'Dishonored 2' review: A well-crafted improvement over everything we loved in 'Dishonored'


Which do you prefer: chopping off peoples' heads, setting them on fire, or watching them be eaten alive by a horde of rats under your control?

Dishonored 2, released Nov. 11, is a fitting improvement over the original Dishonored — developer Arkane Studios knew better than to mess with a successful formula. Dishonored 2 offers the same compelling world, challenging stealth puzzles, exciting swordplay and dark magic, which alone makes Dishonored 2 a must-play for fans of the series.

Even if you didn't play the first game, Dishonored 2 is worth taking a look at if you were a fan of the level designs, powers, abilities and storytelling of the BioShock series. Dishonored 2 is a well-crafted experience that provides a spiritually similar experience to the BioShock games, and that's very high praise.

Understanding the world of Dishonored

Dishonored 2 is a first-person perspective game about decisions. You are an assassin in a steampunk universe that mixes 17th-century aesthetics with technology that wasn't developed until centuries later in the real world like audio recording devices, typewriters, and cash registers. You are armed with the best weapons and possess deadly magic.

You have the freedom to sneak and skulk around huge, densely-populated cities or opulent mansions, to name two examples, and to do whatever activities float your boat. You can head straight to your next mission, search the area for collectibles, or try and see how much trouble you can cause and how many guards you can kill.

What you get out of Dishonored 2 depends on what you bring to the experience. If you're interested in running assassination missions over and over again to experiment with the deep array of weapons and abilities offered in Dishonored 2 this is a game that will take you many months to digest, and without getting stale.

Dishonored 2 review: How did we get here?

Dishonored 1 told the tale of Corvo Attano, a royal protector accused of murdering Empress Jessamine Kaldwin and opening the door to an attempted coup. Corvo uses magic powers to become an assassin, murdering the people responsible for the coup and returning his daughter Emily Kaldwin to the thrown.

Dishonored 2 picks up the story many years later. Emily is still sitting on the throne of the Empire of the Isles when her long-lost Aunt Delilah arrives, claims the throne for herself and slaughters Emily's loyal members of the royal court.

You may choose to play as either Corvo or Emily, and once again you will use magic powers and deadly weapons to punish the people responsible for yet another coup attempt. You can also choose whether to kill these conspirators or bring them to justice. Dishonored 2 is all about choices.

Bethesda Softworks/Arkane Studios/Dishonored 2

Dishonored 2 reviewA well-crafted vision for an alternate universe

The Dishonored series is known largely for its world-building. Life in the Empire of the Isles is a wonderful mix of familiar elements taken from our world. For instance, whaling and whale oil are the fuels that run the Empire. Our own history involved both elements, but the whales in the Dishonored series are ugly things that look more like deadly sharks than peaceful sea mammals.

Dishonored also features the purely fantastical. There's a dimension called The Void, home to an entity called The Outsider who bestows supernatural power on anyone willing to accept the Outsider's mark. This is where Corvo and Emily attained their magic .

Dishonored 2 begins in the city of Dunwall where Dishonored 1 took place, but you are quickly whisked off to the southern city of Karnaca on Serkonos, the empire's southernmost island. Karnaca is a port city with dusty, dry streets ruled by Luca Abele, Duke of Karnaca. The city is overrun with the Duke's soldiers and members of a religious cult that punishes belief in the Outsider as heresy.

Dishonored 2 also depicts a society where the gap between rich and poor is tremendous. You will walk dirty streets filled with people trying to get by and infiltrate opulent palaces. To make matters worse, Karnaca is facing a plague of Bloodflies, insects that move in deadly swarms and lay their eggs inside dead human bodies. It is not a nice place.

Bethesda Softworks/Arkane Studios/Dishonored 2

Dishonored 2 review: Stealth or action? You decide

In Dishonored 2, Corvo and Emily have a suite of weapons and abilities that enable our heroes to remain silent, hide in the shadows, and potentially avoid detection in each mission of the game. They also have weapons and abilities meant for going loud and simply killing every enemy they see. Your first decision is whether you want to focus on either strategy.

Hidden throughout the mission levels are runes that can be spent to attain and level up magic powers. These choices will largely determine your play style. Far Reach, for instance, is a power that allows you to point at a location and instantly teleport there. It's great for setting up ambushes or dashing across heavily-patrolled areas. The Doppelgänger power allows you to create an illusion that guards will pursue as if it were the real thing. 

If you want to focus on mundane abilities and weapons you can increase your health, strength, and jump height and distance. You can choose abilities that allow for one-hit kills. You don't have to commit down a single path and may choose both powers and abilities, but as you earn more runes each power and ability can be further upgraded, so you may want to pick a few to level up all the way.

Bethesda Softworks/Arkane Studios/Dishonored 2

I am terrible with stealth, but the supernatural powers available for stealthy play in Dishonored 2 are cool enough that I'm willing to at least try. There's an option at the beginning of Dishonored 2 to play the game without powers, and ostensibly to depend instead purely on gadgets and weapons, but I don't know why you'd give up having your powers. They are too much fun.

The weapons selection is also awesome, from your default sword that can be upgraded to block projectiles to the crossbow that fires sleep or incendiary bolts as well as normal arrows. 

But be careful. The more people you kill, the higher your chaos level will go. More chaos gives you a higher chance of receiving a very dark ending to the game's story.

Bethesda Softworks/Arkane Studios/Dishonored 2

There's also a light crafting system in Dishonored 2 to make Bonecharms, which you can also find hidden within levels. They give you further customizable options to enhance your playstyle. Bonecharms are weak compared to abilities and powers but can still be important to supporting your overall strategy.

Dishonored 2 review: Get ready for some technical issues

I was surprised by some of the technical issues in Dishonored 2. I've noticed screen tearing when the camera pans, graphics that sometimes feel like they're chugging along, and sluggish controls that I can't quite fix by messing with the analog stick's sensitivity.

Dishonored 2 can be slow when you're carefully searching areas for loot, like money and health elixirs, and these problems only popped up when my character was moving quickly. The technical issues briefly distracted me when they were obvious, but they haven't affected my enjoyment at all.

Multiple playthroughs would allow you to test different styles of play, but stealthy play can be very frustrating as it's often slow, and you have to be extremely clever at times to figure out how to pass through a room without detection. You can get a lot of gaming out of Dishonored 2 if you're flexible enough to try new strategies. Stealth is difficult but it's extremely satisfying when you pull it off.

Dishonored 2 was released on Nov. 11 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

Disclosure: Bethesda Softworks provided us an Xbox One copy of 'Dishonored 2' for the purposes of this review.