Friday, 20 January 2017

Dishonored 2 - Review

Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

Dishonored was a decent game. I say decent, rather than incredible or excellent, because, whilst its non-linear scope was impressive, it suffered from a gameplay system that punished you for doing things “correctly”. Non-lethal, stealthy playthroughs were left with almost no way to play with the game's toys; wasting the assortment of spring razor traps, cool powers and stylish executions.

Meanwhile, going in all guns blazing felt wrong to me somehow, like this wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing; it was making the world actively worse. The gameplay punished you for playing stealthily and the world punished you for indulging your inner-maniac.

Dishonored 2 continues in a similar fashion to the original game, updating the core gameplay and continuing Arkane Studios goal of creating what is effectively a spiritual successor to Thief. The sequel goes one step further even, casting Thief voice actor Stephen Russell as Corvo.

In some respects, Dishonored 2 is less a direct sequel to the original game and more a quasi reboot. Sure, the game takes place after the events of the first game, but it avoids heavily referencing the previous game (presumably because of its multiple decisions/endings) and instead straight up rehashes the game’s plot for the sequel.

Emily’s empire has been stolen from her, again. This time by her mysterious aunt, Delilah Copperspoon. Cue, another revenge tale as Corvo or Emily butcher the new empresses' cohorts and topple the attempted coup. Dishonored 2’s opening is nothing short of clunky. It’s reasonable, but the wonky dialogue and on-the-nose lines do little to endear you to a fairly unlikeable cast of characters.

But then you get to Serkonos and things get demonstrably better. Arkane Studios have a bizarre strength and weakness in their writing and design in that they’re incredibly good at designing worlds that seem lived in, but seem woefully inept at populating those worlds with interesting or believable characters and stories.

That means you get a fabulous sun-dappled city, a stark contrast to the Victorian sprawl of Dunwall, one that’s oozing with atmosphere and buckets of whale blood, only to get vague, underwhelming motivation on who you’re going to kill next.

Although I have to stress, Dishonored 2’s level design is fabulous. Arkane Studios seem conscious of the fact that, whilst their games technically allow you to play however you want, they always run the risk of slipping into the same old routine once you find a strategy that works.

Because of this, it seems each level of the game is designed to push you out of your habits. After the early levels exploring Serkonos, there’s a stand out moment inside a twisting and labyrinthine mansion that seems to turn itself inside out at the flick of a switch. Similarly, one mission later on strips you of all your powers and instead gives you a time-travel device, enabling you to zip back and forth between two time zones at will.

It’s moments like this that show off Arkane Studio's ingenuity. Each unique gimmick or concept is left to breathe just long enough before it’s switched away for something else. The locations likewise, are gorgeous to look at; Sebastien Mitton's designs make for a world that’s genuinely unique. It’s part fantasy steampunk, and part science fiction, but also mixed with curious real-world elements that make the game’s universe feel vibrant and unique in a way that many other game worlds simply don’t.

The gameplay has undergone a similar update since the first game. Corvo returns relatively unchanged from the previous game, maintaining his (incredibly overpowered, to the point of game-breaking) Blink ability, allowing him to zip from one point to another instantaneously.

The more interesting addition this time around is the option to play as Emily Kaldwin. In many respects, her skill set is an attempt to “fix” the more “broken” or overbearing elements of Corvo’s powers that threaten to warp the game. Her teleportation, for instance, isn’t instant, but rather has her throw out a string of dark energy before hoisting herself up to her new destination. Meanwhile, her invisibility skill causes her to melt into the ground and crawl about with two gangly shadow arms creeping across either side of the screen. Think a less sweary, Jackie Estacado from The Darkness games and you’ll not be far off.

The most intriguing aspect about Emily however, is her more creative powers. Doppelganger allows you to summon one or two duplicates that can distract enemies, and even fight them once the skill has been suitably upgraded. More impressive however, is the Domino ability that enables you to “link” multiple characters together; meaning that, should one become unconscious or get killed, so will all the others. It’s incredibly fun to tinker around with these abilities, and there’s plenty of fun to be found, figuring out the most convoluted or tricky way to slip past a bunch of guards.

Despite this though, most of Dishonored 2’s mechanics seem almost unnecessary. All the convoluted power combinations are arguably less efficient than simply loading up on sleep darts, or taking out your targets with a silent knife in the back. Likewise, for those going in heavy, the basic melee combat makes most fights a case of simply mashing away with the attack button.

Worse though is the childish “morality” system that rears its head again. This was never all that impressive in the first game, and the chaos element to each level barely had any noticeable effect other than a slight change to the enemy count and a few visual alterations. Dishonored 2 still makes the mistake of giving you an abundance of ridiculous toys to go stabbing folks with, only to condescendingly wag its finger and tut, tut at you for killing people.

This silliness extends to the plot. I’ve already mentioned the uneven writing, but the fact that the game chooses to explore morality, at least in a superficial way, only to ignore the political and societal complexities that its unique world would provide. This is a game that, for all its posturing, never once questions whether or not Emily should rule an entire city-state as some supposed benevolent dictator. Emily Kaldwin is at best naive and at worst a smug hypocrite; desperately wanting her throne back even as regular people in Dunwall seem to have it just as bad as always.

You might argue that these contradictions don’t matter in a game that’s primarily about sneaking around and stabbing people, and there is perhaps a little justification to that. The problem with Dishonored 2 is that it toys with all these interesting ideas without giving them suitable enough attention. Its world is fascinating and intricately crafted; but the people in it lack any real depth. Meanwhile, the combat and skills enable a morass of different strategic options but most of them are made redundant by the game's dull challenges (guards, and harder robot guards). It has a morality system, sort of, but then doesn’t really do anything with it other than stick more bloodflies in a level if you’ve been killing too many people.

Dishonored 2 has some terrific ideas, and whilst this review has perhaps been more negative than positive, I’ll definitely add the caveat that if you liked the first game, you’ll almost certainly like this. As a hint of what the series could be however, Dishonored 2 is tantalizing but never quite gets there on any front; be it it through its world or its gameplay.


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