Stealth, like that in Dishonored is a pretty well-established thing in games nowadays. The classic sneaking routine is as famous as it is effective.
Crouch-walk through enemy environments like a damaged crab, hugging bits of wall to guarantee nobody sees you and chucking rocks to make any mooks with large weapons look the other way. Finally, when the opportunity is right, you sidle up behind some nose-picking guard and push a dagger so far into his ear that you could pierce the opposite lobe for him. Once complete, drop the body into a nearby toy box and do the killer-crab-shuffle to the next unsuspecting fellow.
I tried doing that walk once, just to see how natural it felt. My knees hurt for two days afterwards.
Anyway, the lesser stealth games have just left it at that, whilst the better ones have added a little sprinkle of something more, flavouring the design with the spice of the unexpected. And one of the more successful games to do this was 2012’s “Dishonored”, brought to us by developers Arkane Studios with Bethesda publishing. And I liked Dishonored, overall. Dishonored was a pretty decent game that blended sneaky backstabbing antics, mysterious magical powers and a little swashbuckling swordsmanship on the side.
But now there’s a sequel fast approaching, inventively named “Dishonored 2,” and things look to be just as strangely compelling as before. Not just because there’s a nice holiday setting this time.
Fifteen years have passed since the first Dishonored game and in Dishonored 2 Princess Emily Kaldwin has indeed become the Empress of the realm, put on the throne in the original Dishonored by the esteemed silent-protagonist-of-the-court, Corvo Attano.
Uh… Spoilers, by the way. Sorry.
But it seems like the whole “Empress Kaldwin” idea isn’t sticking, as Emily is promptly booted out of that lofty position and must claim it back, now as a fully grown adult who can sneak-stab with the best of them. It doesn’t hurt that she has her own Outsider’s Mark, which (for those of you who don’t know) is a weird tattoo given to you by a bored god with emo hair, allowing you to do edgy, steampunk magic.
What kind of magic? Well, whatever sounds fun, basically. The trailer shows Kaldwin stopping time and using a stretchy tentacle arm straight out of a Prototype game, both of which look pretty fun to use and seem to tie into a new skill-tree levelling system that allows for lethal and non-lethal approaches in combat… And now we address the elephant in the room.
For you see, the Dishonored 2 has the same claim as Dishonored 1: that it is entirely possible to make it the whole way through without killing anybody. Fair enough, an impactful choice is usually a good thing, but my problem with this was always that it insisted on giving vastly divergent endings to the narrative.
Going lethal was a lot more fun in the first Dishonored game than being the cuddle-pixie of kindness, yet the murderous ending was so drab and depressing that it felt like a non-conventional “game over.”
“Play it your way,” the game boasted, “but just know that we’re judging which way you play it.” I don’t know if Dishonored 2 will have that aspect to it, as Arkane Studios have been playing this one pretty close to the chest, but I really hope not. Keep the impact of those choices within gameplay, yes, but don’t sabotage the story for the sake of some contrived idea of power. Why not look at what The Phantom Pain did, where you’re rewarded mechanically for keeping the hired goons alive?
But there are in-game choices we’ve already heard about that do seem pretty darn important, namely that Emily can sub-contract all this killing to her paternal bestie, Corvo. I was under the impression that he’d died since the first Dishonored game, but apparently not, as when you start the campaign you pick whether you’re going to play as the princess or the protector. And this decision sticks until you restart the whole thing, altering what powers you have and presumably how the world interacts with you.
That’s not a bad idea in itself, the developers just have to be aware of when to step back and let the story structure take priority over player power. It’s a delicate balance, but I never found myself thinking: “this is a great narrative if only I had the capacity to ruin it completely.”
But I do like the locale that this one takes place in, a lot more than the original Dishonored game. Dunwall – for all its charm in the NPC’s visual design – was rather grim in its environment, all brick warehouses and cobblestone roads with military checkpoints every hundred yards, like Victorian-era Portsmouth was hit by simultaneous invasion, revolution, quarantine and occupied by a gang of LARPers playing the side characters in a Thief game.
But now in Dishonored 2 we’ve moved the focus to somewhere else in the Empire, a distinctly Mediterranean-looking location under the name of Karnaca. And it’s pretty beautiful, with golden sands, rustling emerald trees and blue oceans lapping at the shore, only somewhat offset by the deformed corpses shooting mega-mosquitos out of their bellies and robot firing squads executing weeping peasants in side alleys.
But hey, the guidebook says there’s great cocktail bars downtown, so still a better holiday than anywhere in Germany. I confess, I was quite bewitched by Karnaca’s elegant landscape, which certainly managed to attain one thing that Dunwall didn’t: basic friggin’ sunlight.
Oh, and apparently in Dishonored 2 there’s more intelligence to the guards’ AI this time, AND you can do the aerial takedown non-lethally, so there’ll be more opportunities to stack sleeping guards in semi-sexual positions, whilst guaranteeing that they’ll be clever enough to feel embarrassed afterwards, tee-hee-hee.
Look, there isn’t much else to say because as I said before, Arkane and Bethesda are being pretty closed-off about the major details. The trailer shows Emily pursuing an obviously-evil inventor and being generally badass, whilst the Outsider does his usual inscrutable frowning at Corvo’s mask. But that’s basically it, and all we’ve been given since then are little sprigs of information from those in the know, drip-fed to us since the announcement at E3.
Still, I’m pretty hopeful for this one. The first Dishonored game had flaws, but also a lot of potential to it, getting more things right than wrong. And the sequel seems fairly determined to maximise that potential, so ideally we should see the emergence of a notable GOTY contender… Right?
Dishonored 2 has its release planned for November 11th this year, ready and raring for the Christmas sales. Will it end up as the stealthy swords-and-sorcery affair we hope it’ll be? Will the design and visuals become even more memorable than they were before? Will the Outsider finally say anything of any use whatsoever? Only time, and forty-five pounds of my hard-earned cash (god damn you, games industry), will tell.