(Update: We’ve had a look at the game’s performance, post 1.2 patch. Check that out here.)
“The world is better with a hint of mystery,” one character says towards the end of Dishonored 2, and he’s not wrong. Ironically, this is arguably Dishonored 2‘s biggest misstep: while there are still plenty of mysteries, it answers a few too many of the lingering questions and not-quite-certainties I had about the original game.
Alright, that’s a lie. The biggest misstep is that the PC release is a technical clusterfuck. But that aside, my only real complaints come down to the non-gameplay stuff: the plotting, the pacing, the characters.
The opening sequence is a particularly breathless example of this. Within the course of about two minutes, you’re told about a “Crown Killer” brutally murdering Emily Kaldwin’s political opponents. And the antagonist witch Delilah turns up. And a coup happens. No build-up or explanation to any of these elements: they all just happen, one after another, in a single cutscene – and, hell, one of them is resolved by the end of the second level. To say that the pacing is a little bit shot is an understatement.
While things don’t move quite this quickly throughout, it’s hard to say that Dishonored 2 has anything like the emotional feel of its predecessor (which was hardly a hugely emotional game, but hey, I hated some of those villains). There’s little build-up to anything that happens. With a short few exceptions, characters are incredibly one-note. Even your base in this game, the Dreadful Wale, pales in comparison to the Hound Pits Pub as a between-mission environment to explore and chat to people. On rare occasions there are as many as three characters there, and there’s very little to do. You just get your briefing (which, being that you haven’t been rescued by People With A Plan like the Loyalists, is usually very “here is a bad person, go find a way to deal with them”) and then head off to the next mission.
Minor stuff, I admit, but this was all stuff I liked in Dishonored. I liked hating the villains. I liked spending 15 minutes wandering around the Hound Pits between levels, chatting to people and then sneaking into their bedrooms and reading their diaries. I’m sad that this has gone missing between games. It’s not completely absent, as some of the villains are definitely scum of the highest order, but it’s toned down a lot from how connected I felt to the game world of Dishonored and how much emotional pay-off there was in dealing with a particular piece of awful trash.
The improvements, on the other hand, can pretty much be summed up as Everything Else.
For starters, you get your pick of Corvo and Emily, and it’s a tough decision to make. On the one hand, Emily has a pack of brand-new powers, and some of them allow for genuine hilarity. Most fall into similar categories as Corvo’s – you’ve still got a power that lets you quickly travel great distances, and one that lets you move undetected. It’s just that where Corvo’s blink instantly transports him across space, Emily grows giant shadow tentacles and catapults herself into the air. A minor thing, but it has nuances: you can use momentum to travel much farther, and as you physically travel between the two points, you can be spotted while doing so. And yes, with the right upgrades, you can use those shadow tentacles to yank objects – or people – towards you.
On the other hand, Corvo is voiced by professional gravel-gargler Stephen Russell, which means that if you squint a bit it’s almost like you’re playing a new Thief game. You can even opt not to have supernatural powers, making it even more like a new Thief game. Like I said: tough decision.
The game doesn’t feel skewed towards one character or the other, and both the deposed Empress and the Royal Protector can hold their own either as stealthy ghosts or as sword-flailing murderers. As far as I can tell, areas and shortcuts are never locked to any one character: both have their means of sneaking through rat holes, for instance. I suspect that Emily might have a better chance of completely bypassing sections by hurtling through the air with her magic shadow arms, but this is the sort of game where sequence breaking and massive bypasses are pretty much going to happen anyway, and discovering them is kind of a joy.
You won’t want to do that on your first playthrough, though, because the level design is utterly exquisite. I don’t think it has any single level quite as good as the Boyle party, but that aside, the average level design feels much stronger – which is no small feat.
The first few levels are “standard”, insofar as they offer up a section of the city and one larger building to infiltrate to find your target, but things get mixed up a lot more from then on. Most of the later levels have a new feature, which in a lesser game would feel like a gimmick, but here they tend to alter or enhance your general stealth-action approach. I could name almost every level here as an example, but that would be a little excessive – and since you’ve probably seen the time-warping mansion that was previewed earlier in the year, let’s have a word about the Dust District.
The Dust District is a section of Karnaca that, thanks to invasive mining techniques, is choked in dust. Despite essentially being the “city” section before your actual mission, it’s full-fledged enough that it counts as a level on its own. The Grand Guard have no presence here, so you can wander the streets safely… as long as you don’t stray into the sections occupied either by the Howler gang or the Overseers. Your job is to find your way past a puzzle-locked door, either enlisting the aid of one of the two warring groups, or finding your own way through.
This is unique enough on its own, but there’s another twist: dust storms regularly sweep through the district, completely destroying visibility. Considering the heavily-guarded checkpoints, these periodic vision-destroying clouds push things heavily in your favour. You can perch up high, mentally map out guard locations and the movements you need to make, wait for a storm to sweep through, and then move to your next hiding place unseen. It doesn’t change the fundamentals of the game or detract from the basic “sneak around and kill people or knock them out” principles of what you’re doing. It just provides another welcome twist that you can exploit, and so many of the levels feature little things like this.
Dishonored 2 doesn’t feel fresh simply because of those, though, because even in basic terms the level design is utterly sterling. While there are a few levels with a few too many locked doors and samey corridors (count the number of buildings in the streets that have around four floors, joined by a single stairwell, with maybe one door per floor), all of the “big” locations feel like actual, functional buildings. Considering the technical absurdity of something like the Clockwork Mansion, that’s an astonishing feat.
Even now, having finished the game once on Low Chaos and part-way through on a High Chaos run, I’m staggered by the number of alternate routes and little secrets there are. On my initial run (which took about 16-18 hours, at a guess; it’s skewed a little due to testing framerates and the like) I’d spend five minutes analysing a room layout and figuring out how best to avoid or incapacitate the security, and then I’d make my move. Later, I’d discover that there were two or three entirely different ways I could’ve gone, simplifying the room considerably or outright bypassing it. There are open windows, rat holes, rooftops, secret passages, hidden alcoves, and oh-so-many delicious little extras that make both progression and exploration as much of a joy as actually dealing with a particularly tricky problem.
This goes double for the secrets. Once again, each level has a number of little ambient hidden areas – you might overhear two people talking about a heist they’re planning, and of course, this means you can find the heist location and take the loot for yourself. Many of these rely on extra puzzles that require actual thought and attention: finding the combination to a safe is rarely as simple as looking for a note that has a number written on it. Paying attention to the environment, to photographs, and to out-of-place items is equally important if you want to get your hands on everything. Trying to get one hidden rune on the second real level took me about an hour to figure out, both because I’m a moron and because it required a little bit of thinking outside the box. Love it.
Then there are the new enemy types, like the dreaded Clockwork Soldiers, and the return of the witches, and… well, to say that some levels reminded me a lot of Thief and Thief 2 (hello, mechanical enemies and mechanical levels; hello, magic users and nature) would not be an exaggeration. Again: high praise.
So yes, plot and pacing and characters and emotional connection aside, Dishonored 2 is arguably a better game than its predecessor. The mechanics are just as good as they ever were – better, in most cases – and the level design is outright glorious.
The technical issues, however, drag it waaaay down from the praise I’d love to lavish upon it.
I wrote pretty extensively about my early experiences with Dishonored 2 over here, and having now finished the game, I can pretty safely say that they didn’t improve much. I fucked about with the in-game settings and the Nvidia settings, and managed to find a rough compromise that still had a lot of framerate issues but didn’t give me a headache and didn’t make the game unplayable… and that’s on a system way above the minimum specs. Below the recommended, certainly, but not by much.
PC Invasion’s own wrongly-accused swordsman Peter Parrish also had a go at Dishonored 2. I’m going to quote what he told me: “It runs like shit in really unusual ways!”
I’m not going to go over this too much, because I did that a lot before. I’m just going to say that a lot of people are having difficulties with what doesn’t look like a particularly demanding game. Even when it claims it’s running at a high frame-rate, it appears to be running slowly. The mouse sensitivity seems to be tied to the frame-rate in some weird way. The frame-rate drops at the oddest times, in the oddest locations. All of this contributes to make a game that a lot of people who are nonetheless above minimum specs will not be able to play, if only because of (and here, again, I quote Peter) “the queasiness of the whole thing.”
I can put up with the minor bugs, like the AI occasionally being as dumb as a bag of rocks; or a shopkeeper on one of the final levels randomly exploding; or drop assassinations occasionally landing me next to my target and playing out the lengthy animation while not actually registering that it hit them, so they turn around and attack me. It’s an ambitious and emergent game, and these are pretty minor problems in the grand scheme of things.
But I can’t easily put up with a game that runs like shit when there doesn’t appear to be a particularly good reason to do so; a game which doesn’t run markedly better after lowering the details; a game that appears to require a super-computer… but even then, you still have no guarantee that it won’t suffer massive and inexplicable frame-rate problems. I don’t know whether it’s frame-pacing, or optimisation, or what. All I know is that it runs very badly, at the oddest times, on not only mid-range computers but also on those that are above the recommended specs.
And this, really, is why I’m having a ludicrously hard time recommending Dishonored 2, and also why I’m having a ludicrously hard time deciding how to finish this review. Make no mistake: for all its minor flaws, it’s an absolute gem. It’s arguably got some of the best level design of the year, if not the last few years. It’s one of the best emergent, sneaky, action-y, Thief-y games there is, and while I’d have liked better characters and a more coherent plot, I’m not going to complain too much when the actual gameplay is this fucking good.
I highly recommend you play it, but the problem is that I’m not certain you can play it. I wasn’t certain I’d be able to pay it after my initial experiences, and it took about two hours to find a compromise that didn’t give me a headache. I could do a Batman: Arkham Knight and hold off on this review in the hopes it gets fixed up by the patch. I could do a Dark Souls and review it on the basis that it’s goddamn glorious despite the technical issues inherent in the launch version. I could review it on the basis that it’ll eventually get fixed, and give it a big high score. But I don’t want to do those things. The game hasn’t been removed from sale like Arkham Knight, it hasn’t been fixed by an immediate fan-patch like Dark Souls, and I can only really review what’s in front of me, and not what I hope it’ll be in a few weeks.
So: Dishonored 2 is a fantastic game. It may, in fact, be the best game you really shouldn’t risk buying right now, because right now it’s a technical mess. Yes, I hope a patch comes out soon which fixes a lot of these issues – but yes, I’m also worried that a lot of this is baked into the new Void Engine, and if that’s the case… well, this might be something to look into in a year or two. I’ll keep you updated, but for now, a definite “buyer beware” on an otherwise phenomenal game.