She may have been born into royalty, but Dishonored 2’s Emily Kaldwin hasn't had the easiest of upbringings. Her mother expired on the end of an assassin's blade, leaving the precocious princess to bounce between all manner of treacherous types. Although that messy interregnum ended with Emily's ascension to the throne, it's now been fifteen years since her coronation. Long enough, it seems, for treason to once again brew in the Isles.
My hands-off preview of Dishonored 2 begins in the restful moments before a fresh wave of conspiratorial violence. You'll even have an opportunity to experience the calm and luxury of palace life before it all comes crashing down around you, as Empress Kaldwin and her bodyguard Corvo Attano find themselves back-to-back and fighting for their lives. It's at this point that players will choose their protagonist - either the weathered Corvo or the vengeful Emily - and begin their quest to reclaim the lost throne. It's here that Dishonored 2 begins to diverge from the template of its predecessor, too, because toppled heads of state can't typically wander the streets of their capital cities unremarked. As such, you'll leave the mist and dinge of Dunwall behind in favour of the southernmost tip of the Empire: Karnaca.
Dunwall was a creation that looked to 19th century London and Edinburgh for its art and level design, augmenting the brutal industrialism of these Victorian metropolises with a layer of high technology. Karnaca's picture postcard vistas, meanwhile, suggest nothing so much as a balmy coastal paradise, but you can rest assured that Dishonored 2 remains as grubby as ever at street level. "It's not a city where I would want to have my holidays," chuckles Arkane art director Sébastien Mitton. "Karnaca is the edge of the world, because I wanted to create a real journey for the player - I wanted them to feel that they move from a certain setting to another [very different] setting. And the origins are a mix - Cuba, Barcelona, Spain, Capetown (because this was a British colony) are the main sources of inspiration for the look, the architecture, and also the population," Mitton explains.
Karnaca, then, is a patchwork creation reflecting waves of colonisation in its design and layout - a mixing pot of architectural styles, decked in faded primary paintwork. It's darn bright, too. The tropical sun illuminates wide open courtyards, plunging narrow alleyways into deep shadow. Entering the once-vibrant Dust District as Emily, it's clear that Dishonored 2 allows for an even broader variety of approaches than its predecessor, as the usurped Empress surveys a cityscape filled with twisting avenues, jumbled rooftops, and open doorways.
While Emily may be a stealth novice when compared with hoary old Corvo, she's armed with a similarly sinister array of occult magicks. Equipping Far Reach enables Emily to sling across the Karnacan rooftops unmolested, using a spectral projection to pull herself from perch to perch. And while it's quite clearly Emily's answer to Blink, differences quickly establish themselves. So, whereas Corvo's equivalent power acts as a straight-line teleport, Emily flings herself around the stage more visibly, moving with a subtle arc that can be used to your advantage. And once you've poured a couple of upgrade runes into the power, that Far Reach tentacle will get more and more dextrous - eventually you'll be able to use it to snag items from a distance or even grab enemies for a speedy assassination.
Once the murderous monarch is in position outside her quarry's compound, Emily equips Mesmerize, summoning a shifting void-artifact to distract the area's elite guards. They all stand gobsmacked before this ethereal object, muttering mad asides or gibbering softly as she moseys past. Emily's target awaits inside - a high ranking Overseer of formidable stature - lecturing a league of lackeys on his grand plans for the city. Emily switches to Domino, and highlights each of the underlings in turn, leaving an onscreen marker over their heads to indicate that the goons now share a common fate. As such, a knife in the back of one will see the entire unit fall to the floor, dead.
But Emily is the creative type, and in our demonstration she instead affixes a stun mine to a nearby pillar before hotfooting it into the shadows. A sentry walks over to investigate the sound, triggers the trap, and the entire room collapses into unconscioussness, leaving Emily's path to the target clear. Seconds later, the Overseer is dead. Arkane's co-creative director - and one of the designers of the original Deus Ex - Harvey Smith explains that Emily's twitching prey was actually one of two viable targets for this particular stage, the other being the leader of a brutal Karnacan street gang.
More broadly, though, there are truly any number of other ways that the Dust District could be tackled. Emily could have infiltrated Overseer territory at street level, for instance, creeping through abandoned buildings and dodging dangerous Bloodfly infestations before using her Doppelganger power to conjure a diversionary double. Meanwhile, those playing as Corvo could have used Dark Vision to monitor enemy patrols in search of an opening or summoned a Devouring Swarm of rats to harry the pesky sentinels of the city watch. And if all your best efforts at sneaking are scuppered by a sharp-eyed sentry, there's a host of new non-lethal options to help you escape combat without needless butchery.
Dishonored 2 is simultaneously an attempt to carefully refine the core gameplay of the original, and an exercise in fantastical novelty. There's an entirely new, starkly different setting to explore, a new playable character to master, and a host of new powers to exploit. The levels, meanwhile, are more open than ever, freed from the loading screens that segmented each stage of the first game, alive with environmental storytelling. And that to says nothing of the entirely new engine, built specifically for Dishonored 2, which renders the the city and its population in striking, stylised detail.
The Dishonored series is all about coming back stronger; making a dramatic return as a force to be reckoned with. On all the available evidence, Arkane Studios looks set to pull that same trick itself when it ships Dishonored 2 on 11th November.