyond that first hit feels kind of shoddy. Wow, that just sounded like I was saying “you’re playing it wrong!”, but that’s not what I meant. Basically I think this idea of combat being a one hit thing has forced Arkane into a corner a little, so instead of having a fully implemented melee system they have left it as basic as possible, with a block and an attack (and charged attack). It’s functional, but any lengthy engagement is a bit ho-hum.
I think the lack of real swordplay is probably exacerbated by the lack of powers. Get attacked when you have powers and you can possess your foes, teleport away, create a doppelganger and escape in the confusion or what have you. Without those options you’re kind of stuck with bashing away with the sword. While I really like the idea of a powerless playthrough, I think the game really has been designed with powers in mind. For me, it’s when you create those Rube Goldberg machines of carnage (or confusion if you’re going for low chaos) using powers that the game world really comes alive.
That said, I’m not the biggest fan of the way upgrades work. Hunting for bone charms and runes is more of a hassle than a reward. Having to pull out the heart to locate nearby goodies locks you off from other abilities so you’re constantly switching to the heart and back to another power to keep going. If the heart was an innate ability things would flow so much more smoothly. I guess that’s one of the major benefits of going the unpowered route - you don’t have to keep hunting for runes to access your abilities.
Hollingworth: Regardless of that, I think the non-powered option is a really interesting addition to the game, but hoo-boy am I excited about doing a replay with a fully-powered Emily. I’m generally not much for replaying games – with the first Dishonored being the exception – and Dishonored 2 is arguably even more replayable.
But you’re right about the growing awkwardness of the game’s UI and its limitations on powers. With new types of ammunition, and the heart, and the timepiece (which is featured in arguably the game’s most clever level, better even than the already amazing Clockwork Mansion, for my money...), there’s a lot of fiddling about with menus. Added to this is the game’s inventory management, which seems to try and push players into certain playstyles. You can, for instance, carry 15 normal, lethal crossbow bolts, but you can only ever carry five sleep bolts, and never more. In a game that’s about choice of play, that seems like either an annoying oversight or an outright hindrance on playing low chaos.
I can kind of understand some of those restrictions – aiming to be a good guy should feel a little harder than going full murder hobo – but the inventory system could be a lot better.
That said, these are mere niggles compared with the game’s overall brilliance. None of them are close to game-stoppers. With the year coming to a close, this is certainly looking like one of 2016’s best.
Wilks: I agree - for all my frustration with hunting down the runes and how cursory much of the story seems to be, Arkane has still managed to put together one hell of a game that delivers a degree of freedom not seen in too many action games and a suite of abilities and equipment that give you basically everything you need to play the way you want. Even more impressive, in my experience, failing in your chosen approach often makes the game more fun – trying to sneak around and being spotted by a guard makes you have to think on your feet and use everything you’ve got to your advantage. Do you blink away? Mesmerise the guy? Shoot him in the face, knock him out with a dart, set him on fire? Cut him to bits and toss the remains in a river? Take him hostage to use as a human shield? Maybe a combination thereof or something else that seems more appealing on the spur of the moment.
This frisson between plans and outcomes makes for some truly exciting gameplay, and, like you said David, one of the best games of the year.