I’m a big enough man to admit that my review of the original Dishonored was a little on the harsh side. Indeed, it was deliberately so, since I felt at the time that the universal praise it was receiving from all practically all quarters of the internet was a little bit over the top and wanted to provide some balance. And so I went to town on Dishonored’s structural problems and gave it a thorough kicking, and in the process glossed over far too much of what it did that actually worked, and worked well. Much of that has only really become apparent to me in hindsight as I’ve played other games that have tried similar things only to stuff them up quite badly, but that’s just made me quite excited for the Dishonored 2: the first one was a good game with some serious flaws, but what are sequels for if not fixing what you couldn’t get quite right the first time around?
It’s true that where Dishonored 1 was a good game, Dishonored 2 is a great game. Like, genuine classic levels of great. It’s certainly the best Thief-alike I’ve ever played, and is in many respects far better than the original Thief games themselves; that’s not really a fair comparison to Thief as it is nearly two decades old and had to do the hard work of establishing that sub-genre in the first place, but Dishonored 2 being the first game in eighteen years to come along and almost effortlessly swipe that crown says a lot about the quality of both games. It’s how Dishonored 2 manages to make that leap from good to great that has surprised me, though, as instead of making any big changes to address the problems with the original it’s instead doubled down on everything — both the things it did well and the things I felt were a handicap for it — with only minor tweaks to existing mechanics to try and smooth them out a little bit.
For most other games this would simply mean more of the same, and for almost any other game I’d be even more critical a second time around thanks to a perceived failure to innovate. Even the plots are largely identical: Dishonored 2 takes place fifteen years after series protagonist Corvo’s coup-induced murder/sleepy-time rampage in the first game, and it kicks off with… another coup. Corvo is now both Royal Protector and Royal Spymaster, and he once again fails utterly at both roles when he first fails to notice half of the royal guard force being subverted by the evil witch Delilah1 and her stooge of a Duke, and then fails to stop them just walking into the palace and killing everyone who might potentially disagree with Delilah taking the throne. Fortunately this time around the Empress Emily Kaldwin is far from being a helpless child; she’s a fully-trained assassin in her own right and so this time around you get to choose to play through the game as either Emily or Corvo — the one you don’t pick is conveniently turned to stone by Delilah so they don’t have to be in the story any more, but on the plus side the one you do pick is fully-voiced throughout the game which removes the “idiot protagonist” complaint I had about the first Dishonored – after which they flee the palace and get on a boat to the southern city of Karnaca to start unravelling the conspiracy behind the coup and eliminating the conspirators.
In mechanical terms the choice between Emily and Corvo is an interesting one. Most games would make one of them the stealth character and the other the combat character and lock them into fairly static playstyles based off that one choice at the very start of the game, but while Dishonored is certainly about heavily incentivising a certain style of play thanks to its heavy-handed Chaos system it balks at actively dictating your options in any way. So Emily’s set of Outsider-granted eldritch powers very slightly leans towards being stealthy, but there’s nothing particularly non-lethal about her and she can mix it up in a fight just as well as Corvo can. Conversely Corvo does get some perfectly good stealth options of his own, they just happen to be a little more situational than Emily’s. There is a significant difference in what they can do since each of them has a very different powerset, but how those powers are used is left entirely up to the player. The focus has been on making the powers interesting in and of themselves rather than trying to force the player down a particular path.
As to the specifics of what those powers do: Emily arguably has the better selection, with Domino (linking together up to four enemies so that killing one of them kills all of them) and Doppelganger (summon up to two shades of Emily to fight alongside her) allowing for all sorts of chicanery such as Domino-ing your own Doppelganger with some guards and then killing it, or summoning a Doppelganger mid-fall to break it via a Drop Assassination. Corvo’s powers are a sort of greatest-hits selection from the original Dishonored with Blink, Rat Swarm, Possession and Bend Time all making a second appearance; Emily is no slouch in the mobility stakes herself, however, as she gets Far Reach (throw out a tether to either pull yourself to the target point or pull your target towards you) and Shadow Walk (morph into a stealthier shadow form that moves quickly and can fit into those tiny rat gratings). The difference between Blink and Far Reach is what really sums up the difference between Emily and Corvo, I think; they’re both fairly similar in function, being primarily used to zip around Dishonored 2’s vast levels, but where Blink is almost 100% focused on ethereal movement — and is way better than Far Reach in that regard — Far Reach opens up far more opportunities for fucking with enemies and the environment in general.
(Mind you, I’m not calling Corvo’s powerset boring in any way. No powerset that lets me literally stop time, fire off six crossbow bolts, back off a little to watch them just hanging in mid-air, and then restart time to watch them all score simultaneous perfect headshots could possibly be called boring. I just think Emily’s carries off the fine Arkane tradition of asshole physics a little bit better, is all.)
The powers are backed up with a range of weapons and gadgets that, again, we’ve mostly seen before in Dishonored. If you’re playing lethally you get to use a sword, a pistol, a crossbow, incendiary bolts for the crossbow, springrazor mines, grenades and sticky grenades. If you’re playing non-lethally you get, uh, stun mines and sleep darts. This would be my number one complaint about Dishonored 2: there has been an absolute shitload of time spent on making lethal gameplay so fluid and fun and giving you all of these little toys and abilities to play with, and then if you’re playing non-lethally you get two gadgets which are in extremely short supply (you can only carry five sleep darts and three stun mines at a time), meaning that most of the time that a lethal player would spend dismembering guards in any one of a hundred gruesome ways is instead spent choking them out again and again and again. It gets more than a little bit repetitive after a while. I don’t necessarily think the relative paucity of interesting non-lethal options is a huge problem in and of itself since a non-lethal playstyle should be a personal choice for the player to make — doing things the non-lethal way has been an interesting gameplay challenge ever since Deus Ex, but while characters in Deus Ex made moral judgements on how you were playing the game itself did not, and so you were perfectly free to play one way or another.
It’s here that the thing I hated so much about Dishonored comes back to bite it in the ass, though: the Chaos system is back, and while it’s a little less blunt in how it is applied it’s still a ridiculously gamey way to splice in a morality system. People do now have individual Chaos scores that are linked to the secrets that the Heart whispers to you whenever you thrust it in their general direction — so killing somebody who drowns cats is going to be worth less Chaos than somebody who saved their rations to feed starving orphans or whatever — but since those attributes are randomly-determined rather than being authored by a designer it still boils down to kill more people = higher Chaos rating. It might have been interesting if the Chaos ratings were distributed in an intelligent way that, if a player figured them out, would allow a perfectly murderous approach to a situation. Unfortunately that’s not the case, and since low Chaos results in the good ending and high Chaos results in the bad ending — and they are very unambiguously so — you’re heavily pushed towards playing non-lethally if you give the tiniest iota of a shit about the outcome of your actions and don’t want the empire to slide into the toilet the moment you’re done clearing up the conspiracy.
So the plot is the same, the gadgets are mostly the same, nothing has been done to fix the those big structural issues I had with Dishonored 1 and the powers, while very good, probably wouldn’t be enough to save Dishonored 2 all on their own. Why, then, did I spend so much time singing Dishonored 2’s praises in the opening paragraphs? Well, it’s because while all of those things are quite important to how a Thief-style game functions, none of them are anywhere near as critical as the level design; Thief itself would have been nothing more than a curiosity if it didn’t have levels like Lord Bafford’s Manor and Shipping And Receiving2 to show off its mechanics in the best possible way. And while the strengths and flaws of the mechanics are much the same as they were in the original Dishonored, the level design has improved to a frankly ridiculous degree. It’s astonishing how good Dishonored 2’s levels are, really; there are “only” nine of them in the game but they’ll each take multiple hours to work your way through all of their nooks and crannies, and of the nine I think there are three that can instantly be regarded as all-time classics. Two more just barely miss that mark and merely qualify as “really fucking good”, and the nastiest thing I can say about Dishonored 2’s worst level (annoyingly it’s the opening one) is that it felt a little average in comparison to the rest of it.3
Let’s talk about the Clockwork Mansion as an example; this is probably the best mission in the game (although it’s a damn close-run thing between this and A Crack In The Slab) and will have a shitload of articles and blogposts written about it in the future trying to dissect why it’s so good, so I don’t feel all that guilty by getting a headstart and spoiling it a little bit. The Clockwork Mansion is the home of a genius inventor on the side of the conspiracy called Jindosh, who is responsible for building the clockwork soldiers that have featured quite heavily in the publicity for Dishonored 2. Emily/Corvo have to infiltrate the mansion to eliminate Jindosh to cut off the supply of soldiers while rescuing an ally in the process. The level opens with you making your way to the mansion through the streets of Karnaca; probably half of the levels in Dishonored 2 start this way, and it’s used as a freeform opportunity to tool up via black market shops and maybe pick up some extra intelligence/side objectives before tackling the meat of the mission itself. Once you enter the mansion, however, the tenor of the level changes completely. This is the home of one of Dishonored’s renaissance men, and he’s constructed his abode to incorporate particular elements of his genius – and his madness. The reason it is called The Clockwork Mansion becomes abundantly clear the moment you walk through the front door and are confronted with an apparent dead end, with only a solitary lever for company. As soon as you pull the lever everything changes, and literally so — you’re suddenly surrounded by the clanking of clockwork as the walls judder backwards, a balcony appears, stairs rise from the floor and the ceiling is hoisted upwards to form an appropriately grand atrium. This clues you into the level’s big gimmick, but it’s a fantastic one: the entire mansion really is constructed of clockwork and you can change its configuration on the fly by pulling these levers to alter the layout of the rooms inside it, and the level designers have exploited this conceit to the hilt when laying out paths through the level.
I’ll use my own experience as an illustration. The first time I went through the mansion I played it completely straight, as I imagine most people will. When you pull that first lever you’re greeted over the mansion’s PA system by Jindosh, as activating the mansion has alerted him to your presence; he’s wired into all of it thanks to it being constructed almost entirely of clockwork mechanisms stuffed full of sensors for testing his clockwork soldiers, and he makes suitably snide comments on your progress as you make your way through the mansion. I blew up the two clockwork soldiers he sent after me (if nothing else I was happy to finally find a use for my grenades here), snuck downstairs into a greeting room, choked out a couple of guards, teleported up to a balcony and through into Jindosh’s bedroom, choked out a couple more guards, took an elevator down into the dedicated testing area for the clockwork soldiers, and then bypassed a Wall of Light to get to yet another elevator that led to the service area for Jindosh’s lab, from where I was able to make a clean kill. That’s a quick explanation of my first run that glosses over a lot of playing with mechanisms to figure out how the mansion was put together, but you can play the entire thing without really deviating from how you’d play a typical Dishonored level.
The second run couldn’t have been more different, though. There’s an achievement for taking out Jindosh without him ever knowing you’re there, so you have to somehow get into the mansion without pulling that first lever to get yourself out of that initial dead end. Obviously this is possible, but the implementation of how you do it really opened my eyes to what a good level it is: the interchangeable clockwork features of the mansion aren’t just videogame jiggery-pokery, but are instead actual mechanisms inside the building that somebody has gone in and designed and put into the level. I know this because the way you get that achievement is by using your noggin to enter the spaces behind the walls — in which you can see the various wall segments, display cases etc. when they’re not in use and have been stored away in a rather mechanistic fashion that aids their clockwork deployment — and using them to proceed through the mansion away from Jindosh’s prying eyes (and most of the guards), which at the same time provides you with a wonderful sense of having peeked behind the curtain to see what the secret is.
Speaking of secrets, this is another thing this level (and Dishonored 2 in general) does incredibly well and you have to keep a particularly attentive eye on the shifting walls as they change from one configuration to another to figure out where everything is hidden. The hunt for loot is a significant driving force behind your exploration — as it should be in any decent Thief-alike — and there’s also very large chunks of backstory hidden a surprisingly long way away from the beaten path, which I found quite refreshingly contrary to prevailing trends in modern game design.4 Dishonored 2’s plot really isn’t anything to write home about, but its world is a different matter and its levels are absolutely seeping with incidental flavour thanks to the excellent visual design, the level layouts and these hidden bits and pieces of background info all blending together into something that actually feels halfway natural. It’s let down a little bit by the ending, and if I’d known how perfunctory it was going to be I probably wouldn’t have cared quite so much about keeping things in a Low Chaos state, but it’s also packed with a ton of little reactive bits and pieces that change based on concrete things that you’ve done in the game. I thought this was a far better way of dealing with choice and consequence than the “you killed too many people so you get the bad ending now” Chaos system, and it ensured that I didn’t feel too bad about the game finishing on something of a low note; the fact that the first thing I did after finishing it was to immediately start another playthrough is evidence enough that it didn’t put me off that much.
Dishonored 2 can be best summed up as “Dishonored, but with the best non-linear FPS level design ever.” Dishonored 2 might not change your opinion on the Dishonored series at all; if you fundamentally disagreed with the first one then playing the second probably isn’t going to result in some Damascene conversion as they’re very similar in their moment-to-moment gameplay. Fortunately the moment-to-moment gameplay of the first Dishonored was fun enough that, when combined with the supercharged levels of Dishonored 2, I think it’s created something truly outstanding. Certainly it’s now more than good enough for me to be able to overlook the crap parts that I wrote that long rant about back in 2012; they’re still present and they’re still annoying, it’s just that the rest of it is so good that they do rather pale into insignificance now. Dishonored 2 is a game that will, if there’s any justice, be talked about for years to come. Time will tell whether those conversations are conducted in the same hushed tones of reverence used to talk about Thief, but for my money it’s even better, and while eighteen years is a long time to wait for a Thief-beater I can’t help but be pleased that one has finally come along at last.
- Who is apparently a character from the Dishonored DLC that I never played. ↩
- Yeah I know this one was in Thief 2. ↩
- In fact it felt like a level from Dishonored 1, which is hopefully indicative of how much things have changed for the better here. ↩
- Namely, “Don’t waste time authoring content that 95% of your players will never see.” Which is understandable, but I really love that Arkane are having none of it and have stuffed in some really big and awesome secrets for particularly inquisitive players. ↩