Monday, 6 March 2017

Now Playing: Dishonored 2

Let’s begin with performance and graphics. The frame rate of Dishonored 2 is inconsistent to say the least, ranging from between 30 to 60 FPS depending on which direction you may be facing at the time. It’s not too noticeable as you play, but it can be an issue when combined with the graphical aspect which is also best described as inconsistent.

Some environments are very impressive to look at, but others – particularly long distance scenery – look absolutely terrible. And even at its best, Dishonored 2 doesn’t look that good and we really shouldn’t be seeing these frame rate issues.

I probably spent my first hour with the game attempting to find a balance within the extensive settings menu that would provide a fairly stable frame rate, but also a game that didn’t appear as a blurry, low textured mess.

I cycled through the various forms of AA and AA sharpening as well as the different adaptive resolution settings (including switching them off entirely) until I struck upon a combination that wasn’t quite so offensive to my eyes. Even then, the game had an odd blur to it that I could never quite remove.

It varies depending on lighting and environment, but everything in the game has this unpleasant ‘out of focus’ effect to it. Combined with the inconsistent frame rate, and there were times when playing Dishonored 2 that it actually gave me a headache.

If there’s one thing the original did brilliantly that Dishonored 2 can claim to do equally so, it’s the world building and lore aspect. If you’re someone who loved the world of Dishonored and loved to explore it through its many audio logs, journals, books, history, music and conversation, then you’ll find a lot to keep you happy.

Unfortunately, that’s the only aspect in which I’d say Dishonored 2 is equal to the original. In terms of everything else – story, characters, level design and gameplay – Dishonored 2 falls short of the fantastic original.

But it was always going to be a tough act to follow and Dishonored 2 certainly takes a decent stab at it. If you’ve already peeked at the final score, you’ll know that I actually rate Dishonored 2 quite highly, despite the somewhat negative focus of this review.

In terms of story, Dishonored 2 is set 15 years after the events of the original. There’s another coup, with Emily or Corvo (depending on who you choose to play, which is a nice addition) forced to flee Dunwall and travel to Karnaca – tracing the roots of the conspiracy, investigating those involved and searching for a way to stop them.

It’s an enjoyable and engaging tale, regardless of which character you choose, although its ending feels rather abrupt. But whilst the story is a positive, none of the new characters – heroes and villains alike – can compare favourably to those of the original.

I played through Dishonored 2 twice – once with Emily on a non-lethal / low chaos run, and once with Corvo for a lethal / high chaos run. Each character features their own unique set of powers (although they both share a variation of blink and dark vision) that offer a range of lethal and non-lethal abilities.

I’m a little torn on this system, because splitting the powers between the two characters does somewhat limit them in terms of options. On the other hand, it does make playing through the game as both characters worth your time, as you’ll play and approach missions quite differently for each.

Unfortunately, playing for the non-lethal ‘clean hands’ and no alerts ‘ghost’ achievements is as frustrating as it is fun. I gave up on my ‘ghost’ achievement early into my Emily run as I discovered how buggy the game is at recording ‘alert’ states.

In only the first mission, I encountered a situation where I had the option to save an civilian npc. I did so – but the civilian initially reacted as if he was ‘alerted’. I had to reload and replay this small moment several times before the civilian reacted properly to my intervention. Early in the second mission I also encountered a similar situation where one npc attacked another, but those fleeing the scene entered an alert state and it counted against me.

Playing for ‘clean hands’ proved equally troublesome. In one situation, I knocked out two guards and placed their bodies on the deck of a boat. As I departed, I checked my level stats – which you’ll need to do frequently if you’re playing for these achievements – and saw I’d killed 2 people. I backtracked to the boat and found both guards were now dead. But how? And then I realised – the water beneath the boat was glitching through the hull and I’d been unfortunate enough to drop their unconscious bodies in just the wrong spot. The result? They drowned, and it counted against me.

I did eventually finish my ‘clean hands’ run with Emily and my ‘ghost’ with Corvo, but as I said – it was as frustrating as it was fun and required regular saves and loads due to bugs and other issues. Even then, simply loading could prove dangerous, as npcs would sometimes react to sounds triggered prior to the reload. I wish I was joking, but I’d sometimes load a quick save after alerting a guard, and upon the reload those in the area would suddenly begin searching as if they’d heard a sound.

So let’s tackle the main problem of Dishonored 2 and why it falls short of the original – level design. Initially, it may appear that many of the levels are larger and more elaborate than those in the original, but as someone who likes to explore every little corner of every level, I quickly realised this wasn’t quite the case.

Compared the original, the levels of Dishonored 2 are fairly small and linear. And those few levels that do offer a slightly more expansive environment nearly always converge on a single entry or exit point. Whilst I appreciated the levels in terms of their mechanics – the clockwork mansion and the ‘time shift’ level in particular – I can’t help but be disappointed by their design.

The clockwork mansion is ingenious – a level where levers completely alter the environment. It’s pretty fantastic in terms of mechanics, but the actual level design is sadly lacking. Because like the other levels of Dishonored 2, it’s far too linear. Too straightforward. The level is essentially a straight line from beginning to end. There’s little exploration or investigation. There’s no complex puzzles involving the clockwork mechanic.

And then we have the ‘time shift’ level. Once again, the mechanics are fantastic – being able to see into and switch between two time periods seamlessly is ingenious. But whilst the mechanic and how it’s implemented is creative and fantastic, the actual level design is not. And that’s where Dishonored 2 really stumbles – with some memorable mechanics, but not memorable design.

I thought the penultimate mission – a sprawling mansion estate – would provide a challenging and elaborate design. But after reaching a high point upon which to study the layout of the grounds, I discovered a simple and direct path to my objective. And many missions suffer from the same issue – it’s far too easy to find ways to bypass entire areas and go directly to your target.

It just feels like Dishonored 2 is guiding the player too much. The design is too obvious. The paths are too clear. Unlike the original, I never felt like I was finding a clever way to my objective – or investigating to find ‘alternative’ ways of dealing with my targets. Dishonored 2 practically shoves these things in your face.

It’s like the game is desperately trying to shout about how many ways there are to complete its objectives but in doing so, it reveals its entire hand and makes it all entirely too easy. Even the final ‘boss’ is disappointing in this aspect. You only need to hear a single conversation (which is nearly impossible to avoid) that will guide you to an ‘alternative’ approach.

Locating the key information, I saw I needed to gather various items and combine them to make it work. I thought it would require me to explore and track down each item throughout the level but instead, all of the items and the ability to combine them existed within the same room. I didn’t need to explore or investigate. Everything was laid out before me as if I was too stupid to figure it out.

And that’s why I can’t rate Dishonored 2 as highly as the original. In many ways, it feels like a step back. I don’t think it does anything badly. It’s still a very enjoyable game with an interesting story, some very good levels and some ingenious mechanics. The technical and graphical issues are irritating, but not game breaking.

But it also fails to live up to the original in just about every area and in that sense it’s a little disappointing. That said, if you’re a fan of the original, I’d still recommend checking it out, and I hope this isn’t the last we see of the world of Dishonored.


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