I set off with the best of intentions. A steady, sure assault, a brutal but brief foray to explore the surroundings, uncover the secrets, neutralise the target – non-lethally, naturally – and withdraw as silently as I arrived.
In truth, however, it’s never like this. Corvo may be a deadly assassin, but in my stewardship, he’s typically more a fight-than-flight kind of guy (usually because I fell off a beam, or missed a headshot, or mistimed a spell) and we usually make our excuses and leave in a hail of bullets and blood and curse words muttered through gritted teeth.
I rinsed the original Dishonored, wringing out every last second of that experience. There were Life Things going on at the time – Life Things that weren’t fun, Life Things that I wanted to hide from – and Arkane’s beautifully bleak Dunwall was perfect for that.
It’s a world stuffed with hidden charms, every corner and crevice curled around another secret, a different perspective, a new opportunity. I crept across every corner of that dank, Dickensian place… but I never quite managed to pull off my explorations as the ghost-like apparition I’d hoped for. For some, Corvo disappears as mysteriously as he appeared; when my Corvo disappears, he leaves a tangle of bone and blood in his wake.
If you’re looking for something different this time around, you won’t find it here. Dishonored 2 takes all that made the original game one of my favourite titles of the generation, and builds carefully, lovingly, delicately, upon that greatness. Arkane Studios has retained the things that makes Dishonored an exquisitely crafted experience; each character, each environment, is achingly realised, but each with its own cartoon, exaggerated grotesqueness. There’s a larger-than-life-ness that sits at odds with the hyper-realism purported by other contemporary titles, but at the same time, it’s beautifully crafted, with as much care dedicated to the game’s internal playsets as those outside it.
The issue here is that Dishonored does not lend itself well to pick-up-and-play sensibilities. The story is dark, the mechanics complex, and so preview events herald an artificiality that makes it difficult to fully immerse yourself. I actively disliked the preview I played at E3 2012. There was just too much going on; mana, life, documents, enemies – magic-killing enemies whose masks still haunt my dreams. I was overwhelmed and underprepared, and I lasted about ten minutes in that preview before I threw down my controller in disgust.
I admit it now: I was wrong.
But as any preview event, time is an enemy here, and whilst exploring Dunwall’s dark, dank exteriors were so thrilling, here in Dishonored 2, I had to be content with exploring indoors, with only a brief glimpse of sun-bleached Karnaca as my electric rail cart – an unornamented rollercoaster ride – pulls me into the chapter, and to the door of my enemy.
It’s here I would typically scope out a building – seeking for a balcony here, an open window there – but alas it’s not to be. On this occasion, we unceremoniously step into the Clockwork Mansion via the front door.
Fifteen years after the events of Dunwall sees you reprise your role as the non-o-syllabic Corvo Attano, but this time you can also assume the role of empress Emily Kaldwin. Our task? To locate, and safely retrieve, our old pal Anton Sokalov from new foe Jindosh, a devilish inventor keen on mechanical engineering and early robotic experimentation.
As is often the case with Dishonored, this is easier said than done.
On first glance, the Mansion is a typical set piece you’d faintly recognise from any number of the rich, opulent interiors found in Dunwall, but here, the whole home presents itself as a giant puzzle. In order to locate Sokalov, movement around the building necessitates reconfiguring the rooms by way of the many levers situated around the home.
Of course, that’s not the only thing in your way. While Dishonored vets may be accustomed to listening out for the low murmurings and complaints of posted guards, here we’re also presented with Clockwork Soldiers, miniature Tall-Boy-esque robots equipped with frenzied firepower and acute artificial senses intent on taking you out as quickly – and as painfully – as possible.
Emily is faster than Corvo. Though some powers are shared, others are not, and while I’m still unable to progress ghostlike – man, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to finish undetected – the way you play may indeed be influenced by who you choose to play as.
While Corvo Blinks, Emily Far Reaches, a new ability that flings out a tentacle that not only helps her traverse quickly and silently, but also attacks, too. While Corvo bends time, Emily can Domino her assaults, snapping the necks of three men as she snaps one. Emily’s Shadow Walk imitates Corvo’s animal possession, sort of, but instead of infiltrating grates by possessing a rat, Emily is able to dissipate into a thin, nebulous smoke to squeeze through narrow gaps or escape detection.
No two playthroughs will be the same. No two executions feel duplicated. Each visit is a new slate, offering a smorgasbord of fresh opportunity.
Silent protagonists often get a bad rep – think of Dead Space’s Isaac Clarke, just for starters – but I never minded Corvo’s grim, determined silence. I’m clearly in the minority, however, as this new iteration sees Corvo add colour to his predicaments with low observations, or rebuttals to an antagonist’s ramblings. It’s tactfully done, and reveals some of the thoughts tumbling around our protagonist’s heads without drowning the story in extraneous exposition.
What doesn’t change is how others interact with the character you inhabit; Jindosh responds to your arrival just the same regardless of whether you’re Corvo or Emily, and Sokalov, too, is suitably unconcerned by who you are. It’s good to know your story isn’t affected by the contents of your pants, but by the same token, the compulsion to replay may not be as strong as first thought.
And once again, you control how this story unfolds – the tale, the tone, and the time expended. You decide the route, the reasons, and serve as judge, jury and potential executor to all who cross your path. While I was still rifling through desk drawers and exploring kitchen cupboards, people around me had already completed their first objective.
But Dishonored is not a race. It’s a dance.
Dishonored 2 launches on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on November 11, 2016.
This preview contains footage of Dishonored 2 captured by the author with permission of Bethesda via a community press event.