September 20, 2017 // 12 p.m.
Developer: Arkane Studios
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Version Reviewed: PS4
Dishonored has always shared a large portion of its DNA with Thief. From its opulent level design to the guards who grumble under their breath as they patrol the streets of Karnaca, it's a series with a powerful and unashamed affection for Looking Glass' groundbreaking stealth game. In Death of the Outsider, that affection is at its most palpable. Despite the implications in the title, vengeance and assassination take a back seat here in favour of housebreaking, burglary, and elaborate heists. Murder may be the ultimate goal in Death of the Outsider, but the road to its conclusion involves no small amount of thievery.
I love Thief, and because of that I wish I could say I love Death of the Outsider as well. But sadly I don't. It's an expansion that contains some exhilarating highs but also some frustrating lows. With one dazzling exception, Death of the Outsider's missions fall on the weaker end of the Dishonored spectrum, while Billie Lurk's new range of powers don't gel together as well as those of either Corvo Attano or Emily Kaldwin. It's an expansion with lots of bold and new ideas, but the execution of many of them left me wanting.
That said, there's no question that Death of the Outsider is a generous expansion. Contained within are three new, full-fledged missions, one repurposed mission from Dishonored 2, and a short, sharp introductory level which sees un-retired assassin Billie Lurk rescuing her mentor Daud from an underground fighting pit run by a strange cult known as the Eyeless. Once liberated, Daud claims he has discovered a way to kill the Outsider, the boyish, enigmatic god who gave Daud the powers he used to kill the Empress of Dunwall, before handing those same powers to Corvo to enact his vengeance upon the conspirators, Daud included.
Daud wants to stop the Outsider treating history like a giant game of Jenga. But he is too old and weak to take on the mission himself. Hence the task falls to Billie, who has her own score to settle with the Outsider, to track down the black-eyed deity and drive a knife into his throat.
Unlike Daud, Corvo, and Emily Kaldwin, Billie has not been marked by the Outsider, and so cannot wield his unique abilities. But she does acquire a different set of powers through rather contrived and somewhat unconvincing means. Displace is Billie's version of Blink, allowing her to place a marker in the world and then teleport to it at her discretion. Foresight is essentially a fancier form of noclip, allowing Billie to scout ahead in a spectral form, marking enemies, and visualising their patrol paths. Finally, there's Semblence, which enables her to steal people's faces and wear them like a mask.
Each of Dishonored's characters are epitomised by their powers in some way. Corvo's abilities reflected the two potential sides of his personality, a blend of stealth and assault. Emily was a manipulator, able to push and pull people in different directions, Mesmerise them into a stupor, or bind their fates together using Domino. Billie's powers, by comparison, are all about planning. Foresight lets you assess the situation ahead of you, while Displace lets you set a teleport in advance as a Plan B or an escape route. Finally, Semblance enables you to connect your plan together, walking through crowds unnoticed.
In theory, it's a great combination. In practice, however, the way Billie's powers are structured makes her quite inflexible, lacking the adaptability of either Emily or Corvo. The extra step in Displace makes it difficult to use in combat, while Foresight and Semblance are next to useless when fighting breaks out. In fact, Semblance is generally underpowered. You can only use it on unconscious bodies for some reason, and it drains your mana very quickly, making it useful only in specific circumstances.
More successful are the new gadgets Billie acquires. Her voltaic gun can be upgraded to shoot any small, metallic object, and can vaporise enemies when charged up. Meanwhile Hyperbaric grenades explode in a cloud of chloroform, making them a fantastic non-lethal addition to the roster. By far my favourite new gadget, however, is the hook mine. This devious little device grabs onto the limbs of passing guards and reels them in for a variety of dispatch methods. They can be set either to stun opponents with an electric charge or lethally tear their limbs off. The latter is particularly amusing, often flinging enemies across entire rooms if they run toward the mine at speed. More importantly, the mine can be thrown and stuck to walls, which makes it highly versatile, good for setting traps and quickly disabling an opponent in combat.
Like Billie's new abilities, the missions in which she uses them are a mixed bag. After rescuing Daud, the first full mission takes place in a sprawling section of Karnaca's streets. It's a complex area that includes several large buildings to explore and at least a dozen smaller apartments, shops, and cubbyholes. But it's also crammed with guards and enemies that are difficult to evade, and one wrong foot can see you swarmed by half-a-dozen enemies. There are some highlights, such as several side-missions that include kidnapping a bartender and murdering a mime. But it's also quite convoluted, forcing you to track back and forth through the same streets multiple times.
The second mission, by comparison, is one of the strongest in the whole series. The Bank Job is a huge and beautifully open-ended mission that sees Billie trying to steal an ancient knife from the high-security 'Elevator Vault' at the Delores Bank in Karnaca. A loving homage to Thief II's First City Bank and Trust, it's a superb mix of options and obstacles, with multiple layers of security that must be breached and hazards that include electrified floors and new 'Clockwork Sentinels' - more powerful versions of the Clockwork Soldiers featured in the first game. The only downside is one of your side-objectives makes the mission a little too easy to complete (should you choose to pursue it).
After this prime example of Arkane's talent, however, Death of the Outsider takes a marked downturn. The following mission centres around a location we've already explored. Admittedly, it's been “refurbished” in an interesting way, but apart from the new residents and slightly altered décor, there are few surprises contained within. The final mission, meanwhile, is a disappointingly linear affair that includes a couple of extremely heavily guarded areas which are a nightmare to traverse. It's understandable Arkane would make Death of the Outsider more challenging than Dishonored 2, given the assumption that players would have already seasoned themselves in the first game. But these Gordian Knots of guard patrols that crop up from time to time just aren't fun to contend with, as you're often dead before you can react to the fact that you've been spotted.
There are other ideas in Death of the Outsider that don't work as well as they could. For example, the expansion strips down a few of Dishonored 2's systems, removing Runes and Addermire Solutions from the game. On the one hand, this means you don't have to explore every nook and cranny to upgrade your powers and you never need to worry about running out of mana. On the other, it means your powers don't evolve as the game progresses, and you can't combine powers in the same way you could previously because your mana pool is strictly limited.
Arkane's attempt to make Death of the Outsider a more focussed experience is admirable, and sensible given the confines of a standalone expansion. But the end result compromises on Dishonored's most fundamental founding pillar, the ability to experiment and develop your own mode of play. There are glimpses of it visible in the hook mines and that splendid central mission, but overall I found Death of the Outsider too uneven to recommend outright.