Saturday, 12 November 2016

Dishonored 2 (Video Game Review)

The true beauty of the original Dishonored was its balance between two contradictory qualities. Managing to utterly nail a quietly stealthy experience which rewarded careful planning, it nevertheless still offered the power fantasy which appeals to many modern gamers, all of which was neatly tied up with an ingenious story. Proving to be well crafted, intelligent and promising a wider and much more fantastical world beyond Dunwall's borders, the game looked ready to kick-start an entire new series. Well, four years and one tie-in novel on, and we have our first sequel. 

The story here follows the prior game's hero Corvo Attano and Empress Emily Kaldwin as they seek to strengthen and continue her rule over their kingdom. However, despite defeating the previous coup by Hiram Burrows fifteen years ago, he was not the only threat to their stability. A far more powerful foe has arisen: Delilah Copperspoon. Having apparently survived Daud's penitent rampage through her followers, she now calls herself Delilah Kaldwin and has taken the throne for herself, forcing the true heiress and her protector into hiding. With few allies to call upon for help save for the amoral and enigmatic Outsider, they must find their own path to victory.

Much of what worked last time has served as a foundation for new ideas, and there has been a clear focus on trying not to reinvent the wheel. Many returning players will note that Corvo's key abilities have largely remained the same, with the indispensable Blink and Dark Vision both making a return along side a few old favourites. If you knew how best to employ them last time, you'll know how they work here, and the big changes tend to come in the form of the assassin's equipment. With a few new specialist crossbow bolts and gadgets to help get him out of very abrupt fights or situations, players have a few more options to help murder to conk out their foes in a few creative ways. 

None of this is to say that this is bad however, the experience of developing the first game has clearly benefited Arkane Studios. Many sprawling levels and environments offer far more opportunities to explore for secrets, and the way you employ certain powers has certainly been tweaked many times over. Rather than the carefully timed Blink jumps of the last game, the likes of the Clockwork Mansion often force players to use multiple powers one after another to bypass or overcome obstacles. Even many foes have a bit more challenge to them this time, as the clockwork soldier can't simply be rushed or quickly brought low, and instead often require multiple hit and fade tactics to down them. The real fun tends to come down to exactly how you accomplish this end, and the steeper difficulty curve means players will often be forced to plan out infiltration missions Hitman style, rather than playing by the ear and hoping to run into something.

It should go without saying that the artistic design of Dishonoured 2 is without equal, and easily among the most creatively (and beautifully) exaggerated settings short of a Fable game. Trading Dunwall's bleak and often decaying streets for the sunlit environments of Karnaca, the steampunk inspired elements are there but they've taken on a very different theme. There's an obvious emphasis upon colonialism, the visuals of Spain or Italy matched with advanced technology, and hidden corruption disguised behind the beautiful scenery. A key point of this becomes clear when you learn just what keeps the wheels turning in Karnaca, of the horrors of the mines and the vast turbines used to power the city. 

The background lore and information on display here is excellent, and brilliantly compliments the aesthetic of the world. Once again using the prior game as a stepping-stone towards bigger things, there are more visual cues to help you build a bigger image of the setting. While lore books, texts and records are still present throughout the game - all of which offer some very interesting insights into the rest of the world - a clear effort has been put into expressing more ideas through the visuals. There's apparently more trust in the players to put together certain ideas in their heads or understand certain scenes without it being spelled out to them, and this makes the story all the stronger as a result. It becomes especially clear as you move about some of the bigger areas of the game, hunting for loot, and stumble upon scenes told through few corpses. Whereas before such a scene would have been better explained via a journal, here the staging of the deaths and the scene itself is enough to quickly get these ideas across. This might sound like a small thing, but it makes the experience all the more immersive; especially once a few of these points start to drop hints on how to bring down your targets via lethal and cruel means alike.

The big change touted more than anything else in the trailers is, obviously, the fact there are two protagonists on offer this time. While Corvo once more emerges as the man in the iron skull-mask, Emily has the option of taking a few of her own powers if chosen in his place. Unlike her defender though, the dethroned Empress lacks the usual combination of Blink, Slow Time or summoning rats to consume your enemies. Instead, she attains an almost Venom-esque set of black claws, using them to hurl herself about the city, bring down her guards and generally wreck hell alongside a few other inventive bonuses. Doppelganger allows you to create a body double of yourself, while Mesmerize can be used to turn guards to your side for a time. While a few essential bits crossover with Corvo's own power set, notably her Blink substitute by the name of Far Reach, there's enough here to establish Emily as more than just a clone of Corvo.

So, with all that this sounds like a perfect game, right? Well, unfortunately, no. All of this does work, but there are a sizable number of shortcomings which actually makes this strangely weaker than the original Dishonored despite all its steps forwards. For starters, Arkane Studios have stuck little too close to what worked last time, which both benefits and hurts their game. 

We have discussed how each element uses the past as a skeleton to better flesh out the experience, but there's a surprisingly large number of creative shortcomings. Massive chunks of the overarching story feels as if it's retreading old territory, right down to the basic concept. You have a dethroned empress, a villain who has claimed it for themselves and starts to make a mockery of the position, then you need to erode their powerbase by bumping off her supporters. Some of these ideas are good ones and even a general similarity would be fine, but the plot ends up being so similar to the original that this game could be subtitled The Force Awakens. Matters are only made worse when even the fates of certain returning characters are repeated wholesale, right down to the final boss. Even if you can accept all that, however, the opening is so front-loaded with information and rushed through that it seems laughably forced at first, and it takes some time to actually gain its bearings. A definite failing given the atmospheric and well-paced introduction to the first game.

Another very clear issue sadly lies in the use of twin characters. While, at first, this looked as if it would be a promising asset to the game, on reflection it proves to be something of a hindrance. While returning players know just what sort of magic tricks Corvo has up his sleeve, there's no time to test Emily's skills or gain an impression of whether you'd favour one character over the other. If you end up doing so, the only way to fix this is completely starting over. This proves to be a definite problem as Emily unfortunately ends up being the far weaker of the two characters. While many of her powers are indeed original and do not simply mimic Corvo's core skills, there's no denying that most of them are surprisingly inferior to the older assassin's skill set. 

Even if you accept there's no substitute to the all-powerful Slow Time skill which makes the game so much fun to play, many of them are either limited or even downright counterproductive. Mesmerize is useful in a quick fix, but it rarely gets you out of any situations which would not have been just as easily solved via a sleeping dart, and using Doppelganger will draw guards away from your location, but also put them on high alert. Even her substitute to Blink proves to be sadly inferior, as it takes more time to latch onto a ledge, and offers your foes more opportunities to spot you out in the open.

The game's strong narrative might have made up for Emily's mechanical issues if done properly. Unfortunately, even here it fails to truly make use of the idea of having two very different figures on hand. Despite their different skills, the obstacles and solutions to each task are ultimately identical for both Corvo and Emily, and you'll rarely find any challenge one can complete which remains impossible to the other. If one chooses to approach a task in one way, you can be guaranteed it will be the same for the other. In fact, save for a scant few lines and the odd (very fleeting) cutscene, there's absolutely no difference between the two.

The character choices aren't the only strength squandered here either, as the vastly improved visual design is undercut by a constant need to point out the obvious. Honestly, Dishonored 2's protagonists give Geralt of Rivia and Solid Snake a run for their money when it comes to parroting exposition, right up to the point where they're citing the blindingly obvious over and over again. This becomes especially painful during what should be the game's smartest moments - the non-lethal take-downs of your targets - as several have Corvo or Emily going "Gee, I wonder if that would work?" While they don't spell out the exact way you should accomplish your task, their lines might as well be a gigantic neon sign hanging over the solution.

Finally, we have the big one: The PC port. While often these reviews will focus squarely upon the nitty gritty of the game itself and try to give a balanced opinion no matter the system, there's no denying Arkane Studios seriously botched this one. If you try to run this on anything short of a high end gaming PC, you'll find yourself running into bizarre failings which all but wreck the game. For starters, the frame rate often plummets to about ten FPS during the more processor intensive moments, and the cutscenes might as well be a Powerpoint Presentation for all the movement found in them. The mouse acceleration issue here also puts Bioshock to shame, turning the task of carefully picking off guards with a crossbow into an exercise in frustration. The constant micro-stuttering and unresponsive keys will drive players up the wall (quite literally if you're unfortunate enough to hotkey Blink) and it soon turns any attempts at stealth into a complete impossibility. Really, it's as if the developers took one look at No Man's Sky and announced "Challenge accepted!"

So, despite all these issues, is Dishonored 2 to worth getting? Yes. It's still a great game, and while not a fantastic one, it remains a worthy successor to the 2012 release. There's plenty to love here, from the lore to the creative assassinations, and as flawed as it is there's no denying the genius behind its design, or the obvious love put into this world. Unless you're playing on PC, this is still well worth a full price purchase. Just keep in mind that, while this is a breath of fresh air from the open world experiences and endless parade of FPS shooters, it carries with it the vague stench of something rotten.

Verdict: 7 out of 10

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