In a recent interview, Art Director for Dishonored 2 Sebastian Mitton spoke to PCGamer about his game's level design. What interested me the most was Mitton's comments on the design of the windmills that power the walls of light in Karnaca. He explained the difficult detail in always saying 'yes' to the player, “we had big, giant windmills, but also smaller ones... if I shoot at them, I should be able to break it—but the blades are really thick, so I was like, ‘you cannot break it in one bullet, maybe with a grenade.’ Okay, but now [that you can break it], do we also need a lever to deactivate it? Each time you show something really cool visually, the level designer can say, ‘I want to take it for gameplay purposes’, and it can break all your visual design. It’s always really crazy when we say yes to a new rule of gameplay, [because] it can affect everything in the game. If a new rule is written, we need to embrace it and sometimes re-do things elsewhere.”
This got me thinking about how cleverly this game series approaches level design. It is so seamless, you hardly notice it. You can instantly see paths towards your destination, high or low ground. But the paths are not littered with bright white lines indicating the ability to climb, no shining ledges or highlighted handholds. The cities, both Dunwall and Karnaca, are designed in a way that makes it look entirely plausible for this open window and that awning to exist naturally.
I also decided to test this theory. Arkane Studios is located in France. I picked a random street in Paris and wow! Throw some grey onto the buildings, more filth, and it looks exactly like the cities of Dishonored 2. All the supposedly “convenient” balconies, open windows, and external vents are all there, it's totally normal.
I cannot impress enough how seamless Dishonored 2's level design is, especially since I was able to compare it to an actual street in real life. The sheer amount of detail Arkane Studios put into this game is so well done it's nearly unnoticeable. The logic of the world is close to the real world. If it looks climbable or big enough to fit a person, you can probably Blink/Far Reach there.
It is truly nothing like any other popular stealth game. The closest, despite the popular comparison to Assassin's Creed, is probably Thief from Edios Interactive. Thief is a game about a master thief named Garrett who goes on Robin Hood missions to steal from the rich. Each level can be approached in multiple ways, much like Dishonored 2, and can be lethal or non-lethal. Now, the Dishonored series takes a lot of inspiration from the original Thief games, but I'm talking about the difference between it and Thief's modern cousin.
In Thief, the guards' cone of vision and sensitivity are quite similar to Dishonored 2. However, I must point out that Dishonored 2 has a way of making way more real world sense. For example, in one scene, I was hiding in a corner behind a badly put together crate and a plant. My target rounded the corner and saw me through the plant and crate. Oh, I was terrified! The tension as he came towards me was kind of insane.
In Thief, that would never happen. Your magical stealth mode moves you in near complete silence (except in water, water is very noisy) but if a guard's back is turned, there's no way you'll be detected no matter how much you steal. In addition, shadows might as well make you invisible. You can get away with being very close to your target as long as there is shadow on you. I remember crouching by a bush that definitely wasn't tall enough and watching two guards lighting a fire. In real life, that fire would have lit me up and they would have seen me. But nope, my friend knocks out one guard and I get the other one by walking around his limited cone of vision, in the bright light of the fire. Thief also allows fewer paths through a guarded area. It is rare to be able to take the high ground and claw your way through without being spotted. Climbing spots are limited, whereas in Dishonored 2, you can get just about anywhere using your various abilities.
I almost feel as though Dishonored 2 is an accumulation of improvements on other games, especially Thief. The guard sensitivity and seamless world of paths through a level is what marks the Dishonored series as one of the most unique stealth games out there. How you're hiding matters just like it would in the real world, even with the power of Blink or Far Reach, but you're allowed so much more creativity in how you move and the way you play. If you've ever loved a stealth game, you need to play this one.