US: 11 Nov 2016
Dishonored 2 is a stealth action game that tells you to “play the way you want”. What that really means is that you have a choice in how to get rid of patrolling guards: Either kill them, or knock them out, be lethal, or be non-lethal.
Early in the game I picked up a pistol. Now, late in the game, I’ve still never shot it. Well, except for that one time I shot a wall just for kicks, but my gun has never been used for its intended purpose. It’s never killed people. I also picked up a crossbow early on, and it has been rarely fired. I’ve set insect nests ablaze with incendiary bolts, I’ve broken wood planks with normal bolts, but I’ve only ever shot people with non-lethal bolts. It’s another tool that, for the most part, has not lived up to its intended purpose.
There are a lot of combat options in Dishonored 2. Many ways to make yourself stronger, to make your weapons stronger, and to make your enemies weaker, and I’ve ignored them all. At first, it felt strange like I was breaking the game by prioritizing one upgrade path (non-lethal) over another (lethal). It seemed to allow all me access to powerful abilities before I should have had them, or at least before other games would typically let me have them.
For example: You have an ability called Domino that allows you to connect one character to another. Anything that happens to one, happens to the other as well. At first I could only link two people, but after upgrading the ability twice, maxing its strength in just the second level, I was able to link four people. This essentially let me clear a room of enemies in a single blow: Domino four guards together, then knock one out, and watch the rest follow. By prioritizing this power over new powers, I became a force to be reckoned with by just the second level.
Usually games try to limit this kind of consolidation of power. I recently played Mad Max, and in that game your choice of upgrades is constrained by your “Wasteland Rank”. I had five upgrade tokens to spend, and I would have loved to put them all into making Max stronger, but I could only use one token on any one ability. This encouraged me to spread them around—make Max stronger, give him more health, find more scrap metal, find more water—which made him a more well-rounded character, and proved the importance of abilities I would have initially ignored. Finding more scrap metal and water turned out to be invaluable, and in subsequent moments I actually upgraded those before upgrading my health.
That’s the advantage of limiting the player’s consolidation of power. Not only does it prevent us from becoming overpowered, but it allows us to explore other aspects of the game we might have previously ignored.
Dishonored 2 doesn’t do this. Dishonored 2 wants you to prioritize, to consolidate, to focus. The Domino ability cost four upgrade tokens to unlock, initially, but each subsequent upgrade only cost three tokens. Whereas other games increase the cost of subsequent updates, Dishonored 2 lowers the cost. The game doesn’t want you to be well-rounded; you’re no jack-of-all-trades, you’re meant to be a master-of-trade—singular.
This, in turn, means missing out on much of what the game has to offer. By emphasizing stealth abilities I’ve shirked most of the combat skills, and while I still feel a twinge of guilt over that (after all, there are so many powers that allow you to kill in such creative ways) the satisfaction in feeling like an overpowered ninja is a bigger draw.
This is how Dishonored 2 convinces me that it’s OK to miss out on things. It encourages us to upgrade one ability at a time by lowering the costs the more we buy-in. That “maxed out” ability then becomes so much fun to use that we don’t regret that buy-in. It’s a system that plays into the player’s ego: Make us feel badass with the abilities that we have, so we don’t focus on the capabilities we’re missing.