Dishonored 2 begins 15 years after Emily Kaldwin is crowned Empress of Dunwall, as she flees the city after her claim to the throne is challenged by an otherworldly usurper. The sequel begins and, we're told, ends, in Dunwall, but the chapters in between take place in Karnaca. There Emily and Corvo -- both playable characters in the sequel -- seek to bring down those backing Dunwall's new ruler.
Spreading the story across a new location is, at least initially, the most striking change that Dishonored 2 presents. Dunwall of the first Dishonored was shaped by the renowned inventor Anton Sokolov as a vulgar and opulent mechanised city; a monument to the industrial revolution. In Karnaca, on the coast of an island called Serkonos, nature has not given up yet. Branches of ancient trees entwine with stone walls, while flowers and foliage blanket the city's cobbled roads, creep up stone walls, and spread into buildings. Time appears to have stopped. Rich, ornate metal balconies hang over narrow streets, where impoverished citizens badmouth the elite in between games of dice. In the distance, a sweeping mountain range wraps around the city, stopped from clasping together by a brilliant blue ocean. It's as picturesque as it is isolating, a paradise owned by the corrupt.
The mission we're shown (we were unable to play the game ourselves) begins in the sewers of Karnaca, where Sokolov, who returns as Emily's mentor, explains the city's silver mines are running at double capacity, which has covered the once prosperous Batista District with a blanket of dust. Emily's objective is to infiltrate the home of the man operating the silver mine, which means she'll need to pass through the Dust District. The area itself is divided into three parts, with one controlled by a gang called the Howlers, another by The Abbey of the Everyman's Overseers, and a neutral ground where people can come and go unharmed.
A common criticism of the first Dishonored was that its missions were a little by-the-numbers, barring a few exceptions. This, Arkane says, has been addressed by giving each mission a theme and even more freedom to complete objectives. For example, although the silver mine mission has two targets (Vice Overseer Burn and Howler boss Paolo), Emily can use the tension between the two factions to her advantage instead of killing them, but more on this later.
Certainly, Emily is agile enough to seize the opportunity. An ability called Far Reach allows her to launch a tendril onto buildings and pull herself in. Arkane has built much of Karnaca with this in mind, packing buildings together to allow her to zip across rooftops. A key appeal of the first Dishonored was how its physics and AI allowed players to be inventive with their powers; this has carried through to the sequel. In one skirmish with Overseers, we were shown how Far Reach can become a deadly combat tool. Oil tanks can be whipped into enemies, enemies can be whipped off cliffs.
Karnaca's geography can also become a strategic consideration. A cleft atop a nearby mountain channels winds to the city. Windmills are used to harness the natural energy and power the Walls of Light, but in the process the city is also enveloped in storms of dust and debris. Since this impairs the vision and hearing, these "procedurally generated" storms can serve as cover as you sneak by or kill. During our demo, Emily enables a power called Dark Vision, which highlights all enemies in her immediate area, and uses her enhanced prowess to show off another new addition: ledge and window assassinations, something noticeably absent from the first game.
As Emily slinks around the district, the care developer Arkane has put into Karnaca becomes apparent; its design speaks volumes about its history. Signs of the city's elegance are still visible under the overpowering decay and ruin. Walls are covered in graffitied protests against taxes, while modest shopfronts have had their windows boarded, and trash is strewn throughout the city. Within the shade of an alleyway, a dead body lies infested with Bloodflies, which are Karnaca's parasitic equivalent to Dunwall's rats.
Silent protagonists, such as Corvo in the first Dishonored, allow the player to create the personality by actions. In Dishonored 2 Emily talks, and speaks tenderly about the less fortunate souls of Karnaca. As she walks around the city, she comments on whether the poverty of many is acceptable for the prosperity silver mining provides some. The decision to voice its characters for the sequel is a risky one, because while it grounds the character, it also can create a disconnect, considering you can lob oil barrels into the homeless and generally mistreat the denizens of Karnaca. Of course, this is a choice the player makes, and it may be that her dialogue changes to reflect your hostility in the full game.
In another situation, a gang member is hounding a black market merchant who is used to upgrade weapons and, as such, carries outlawed material. He threatens to expose the merchant, but Emily steps in to diffuse the situation. Moments like this give weight to her actions. It's a sign that Dishonored 2 isn't just about seeking revenge by offing a series of bad people -- it could also be about making a difference in smaller ways.
Remember those two warring gang lords we mentioned earlier? Vice overseer Burn and Howler boss Paolo? Megan Foster, the Captain of a ship called The Dreadful Wale, where Emily, Corvo, and their allies rest their heads in between missions, has a cunning plan to use their animosities as an advantage. By presenting Paulo or Burn with the body of their enemy, Emily could gain safe passage through the controlled territory. Burn is protected by elite guards and Paolo has his gang members. On top of that there are whispers about Paolo: "They say he has to die twice before the sun sets, or he can't be killed." Vice Overseer Burn it is.
On the way to Overseer territory, Emily notices a large building covered in a giant white tarp. It has been condemned due to a Bloodfly infestation, but we'll return here later. She continues on through a dentist's office, which is littered with strange equipment, suggesting the practitioner may have had some extreme methods.
Still on the mission to reach Burns, the next encounter with Overseers is a showcase of new melee options. Emily happens upon citizens about to be put to death by firing squad. Their accusations of thievery are loudly proclaimed by Overseers. The citizens kneel in silence, resigned to their fate. However, Emily leaps into action and displays an arsenal of close-quarter combat abilities such as combat choke, which neutralises enemies without killing them. This is a new feature added for players that want to finish the game with their hands relatively clean. For those not worried about having a guilt free conscience, she also has a gun that can fire explosive bullets and a really sharp sword -- plenty of tools to get the job done.
While infiltrating Vice Overseers Burn's office we get a look at two additional abilities. The first is Mesmerize, which entrances enemies with a supernatural dimensional tear. The dumbfounded enemies gather around it, commenting on how "it looks familiar, somehow," or struggling to grasp its very existence. This leaves them in a stunned state, open to attack or too distracted to notice you slip by.
Deeper into the building Emily finds Burn, who is giving a briefing to other Overseers using a projector. Here we're introduced to one of Emily's coolest abilities: Domino. This supernatural skill lets you weave the fates of multiple targets into one inescapable destiny. Anything that happens to one. does so to all of them. During the hands-off demonstration, Emily links the Overseers together and then places a mine near the switch for the projector. When she turns off the projector, one of them walks over to investigate. The mine explodes. They all drop, leaving Burn undefended. Domino can also be used in conjunction with other powers. One example we were told of was using Doppleganger to create a clone of Emily, linking targets to it, then killing the clone to take out enemies. High-level Dishonored players have used Corvo's Blink and Time Bend abilities to jaw-dropping effect, so we can't wait to see what they'll do with Domino.
To kill Burn, Emily turns into a shadow-like being able to travel along surfaces with a much lower profile. Although this makes sneaking around easier, it's not Solid Snake's stealth camouflage suit -- a moving shadow will still arouse suspicions. Emily can deliver lethal strikes while in shadow form, but at the cost of returning to her human form. Creeping up behind Burn, Emily emerges from the shadow and plunges a sword into him. The deed is done.
With Burn's body in tow, Emily travels to Howler territory and the gang members are in awe of her achievement. They allow her to pass through unharmed, and grant her an audience with Paolo. He vows to send Burn's body to Dunwall's Empress in a box, not aware that he needn't bother, she knows he's dead.
This is where our time with Emily ends, but we're given a quick showcase of a few of Corvo's abilities. His portion of the demonstration begins outside the previously mentioned condemned house, in which a Bloodfly infestation has taken over. This building serves as an alternative path to get deeper into Howler territory without Burn's body. Naturally, the presence of the parasitic Bloodflies make the route a little trickier.
The house has clearly seen better days: wallpaper has peeled off and the atmosphere is swampy. On the ground floor is a large blood-red hive, the beating heart of the infestation, pumping an endless swarm of Bloodfies into the building. These insectoid parasites lay eggs inside dead bodies, and react to sound and movement to fiercely protect their nests. The infestation level of Karnaca is reflected in how much a player kills. According to Arkane, those who kill more will notice a larger Bloodfly presence in the city, which will make getting around more of an ordeal.
Bloodflies can also convert people into nest keepers once they are badly infected. These enemies stick close to the hive and protect it, screeching loudly to alert the swarm of any threats. Fortunately, Corvo is a seasoned assassin, and has a few supernatural tricks to get him through the building. Using his Possession ability, Corvo inhabits a rat and attempts to sneak through, but since Bloodflies are a natural predator of the rat, he's forced to switch his possession to a Bloodfly (an advanced upgrade of Possession), which lasts just long enough for him to escape the building.
In the courtyard outside, Corvo goes toe-to-toe with some Overseers and shows off some of the changes to the skillset carried over from the first game. All of Corvo's assassin maneuvers have been revisited and reworked to some degree. Additionally Dishonored 2 now features an upgrade tree, instead of just having a set path. Blink can now be augmented with a kick finisher. Bend Time can either bring everything to a complete stop, instead of slowing it, or be enhanced to have a scrubbing effect so time can be advanced in small increments.
Iteration is harder to sell than innovation. Perhaps that's why we've seen so little of Dishonored 2. It's a game that looks to be doubling down on existing ideas, instead of gambling on wholly new ones. The alchemy of concepts in the original created one of the best stealth action games of the previous generation. How much and indeed how little Arkane amends that formula, and the resulting impact on the overall experience, will be the crucial test.