Dishonored 2 is exactly the sequel I wanted. Unlike many other newer games, it feels like the developers were left alone to just make the game they wanted, as there are no microtransactions, no multiplayer, and no cliffhanger ending with delusional aspirations to make this a huge franchise. This is just as tight and focused as the first game. The few problems are either technical or the same things the last game did wrong.
The biggest improvement in Dishonored 2 over its predecessor is how the developers have learned to marry player movement with the level design. This is something they improved on with the DLC for the original, and here they’ve refined it further. It’s what makes the level design stand out compared to other games of this type, as they haven’t used your athletic abilities as an excuse to turn it into an open world game. Instead, it has the small-scale focus of Thief, Deus Ex or Hitman, with a movement system that makes it feel like you can go wherever you want. Obviously, with double jumping and teleporting, there needs to be barriers. But the developers have done a remarkably good job of designing natural barriers around the levels that don’t break the illusion of it being a believable world. This isn’t like Battlefield with its “leaving the combat area” notifications, which are probably the worst way to do it.
There are two playable protagonists this time, which is something that works nicely with the kind of game this is. The game allows a refreshing amount of unpredictable chaos to happen in the levels. When you start a mission, guards and NPCs all wander around on predictable routes. But interesting things start happening when you poke at their routines. The game allows guards to follow you across the entire level, and if they lose sight of you, they don’t immediately return to their old positions. This opens up possibilities for all sorts of guerilla tactics, as you can lead them on a wild goose chase to the other side of the map, and then return to previously guarded areas and loot them while they’re still busy searching for you elsewhere. I haven't played something this willing to let complete anarchy spread inside its levels since Saint's Row 2. It's a kind of game design I wish we'd see more of. So even though you play through the same missions with both characters, this is a game where replaying doesn’t feel like a waste of time.
Even though levels are segmented into separate zones, they don’t “feel” like game arenas. For example in Thief 4 and the last two Deus Ex games, levels were subdivided into smaller arena sized areas for streaming, which is something Dishonored 2 doesn't do. Instead the game has pretty brutal RAM requirements, with the benefit of more interesting design. There’s such a density of optional content and alternative routes that the environments gain a sense of naturalness most games don’t achieve. The art direction also manages to meld characters and interactable objects to a cohesive whole, to the extent where it can be hard to see where enemies are, and what you’re able to pick up. In a slow paced game like this, that's a positive, as it encourages you to stay on alert at all times, as you’ll otherwise miss how a room can be swarming with traps and enemies. It also makes the game look more like concept art come to life, as the graphics aren’t overloaded with thick outlines and spotlights telling you what you’re supposed to look out for. This isn’t the most technically advanced game to come out this year, but it’s easily the best looking, as the artists used the tech to its fullest. The balance of colors and dynamic range is near perfect, creating a style that will age marvelously.
The chaos system returns, changing the ending of the game based on how many people you kill. I didn't like how the system worked in the first game, but here I found it alright. The two playable characters have personalities that fit one or the other approaches better. Emily is being slandered by political opponents, who accuse her of assassinating her rivals. Playing her as a killer feels like you'd be playing into the hands of her critics. But if you play as Corvo, you're basically Liam Neeson, making it perfectly in character just to murder everybody. Playing as Emily, I bent over backwards finding solutions to knock out enemies instead of killing them. For example, if I was discovered, I jumped up on shelves or lamps to do leaping knockdown attacks, often managing to take out entire groups of enemies. And even if a few people died, either by accident or by me running out of patience, the system isn't particularly harsh. You have to kill more than 10 people per level before you're classified as high chaos.
As for the story, it's a mixed bag. The voice direction in key emotional scenes is poor, and the characterization is generally flat. Take Emily Caldwell. Even toward the end I had no idea how she had been managing as an empress, or even a basic outline of her personality. Everything pointed toward her being totally incompetent, and I’m not sure if that was the intent? In cutscenes she talks about things she’s learning, and how the journey has changed her, but it feels unnatural and forced. This story isn’t nearly as good as Thief 1-3, but it thankfully isn't a trainwreck like Thief 4. The story here does the job alright, about on par with the last game, but it isn’t memorable in the least. Almost all dialog felt more like filler than a real story.
It’s too bad the story is so-so, as it doesn't feel like it went anywhere interesting with its characters. It puts more of a damper on my feelings about Dishonored 2 than the game deserves. But you can’t underestimate how big of an emphasis we put on how something ends, without it being something we have conscious control over. Still, I can only see it as a huge positive that I’m genuinely considering playing it a second time. It's one of the best designed games I've played this year, and I like it more than the first one.