I will admit to viewing the announcement of Dishonored earlier this year with some mixed feelings. Initially I saw that they had used the American, and thus INCORRECT, version of spelling Dishonoured in the title and so was a little bit dubious about the game. Then I realised that it was being published by Bethesda and I watched the absolutely awesome cinematic trailer and proceeded to start throwing money at my computer screen. The game was also developed by Arkane Studios who I remembered from playing Bioshock 2, so I figured that the game had the right companies behind it.
Dishonored is a first-person, stealth-based, assassination game with you taking on the role of Corvo Attano the silent and masked protagonist. Corvo is the personal bodyguard of the Empress and her daughter but when you return to her (at the start of the game) she is almost immediately assassinated and her daughter, Emily, is kidnapped. Corvo is then framed for the murder while the real man behind it, the Spymaster, seizes power. The rest of the game then revolves around your attempts to restore Emily to the throne, defeat the new “Lord Regent” and eliminate the corruption and tyranny from the high and mighty of the city of Dunwall, where the game is set.
The game’s backdrop is one of the steampunk Victorian style city of Dunwall where new and exciting technology is made possible through the use of whale-oil, allowing the use steampunk trams and trains as well as other more sinister technologies like the Walls of Light. Dunwall is also based on British architecture and styles, originally it was to be set in London, and it shows in both the look of the NPCs and the surroundings, and I have to say that it was very odd to see a fictional city that was so distinctly British. As well as having to deal with a cruel and possibly insane government the city has to deal with a rat plague which is slowly killing a vast number of the population, turning them into shambling zombies called Weepers in the time before their death.
Overall I loved the style and atmosphere of the game, the steampunk feel and technology was awesome and something I vastly approved of, I do personally believe that steampunk is an underused and under-explored option for video games with the vast possibilities it possesses. A perfect example of this is the tall-boys, the stilt-walkers equipped with incendiary bow and arrows. They are a fantastic combination of creepy, scary and completely awesome which seems prevalent in the game. As well as this the whole depressing and dark look and feel of the game really suited the game, it drew me in and kept me interested in the world as well as giving more than a few creepy and disturbing moments.
With absolutely gorgeous graphics, even on the Xbox 360, Dishonored went for highly stylised form of art and characters. I hesitate to call it “cartoony” because it was anything but it was not the “true-realism” which many games go for today, with each new game trying to perfect the realistic look of everything. A comparison I could draw, because I know I’m not describing it very well, would be Fable or Bioshock, where things look absolutely awesome but don’t have to look exactly like real life. That said, they also went for extraordinarily well done movement and interaction with your environment. It’s a game which really proves you don’t need insanely realistic graphics to make a game which both looks and feel absolutely amazing, and honestly I do think that the game did look just that. Mentioning Bioshock actually allows me to draw another comparison as it is the game which I think most resembles the gameplay of Dishonored. Early on in the game you are found by a mysterious person/entity known as the Outsider who gives you magical abilities along the lines of slowing/stopping time, teleporting (a short distance blink), possessing animals and people and a couple of other really cool powers. Thus Corvo always duel wields one of his powers or one of his gadgets, including his crossbow, in his left hand and his sword in his right. The stealth aspect of the game reminds me of Deus Ex: Human Revolution but is, I think, better done. Instead of providing you with an obvious front door for the aggressive and homicidal players and an obvious ventilation duct beside the front door for the stealth players the game prides itself on having multiple points of entry and travel during every mission.
This is, in fact, the game’s forte as the way the player proceeds through every mission is entirely up to him. There are usually multiple points of entry and escape, you could blink up to the rooftops and enter through an open window, you might find a concealed rubbish chute in the back of the building, you could possess a fish and swim up through the drains into the building. Or you could teleport into the face of the nearest enemy, shoot him and then stop time so you can catch the grenade thrown by one of his friends and throw it back.
It’s great fun to play with the stealth often being tense and full of patient but rewarding moments while the combat is fast, frantic and furious. In fact the combat is particularly well done because of it’s speed. In a game where you are wielding a sword from the first person perspective it can be difficult to make fencing seem realistic. The game gets around this by having the sword fights be quick and brutal with your enemies swinging at you, followed by a block and a swift, vicious counter. For the most part it works and makes the sword fighting actually seem more like just that, instead of “two people hitting each other with swords until one of their health runs out”.
By the late game Corvo does become a little overpowered, his short range blink ability becoming a really long range blink and stopping time completely gives you an undeniable edge over the city watch, but even so the combat never really lost that exciting feel, especially when the tall-boys come into play. I do have to admit that part of this does come from the fact that the powers are just so damned cool. And naturally the stealth never really stops being tense and enjoyable.
The storyline of the game is seemed well written and I did enjoy watching everything unfold throughout the game, watching the city slowly succumb to the plague and the everyday lives of the people slowly becoming more unbearable. The way in which the player proceeds through the game also determines the outcome at the end, with a good and bad ending depending on how you approached each mission. If you kill absolutely everyone you come into contact with then you increase the Chaos level of the game and make the outcome much darker and depressing while it is actually possible to play through the game without killing anyone whatsoever to provide the best ending possible. This, along with the seemingly infinite variation of traversing the game’s world does mean that there is some serious replay value in Dishonored which is often missing from the campaign of games which are not roleplaying based.
Another thing worth mentioning is the soundtrack of the game, while it never really comes into the forefront of your mind playing the game it does what the music of a game ought to do: it consistently and without fail enhances the atmosphere of the game, it’s never overbearing and never tiring and so does exactly what it is meant to.
For all it’s upsides Dishonored does have a few things which I feel don’t live up to the high standard the rest of the game sets. The biggest thing I would say is the length of the game. I played as a stealth based character going for both the “Ghost” and “Clean Hands” achievements meaning I could not be seen, could not set off any alarms and could not kill anyone during the course of the game. This required patience and care, and whenever I did not show enough of both of these then I would be spotted, go on a murderous rampage and then reload a previous save. Essentially it took me a fair amount of time to get through the game, in between 20 and 30 hours I would say. However this was for a playthrough which, even for me, was slow and ponderous. Had I gone aggressive with less care for the lives of the NPCs I am fairly certain I could have completed the game in less than half the time I did.
Moreover I feel that the areas of the game were really far too small. By using the various powers it is possible to explore almost the entire map you are placed in, but despite that at times it did feel like the game was a bit confining and claustrophobic, it really needed larger levels. The only other thing which bothered me enough to mention is the interaction between NPCs and their surroundings. I remember from a while back that Arkane were hoping to create a game where NPCs would appear to have routines and lives of their own and so were not just furniture and did not just statically patrol one stretch of corridor, and in a way they did succeed here. I swear, nothing prepared me for sneaking up on a guard in the sewers only to watch him stop in his patrol to piss into the water, a human touch which impressed me. However, all too many of the NPCs could simply be furniture, in a mission set in a brothel I spent 20 minutes slowly examining every nook and cranny of the place and when I went to leave I discovered that two of the whores had spent the entire twenty minutes, where I had left them, in the bathroom doing their make-up. It was a little bit of a let-down.
The interaction between the NPCs and each other did not really impress me either. When you first encounter pairs or groups of them there would sometimes be set conversations which would happen before they went about their patrols, routines, whatever and thereafter they would occasionally say something to one of their compatriots. Put like that it sounds like it would add some extra depth to the world but honestly after hearing the same line repeated hundreds of times responded to with one of about three possible responses, it became less of eavesdropping on conversations to more hearing the turning of gears in a machine. There was just not enough variation, especially as it always takes the form of a single line of speech followed by an even shorter response, and it just struck me as mechanical and actually detrimental to the atmosphere.
Overall, despite these flaws, I will say that Dishonored is an absolutely outstanding game and is well worth buying, it may even be in with a shot of game of the year for 2012. I actually feel it is worth saying as well that in a gaming world where it seems that just about everything is a sequel these days it is really nice, and actually worryingly rare, to see something new and refreshing from the big game companies.