It is inevitable that Dishonored will receive no end of comparisons to Bioshock, and this can be no bad thing. The story centric dystopian FPS found more than critical acclaim – it is considered by many to be 2007’s best game. However, while Dishonored has been undeniably influenced by Irrational Games’ masterpiece, it would be unfair to characterise this as a clone. The key factor here, is choice.
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
The game begins as the player character, Corvo Attano, returns to the city of Dunwall – a steampunk city, not dissimilar to a Victorian London, and rife with plague. Corvo is bodyguard to the Empress, and in the game’s prologue, she gets assassinated, and Lady Emily, the Empress’ daughter, is kidnapped as part of a coup by the Royal Spymaster, who becomes the new Lord Regent. Corvo is framed as being part of the conspiracy, and jailed. Months later, but prior to the execution, Corvo is helped to escape by a group of loyalists who wish to overthrow the new Lord Regent. To achieve this, they ask Corvo to turn assassin for their cause – with vengeance and saving the Lady Emily on Corvo’s mind, the game begins in earnest.
Corvo is a very versatile assassin, with a wide arsenal of weapons, skills, and, magical abilities. Swordplay, rarely handled well in first person games, is a real highlight. The controls are simple, with one button reserved for blocking and the other for attacking, but the heavily contextualised system feels superbly visceral. You really feel every hit, block, and well timed parry. Finishing moves are particularly gory, and deeply satisfying, whether it be plunging a sword through an enemy’s chest, or slicing his head off.
Sword fights feel fast, and dangerous, enhanced by believable damage levels which apply to you and your opponents. Mistakes are punished heavily, and it makes each encounter that much more exciting. It’s a great mechanic, with plenty of depth, but what’s really impressive is that it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Your other arm provides the variety. You’ve got a pistol, which is highly effective at close range, but loud enough to ensure further confrontation, and a crossbow, which is more appropriate for stealth but can’t be relied on for such quick kills. Add to these a grenade, which can be cooked, and a vicious little proximity mine which has a tendency to slice off enemy limbs, and you pack an extremely lethal package.
You can also use your left arm for magic. Not long into the game, you are transported into a mysterious dream world, where you meet the equally mysterious Outsider. From him, you gain the first of your abilities – blink. With this, you can transport yourself very quickly, and invisibly, over a short distance.
It’s an exceptionally useful tool, helpful for getting around, but also for getting past enemies and escaping. Alongside blink, there are five other abilities, allowing Corvo to slow time, see through walls, summon rats, fire out a gust of wind, and even possess other characters/creatures temporarily. Each of these can then be upgraded to a second level, increasing power and unlocking further utility.
The final weapon at your disposal in Dishonored, is stealth, and it’s probably the most important of the lot. Dishonored has been designed in such a way that, should you wish, you can avoid killing or being noticed. The deep, but accessible stealth mechanics provided make this a feasible, but still tricky goal.
By crouching, you go into stealth mode. This quiets your footsteps, and makes you harder to spot. To aid your ability to keep watch on your enemies, so you can exploit their movement, you can peek around corners using lean, pickpocket, peer through keyholes, and eavesdrop on conversations. The stealth mode also will help you to hide, contextually moving under tables and through small gaps.
The Dark Vision power, which allows you to see through walls provides some extra information for the cloak and dagger approach. Not only can you watch enemies from safety, but you can also see their a representation of their vision cones, and shockwaves representing the audibility of your actions.
Enemies can be dealt with by avoidance, but if you need to get rid of one you can creep up for a quick kill, or choke them until they are unconscious. In either case, you’ll need to be wary of them being found, so hiding them is always a good idea.
None of these mechanics would mean anything if they didn’t fit well with the enemy AI, but here too, Dishonored is successful. The AI is probably best described as intelligent, but limited. Limited in the sense that their vision, even on the highest difficulty, is short-ranged and quite narrow, and they are a bit hard of hearing, but once you accept those premises, everything else makes sense.
How aggressively you play has a knock on effect to the story and world as you play. The amount of chaos you cause – something reflected upon by a number of factors, but most importantly how many people you end up killing – reflects on how bad things get for Dunwall as the game goes on. To attain the most ‘positive’ ending, a stealthy approach where kills are kept to a minimum is necessary.
What this all sums to, is that Dishonored is a game which gives you a vast amount of choice in how you play. So much so, that even in a full playthrough, there will undoubtedly be plenty you still have to do, and plenty you won’t have even thought of doing yet.
The sprawling level design compounds this, emphasising multiple routes. Clamber over roofs and into open windows, go through the sewers, possess a rat and go through the vents, steal a key from a guard, or maybe find out about a secret route by listening in on a conversation or by helping someone out with a side quest. Or, of course, you could go in guns blazing – it’s absolutely up to you.
Each of Dishonored’s 9 missions plays across multiple game areas, some of which are repeated multiple times. While there is nothing to stop you going straight for your target(s), much of the game’s content exists in the preceding areas. Exploration is well rewarded, with lots of books and notes to read and immerse yourself further in the world, and items to find. Precious items and coins give you money, but it is the runes and bone charms, hidden around the world, that are most valuable.
Bone charms act as small character augments, giving a wide variety of useful bonuses, whereas runes are the key to increasing your magical abilities. Each power costs runes to unlock, and then more runes to upgrade, so hunting these down is more than worthwhile. The heart item in your inventory helps you find them, pinpointing them on your HUD, but knowing where they are is only ever part of the challenge of getting to them.
The money you accrue is also useful, generally for purchasing ammunition, but also for upgrading your weapons and equipment. Example upgrades range from crossbow range improvements, to quieter boots, to adding a zoom to your mask, and yet more upgrades become available when you find blueprints in the world.
It’s not just that the game gives you so much choice, it’s that your choices feel particularly meaningful. Sidequests are not merely there to bolster content, they help you to accomplish larger goals. Helping out a gang leader opened up a secret path to the Golden Cat brothel, where my targets were staying, and I found a skeleton key while carefully exploring a mansion house which opened doors in the next mission.
Dishonored also goes further than most games to facilitate the player tuning the experience to their needs. There are four difficulties on the game, from easy to very hard, and there are a ridiculous number of options so that you can take off every assist known to man – objective indicators, health bars, tooltips, aim assistance, and so on.
In gameplay, Dishonored shines. It is not unusual to play games with high quality gameplay mechanics, but it’s hard to think of one which delivers so many mechanics so well.
The story underpinning this triumph is, unfortunately, not so good. It all feels a little bit predictable, particularly the obligatory twist which can be seen from a mile off. Most problematically, the game fails to make you care about the characters you are meant to be helping, primarily because you never really get to know any of the fairly large cast particularly well. The ending too, doesn’t really hit home, leaving you with a sense of anticlimax and wanting more.
From a graphical perspective, Dishonored certainly doesn’t stand out against the current crop of games at this stage in the generation, but considering the non-linear scope of most levels, this perhaps isn’t that surprising. The art direction however shines through the level design, building architectures, and weird, wonderful character models. It’s all very much larger than life, but it really works, and some scenes, like that where you have to infiltrate a masked ball, show spectacular vibrancy.
From an audio perspective, Dishonored is solid. Sound effects are excellent, and listening in on enemies can be a real treat, giving you insight into the world, sometimes clues to help you on your way, and sometimes just a really good laugh. Using my upgraded mask optics to zoom in on enemies, I could eavesdrop on far-away conversations, giving me the whereabouts of my targets from a safe distance.
Sadly, the voice acting in conversations can be a little painful at times. The pacing, for example, is often quite unnatural, with sentences ending without a pause for breath before the next begins, and tones occasionally changing mid speech. It’s this slight lack of polish which belies where Arkane Studios focus lay with Dishonored, and while no-one should complain about gameplay being number one, it is always painful to see minor missteps holding back otherwise excellent experiences.
With Dishonored, Arkane Studios have taken a number of risks. Solely single player games are tricky to sell these days, where consumers are intent on getting value for money. Longevity is critical, but it’s quite hard to say how much longevity Dishonored will have. It is perfectly believable that, on the lower difficulties with little interest towards extra content, you could finish this game in 5-6 hours, and for a full priced game, that is on the low side.
However, if you give Dishonored the time it deserves, and you throw yourself into the side missions, you try to play with variety, you play on an appropriate difficulty, and you explore the world Arkane have created, you will likely find your playthrough lasting 15 hours (like myself), or more. Those attempting nonlethal, or ‘ghost’ runs (where you are entirely unnoticed), will likely take even longer.
But even that would still undersell Dishonored’s longevity, because this campaign provides a lot of replayability. Between all the paths I didn’t take, the upgrades I didn’t buy, the powers I didn’t learn, the tactics I didn’t use and the mission scenarios I didn’t experience, I am certain I could play through again, and do almost everything differently. What’s more, I reckon I’d finish the second time feeling the same way.
Dishonored is not perfect. Aesthetically it’s really nothing special, and the story is a bit of a let down, but I struggle to think of a game which concocts such an enjoyable mixture of polished, deep game mechanics. While valid comparisons to Deus Ex, Thief, and Bioshock exist, Dishonored is very much its own game.
For that, it seems like a viable contender for game of the year. With the Holiday period fast approaching, the annual flurry of ‘Triple-A’ games is about to begin. While many of those games will receive more attention, and better sales than Arkane Studios’ creation, it should be noted that Dishonored is an experience that no-one should miss.