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How I learned to stop worrying and love Dishonored 2

Arkane's latest requires players also act as game designers.

What a confounding beast Dishonored 2 is. Like its predecessor, this is a game that gives players lots and lots of ways to murder people, then shames them for doing so. After every level it offers you a rating based on your conspicuousness and kill count. "Taking lives will cause Emily (or Corvo) and their allies to grow more cynical. Too many deaths will lead to higher levels of bloodfly infestation and a darker final outcome for the story" it tells you, wagging its schoolmarm finger in disapproval.

So, if you're like me, you try not to kill people. But the developer also teases players for taking a more humane approach! If you're going for a non-lethal playthrough, you'll find your inventory stocked to the max of bullets, crossbow darts, spring traps and grenades after the first few hours - to such an extent that the discovery of these items feels pointless. The bulk of your super-powers are likewise languishing away, atrophying as a slave to your moral compass. This weird, oxymoronic push and pull between offering you empowering options then chastising you for using them makes playing Dishonored 2 feel akin to being a famished vegetarian attending a BBQ. ("I think you can still have the potato salad!")

The point is that it feels like Dishonored 2 developer Arkane isn't exactly sure what makes the game fun, as "fun" is different things to different people. So instead it offers players a boatload of stealth and combat mechanics, a series of lightly branching narrative choices, a generous quick-save feature, and an irritatingly conservative morality system, then asks the player to whip up their own concoction of infiltration-based adventuring.

As stated above, I didn't find Dishonored 2's recommended style of play - sneak around and don't kill people - particularly rewarding. The mollycoddling quick-save feature offered little incentive to deal with the consequences of a botched heist, while the varied array of supernatural and mechanical murdering instruments eluded my peaceful rogue empress.

So I experimented. Not just in how to chain together various powers for some comically clever heist hijinks (though that would come in time), but in how to approach Dishonored 2 as an adventure in the first place. Removing objective and collectible markers was a nice first step, ensuring that I keep my wits about me instead of following hand-holding waypoints, but I needed to further tailor Dishonored 2's complex bag of tricks into something that suited my curious yet masochistic sensibilities.

As such, I discovered three unique rulesets, each governing their own individual playthrough, that have drastically transformed Dishonored 2 from a dispiritingly limp curio into one of my favourite games this year. Herein follows the self-imposed challenges I devised:

  1. Only kill in self-defense. Try to play non-lethally, but if the going gets tough, don't be afraid to shoot your way out.
  2. Kill everyone. Be a murdering maniac! They all must die!
  3. Self-imposed permadeath. Pretend that you can't reload.

This first one is how I've been approaching my maiden playthrough of Dishonored 2. It appeals to my sneaky, sneaky side, while also allowing me the option to explore the more devilish delights of Dishonored 2's toolkit. I may not get a Trophy for my modestly lethal exploits, but it's a richer experience all the same.

This second campaign, played as Corvo, is the most cathartic. Here I'm slaughtering everyone. Cooks, maids, and shopkeepers must all die as I run around as a lethal lunatic. Not only is this style of play cathartic, it's also comical. Despite its po-faced plotline, Dishonored 2 is a very funny game when you get down to it, as emphasised by this hilariously cruel workaround to avoid fall damage.

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It's also quite challenging. While the first couple of stages suggest Corvo is overpowered when played as a steampunk Rambo, it soon becomes apparent that going in all guns blazing comes with its own set of difficulties. Ammo still seems weirdly generous, but health potions are in short supply in my Michael Bay approach to reestablishing the monarchy.

The third option, however, has proven to be my favourite (though I'd only recommend it for subsequent playthroughs). I still lean towards sparing guards' lives, but given this stringent restriction I'm suddenly okay taking the "easy way out" and slaughtering unsuspecting foes with a crossbow bolt to the head. If I see a well-guarded collectible, I'll actually have to weigh the pros and cons of whether it's worth the risk of snatching it. Bollocks to my usual habit of retrieving every upgrade or searching every room! Now it's only about one thing: achieving the end goal in the safest way possible.

These restrictions are what have worked for me, mind, but they may be different for you. Maybe you'll prefer slithering about without powers? Maybe you'll go for the coveted "Shadow" Achievement of not getting spotted? Maybe you'll roleplay as Life is Strange protagonist Maxine Caulfield as you abuse the quick-save system to peak down alternate timelines before deciding on an approach you're happy with? These are all equally valid ways of approaching Arkane's latest.

Dishonored 2 is a wonderful sandbox that's so free-form in its options that it's intimidating to sort out what rules result in the most entertaining experience. It's like one of those peculiar restaurants where you pick your ingredients and proportions before a chef cooks them in front of you. I appreciate the customisation and all, but one of the appeals of eating out is that you're trusting someone who knows what they're doing to whip up a dish. Dishonored and its sequel are content to offer players a heaping pile of uncooked ingredients and asks you to arrange them in a way most palatable to you. It demands you partake in the design process. So if you're not a developer, it can be bewildering at first as your initial experience will likely not get the balance right. But give it another go, I say. Try something else. There's a great game in Dishonored 2 (there may even be many great games in there), but it's up to you to find it.

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