Dishonored 2
Antagonist Delilah dethrones Empress Emily Kaldwin in a coup Bethesda

In Karnaca's Dust District, an Overseer from a faction of armed religious zealots is crouched over an arrow-firing contraption, rigging it to a tripwire in the hopes of catching clumsy trespassers with a sharp stick to the face. He's talking to his friend, stood the other side of the wire, about how easy the trap is to set up, so long as he's careful. They're unaware I'm perched above as Emily Kaldwin.

My approach was covered by a dust storm, and my inky, otherworldly grapple, Far Reach, enabled me to hoist myself to a nearby ledge. From this vantage point, I conjure up a ghostly doppelganger right near the crouching Overseer, sending him stumbling back in horror, triggering the tripwire and firing his own arrow into his groin. As he recoils in pain, I jump and land with my knife wedged into the second Overseer's throat, turning immediately and finishing off Trap Boy with a crossbow bolt to the brain.

Welcome to Karnaca, please don't mind the corpses.

It's been 15 years since mask-wearing Master Assassin Corvo Attano was framed for the murder of his Empress. He's now redeemed, and the Empress' daughter, Emily Kaldwin, rules over Dunwall, with Corvo by her side – the man who's simultaneously her father and Royal Protector. Alongside her regal duties, Corvo has been secretly training Emily for the day when her enemies attack. Unfortunately for them both, that time is now, and Dishonored 2's opening sees them forced to flee to Corvo's birthplace of Karnaca, the jewel of the south.

The whale-trawling, whisky distilling city of Dunwall is one of the most memorable virtual places I've visited, but Dishonored 2's Karnaca trumps it, both as a location and as a stealthy murder playground. Dunwall was a city in the midst of an industrial revolution and in the grips of a fascist regime, with spindly, bipedal machines and city watchmen patrolling the rat-ridden roads. It's a blend of Victorian London – all smoke stacks and gothic spires, cut down the middle by a winding river – and Half-Life 2's dystopian City-17.

Karnaca is both brighter and less oppressed, though there's still blood trickling down its sandstone streets and pestilence hidden in its derelict buildings. In this warmer climate, the rat plague is replaced by infestations of bloodflies: man-eating insects that make their nests in corpses. It's a multi-cultural melting-pot and a tourist destination for the elite. Located in a bay surrounded by high cliffs, Karnaca relies on imported whale oil and wind turbines to power its tech. Where Dunwall takes inspiration from old England, Karnaca is a blend of other real-world influences, with Greek, Spanish and Cuban architecture jutting from its sun-baked city streets.

It's not just visually appealing, either. Karnaca isn't fully open-world, with missions instead cordoned off into specific districts, but that doesn't hold it back at all; it's one of the most cohesive virtual places ever made. The architecture is folded into the land's history, each location telling you its story – like the city's massive windbreaker tower that shelters the town from a brutal breeze. The jewel of the south also houses a wind tunnel: a huge scar carved into the landscape to take power from the region's high winds – it's this geographical gash that's responsible for that aforementioned dust storm, kicking up lung-eroding clouds from the nearby diamond mines.

All these little details really pull you into the world, adding to the atmosphere as you stalk its rooftop gardens and peek around its street corners. This ethos extends to the characters too, like how Corvo's supernatural abilities are built around him being a foreigner in Dunwall, with his Possession ability giving him a chance to be someone else, to blend in. If you choose to play as the usurped empress instead, you'll notice Emily's powers are built around her royal role, each acting as a symbol of influence: Domino allows her to link people's fates; Mesmerize lets her distract with an unknowable void; and Doppelganger gives her access to an expendable ally, a spectral form that's willing to die for her like a VIP's body double.

Look at any of Dishonored 2's self-contained levels – each a multi-layered playground riddled with secrets and hidden paths – and you'll notice this absurd attention to detail is present in every inch of the game. You can spend hours exploring, but you'll always feel like you missed things. That's because every space is designed to support multiple play-styles. There's always a way to use your powers to stalk from above, slip through a vent or circumnavigate a threat in a clever way, but there are also always ways to do the same without powers, since you can refuse the otherworldly abilities offered by the godlike entity known as the Outsider. It's testament to developer Arkane that its craftsmanship holds up however you decide to play.

I used my first playthrough as a way to experiment, to toy with the systems, sometimes slipping through undetected, leaving everyone alive, and sometimes cutting my way through as violently as possible. No other stealth game feels as empowering, or transitions so well between stealth and action. Whether ghosting through a level or leaving a trail of bloodshed, playing through without constantly reloading saves when you're spotted is immensely satisfying.

The wonderfully tactile environments support each style of play, adding an extra layer of unpredictability. You could be spotted because you opened a chest with drinking glasses sat on top of it, sending them tumbling to the ground when you open, bringing nearby guards to your location. Of course, as Corvo, you could quickly stop time and pluck them from the air before they touched the floor. In another bit of lovely physicality, some locked doors can even be bypassed by simply blowing them up. It's a playground with rules, and it's up to you to poke around with them and test their limitations.

In one encounter, I fire an arrow at a bottle of alcohol on a table, setting two guards alight who are seated there. From here, I plunge into another guard and cut their throat, but two more rush in to help. I block their attacks, fire my pistol and swing back with my steel until they're dead. In the aftermath, a light fitting swings, highlighting the bloody carnage with each sway. Another time, I use Far Reach to pull myself to a balcony, but misjudge the trajectory and fly into a shop window, smashing it with my body and drawing the city guard, forcing me to flee. Later, I decide to rob a black market and find a way to blow up the wall. I didn't mean to blow off the shopkeeper's limbs in the process, but here we are.

Combine this emergent excellence with some of the most intricate, memorable missions you've ever seen, and Dishonored 2 is a strong contender for game of the year.

Our verdict
Dishonored 2

Last night I went to bed after starting my second playthrough of Dishonored 2, and I dreamed of Karnaca. Like the Outsider plucking those who interest him from their earthly existence, Dishonored 2 has invaded my unconscious mind, to the point where I can barely think about much else. I'm already planning my third run.

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