Matthew Codd slinks his way through steampunk assassination simulator Dishonored 2 and becomes almost constantly overwhelmed by a grueling style of intricate level design.
Dishonored 2 has some of the most fascinating level design I’ve seen in a game. Each area is made up of a complicated network of streets, buildings, and passageways, giving you seemingly limitless options for a stealthy approach. Some levels add their own little gimmicks, like the Clockwork Mansion with its rooms that can be moved at the flick of a switch, but what’s consistent across all the game’s maps is that they’re expansive and they’re intricate.
This makes them wonderful playgrounds for the sorts of stealth shenanigans that Dishonored 2 is built upon – as long as you’re content to play the game on its own terms. That means spending a good two hours on a single level, sometimes more, as you map out these complicated layouts and figure out the best ways of approach. It can be an exhilarating experience.
It can also be a frustrating one. That sort of open level design is a cornerstone of stealth games, but Dishonored 2 arguably takes it to a point of excess, where the wealth of options become overwhelming. Just getting from A to B becomes daunting when you need to learn to navigate these complex mazes before you can even think of moving forward. I know a lot of people love the scale and intricacy of Dishonored 2’s levels, but I found them a slog where minimal progress takes hours.
Part of the problem is that it’s a rather unforgiving game with awkward stealth mechanics. It’s all based around enemy vision cones, but these seem to be wildly inconsistent. Sometimes I’d sneak up on a guard’s flank without a care in the world, other times he’d spot me from a mile away. Awareness of your surroundings is critical, but the primary tool for that – the ability to peek around corners – is tied to an awkward button combination and isn’t all that reliable anyway. Instead, you’re left to slowly crawl your way through, cautiously tiptoeing through every doorway lest there be a foe hiding around the corner.
Of course, the main appeal of a stealth game is finding ways to bypass or silently take out foes, using the environment to your advantage, so it’s always a slow process. Between its overly long levels and tricky enemy layouts, though, I found that Dishonored 2 pushed that beyond exciting until it just became tedious.
When you inevitably get spotted, you can either try to fight your way out or flee, but neither is particularly viable. Melee combat is designed around one-on-one fights, but enemies almost always attack in groups, and the tools for dealing with such hordes are in short supply. If you want to escape, you’d best know the map like the back of your hand – if not, expect to get lost and probably run into even more foes. Failure, death, and frequent reloads take an already arduous process and make it even more of an ordeal.
Clearly, part of the problem for me was that I just wasn’t very good at the game. People may suggest I need to “git gud”, and fair enough, but I was playing on Easy, a mode ostensibly designed to let you “enjoy the scenery and narrative at your leisure.” Dishonored 2 has challenge in spades for the people that want it, but if you just want to be a badass ninja without too much effort, the pickings are annoyingly slim. Even on Easy, if you’re not good at the game, death comes frustratingly often.
The reward for all this is a shallow, banal story full of one-dimensional characters. It opens with a coup that sees Empress Emily Kaldwin overthrown by her evil aunt Delilah and forced into exile. Playing as either Emily or her father Corvo (the main character from the first game), you’re put on a path of revenge against Delilah and her crew of moustache-twirling cronies. That’s all there is to it. Despite some great voice acting, neither the plot nor the characters see any sort of interesting development.
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What’s meant to make it stand out is a morality system based on how you play: a violent, lethal approach leads to characters becoming more jaded and a darker ending; a pacifist approach doesn’t. In practice, it’s a simple, binary good/evil system that doesn’t have much impact. Sure, it affects dialogue and the way people talk to you, but there’s so little effort put into actually making these characters interesting or likeable that it’s hard to care what they think.
The one saving grace of Dishonored 2 is how beautifully realised the city of Karnaca is. It’s a sprawling coastal metropolis surrounded by cliffs and jungle, making it feel much more wild and untamed than Dishonored’s Dunwall. Victorian-inspired structures are built around towering trees, and in the more derelict areas, you can see the vegetation trying to take the city back. One of the most striking moments I remember was when I first set foot in the docks, with the streets running red as fishermen carved up sharks and whales under the scorching sun. I don’t have a Smell-O-Vision, but I could almost smell the stench.
I’m sure a lot of people will love Dishonored 2. It has plenty of challenge to offer stealth game vets, built on the back of some incredible level design, and there’s plenty of excitement to be found if you’re willing to play on its terms. However, it’s also a game that can be a tedious slog, forcing you to inch your way through levels that are too big for their own good, fighting unreliable stealth mechanics and nuisance enemies all the way. For me, it was the very much the latter.
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