Last week I got to spend a couple of hours playing through a mission in Dishonored 2, the sequel to the stealth-and-assassination adventure from a few years ago. My expectations were high, because I loved Dishonored, and I have loved every single screed of game footage, artwork, and screenshots that have come out in the run up to Dishonored 2. I'm happy to report that these expectations were met. Here are five things that Dishonored 2 is getting right so far.
The design remains beautiful and interesting, not bloated
I got to play part of the fourth mission (said to be about 2 or 3 hours in, depending on how you were playing). It's called the Clockwork Mansion, and it is exquisite. Kirin Jindosh, the brilliant if evidently unbalanced inventor who is the target, has designed a comfortable home, but the rooms move and rearrange as levers are pulled. If you're proper into Steampunk and were concerned Dishonored 2 was moving away from that, don't worry: the mansion, at least, is really bloody Steampunk. It's as Steampunk as a purple top hat with goggles and a bejeweled hatpin in the shape of a pipe all covered in gears and whatever, except it doesn't have a lot of nonsense appliquéd onto it. It's elegant and sleek, and covered in varnished wood, and feels fully lived in. There are staff working in the kitchen, and even little passive aggressive notes here and there that Jindosh has left for them.
When games get sequels (and more money to produce them) devs can fall into that trap of thinking that means they should make everything bigger, but that doesn't actually equate to things being better. The Clockwork Mansion isn't a huge open world, but it is at least two houses folded into one another, making a beautiful, confined, moving, complex level to go through, and there are so many different things to find and paths to the objective. You can fall behind the moving walls, for example, and navigate through the mechanisms that move the rooms. There's even a way to get into the house without Jindosh noticing you're there, although nobody at my 'hands on' managed to find it. I was also told that if you're quick enough you can get to Jindosh in under two minutes, so speedrunners are going to have a whale of a time (whales, get it, because they're an important part of the economy in these games).
Nonlethal options are still creative and weird
One of the most laudable parts of Dishonored was the effort put into making the non-lethal approach more interesting than just using knockout darts and being done with it. Remember getting the Pendelton twins out of the way by making a deal with a gangster, who promises to "shave their heads and cut out their tongues" and put them to work in their own mines for the rest of their lives? That was pretty bleak, and if the Clockwork Mansion is anything to go by then your targets aren't going to get the option to ride off into the sunset if they promise to be good boys and girls from now on. Jindosh is the one that's been building those clockwork soldiers you've seen in the trailers and, for the record, have done nothing to alleviate my fear of mannequins, automata, and the like. They play Kirin's recorded run time notes instead of actually speaking, and it's horrific.
Anyway, the non-lethal option for neutralising Jindosh is… well, grim. Corvo comments that death was probably the kinder option. This kind of thing allows for different approaches to the game, without sacrificing the brutal, off-kilter steampunk feeling the world has. The lethal stuff is really lethal — I bifurcated a man across the middle and got the option to 'move torso' — but if you like the low chaos approach you won't feel like any less of a brutal, highly skilled avenger.
The Heart does more good stuff
The Heart ended up being everyone's favourite bit of Dishonored (or at least it did if you are an even vaguely sensible person). It was the still-beating heart of your lover Jessamine, with her soul trapped inside it, and if you squeezed it you would hear her ghostly voice in your head revealing secrets about who or what you were brandishing it at in that moment. It was cool and/or horrifying, and it added a significant amount of depth to the game. I spammed heart everywhere I went. People made decisions about who was worthy of being spared and who deserved death, based on what the The Heart had said about them.
The devs noticed this, and have enhanced The Heart accordingly, so you get a secret bit of background information about pretty much anyone you point it at. Fortunately almost everyone I encountered was an arsehole truffle in the chocolate box of life, so I didn't feel bad when I had to take a lethal approach, e.g. the female elite guard who kept trophies from 'each of them', including 'a toe', which I took to be The Heart obliquely implying that she was a serial killer. This even extended to the domestic staff, like the maid (deliberately fed people off meat) and the butler (stole a pocket watch and let someone else take the fall). The Heart also shows some glimmers of specific, situational awareness more than it did last time. If you choose the non-lethal route to kill Jindosh The Heart chastises you a little for what you do to him which suggests ole' Empress Jessamine might be becoming more alert to her situation, i.e. carried around by a beloved member of her family whilst they murder people, which has got to be a bummer even if you're mostly non-corporeal. If that's a route that does get explored then it could be really interesting, but in the meantime it's lovely to see The Heart still has an important, creepy role. Not so lovely for the dead Empress though, obviously.
Lateral thinking is encouraged more than ever
Corvo and Emily have different sets of abilities, and you'll probably find you play completely differently as each of them. Emily's Far Reach ability is more like a slingshot, and she can also use it to pull enemies or objects towards her. She's also got her Domino, which allows her to link enemies together so what happens to one will affect them all, and her Shadow Walk, which turns her into a terrifying black mist that crawls along the floor. Meanwhile Corvo still has his Blink and Bend Time, and Wind Blast to push enemies around. Combining these powers with stuff like the stun mines, sticky grenades, and the environment itself gives you a myriad of possibilities. You can even stick proximity mines on rats, depending on how you feel about digital animal cruelty.
The voice acting is striking the right balance
Generally speaking having a silent protagonist is often a good option for games when you're pretending to be an assassin, because you're going to be dispatching targets in a number of different ways (if, for example, you choose the ultraviolence route it's a bit jarring if the protagonist previously established his upright morals, or similar). However, Emily and Corvo are in quite an emotional and personal situation, so this time around they'll tell you what they think about it. So far it looks like Dishonored 2 is aptly straddling the line between giving your character no personality and giving them too much. They won't be chattering in your ear the whole time, but they offer some thoughts at the start of the mission, and at key moments. Apparently these thoughts will change depending on the style you're choosing to play, which is also great.
Another important point is that Emily and Corvo really seem like different people. Corvo is kind of gruff and clipped; Emily seems more hopeful but hardened by recent events, which further suggests that it's actually more than worth playing Dishonored 2 through twice.
It was, just, it was the best
I'm so excited.