Dishonored is a game that will remind you of many acclaimed titles that came before it. Whether it’s in terms of gameplay or presentation, you’ll see ingredients in here that are similar to the ones that made up games like Deus Ex, Bioshock, Thief, Half-life, and many more. Frankly, the list of spiritual predecessors could go on for quite some time.
This type of development isn’t uncommon, but the games we really remember aren’t the ones that just tried to emulate great titles. To be on that level, a game should not only learn the lessons that those great titles had to offer, but also apply that knowledge to improve on a unique idea. It should manage to take advantage of familiar elements without feeling like it’s relying solely on them to carry the weight.
Dishonored is a game that understands this and, by doing so, ends up fully delivering on what it set out to do.
Dishonored takes place in an industrial whaling city called Dunwall, during a time where just about everything is going wrong all at once. The city is in the midst of terrible plague, criminal activity is at an all time high, and any breakthroughs in advanced technologies that are being discovered only end up being abused by those in power. You’re thrown into the boots of Corvo Attano, the former bodyguard to the Empress of Dunwall. When Corvo fails to prevent her murder, he’s framed for the crime and set to be executed. Upon escaping from prison, he becomes an assassin in order to rescue the daughter of the Empress and bring down the individuals who are truly responsible. Along the way, Corvo will find assistance from an underground group loyal to the Empress, and a mysterious entity known as The Outsider, who grants Corvo supernatural powers to accomplish his goals.
Now I’ll just say right off the bat that the story of Dishonored isn’t anything special on its own. In fact, I would go so far to say that it was kind of irritating just how predictable the overall story was, and when you see a certain event coming from a mile away, it’s pretty annoying to have to go through the motions as if you don’t. But what the game lacks in story is made up for in its solid presentation.
While Corvo is the latest in a proud line of silent protagonists, the characters you’ll meet are all well-written and feature some particularly great voice-acting performances. For as often as developers will pull in celebrities to play certain roles, this was first time I ever felt the money was well-spent, and I don’t say that just because Doc from Deadwood makes Corvo’s items (though that probably would have been enough for me). I particularly felt Susan Sarandon and Michael Madsen strongly delivered on two of the most interesting characters in the game. I can even say, for as often as children in games tend to mostly annoy me, even Emily the Empress’s daughter, manages to come off as a genuinely sympathetic character who really needs Corvo’s protection in a truly terrible environment.
And Dunwall really is a dark place. As you try to navigate around, or through, the militarized City Watch patrolling the streets, you’ll read and hear plenty from the city’s inhabitants that paints a picture of Dunwall’s mysterious history and watch the combination of ruthlessness, desperation, and paranoia that’s quickly building up. You’ll see a city that’s almost at the point of ruin for the populace, while the elite somehow live in abject abundance. Exploring both these sides of Dunwall as Corvo’s journey progressed ended up being surprisingly enjoyable. So while the main story isn’t quite as interesting as the setting, Dunwall’s story itself and characters are intriguing enough that I find myself hoping that I’ll get a chance to visit it again.
The story is played out in missions. You’ll mainly leave from a hub area where the loyalists are hiding out to be taken to a new part of the city to track down your next target. You’ll also usually stumble across a couple of side objectives which could merely add a level of depth to Dunwall or even potentially have an effect on your main task. It’s not so much an open world system, but the level areas themselves are pretty large and encourage some exploration before pursuing your main goal. There are plenty of secrets to be found including various upgrades in form of bone charms which grant Corvo perks you can equip and runes which can add and upgrade your supernatural powers.
Like many assassins that came before him, Corvo will find himself running and leaping from the roofs of the Dunwall to its sewers. While first-person platforming typically isn’t the best way to get around in games, Dishonored handles it pretty solidly. Corvo can pull himself up ledges so your aim doesn’t have to be perfect, and with the Blink (i.e. teleport) ability, there’s no getting stuck by a lack of a clear jump as long as you’re in range of another platform. It’s a pretty accessible first-person system whether you’re trying to take it slow and stay hidden, or you’re finding yourself having to make a run for it.
After you’ve explored a fair bit of the city you’ll eventually end up at your target’s location, and like a Deus Ex or a Thief, these places are definitely the meat of the game. From brothels to banquets, the facilities are diverse both visually and in terms of layout. This is where you’ll really think about how you’ll choose to play the game, because the level design is all about giving you options. There’s a variety of ways to infiltrate and escape, and all of your abilities allow you to navigate without too many irritating restrictions. This eases the fear that you may be playing the game the “wrong way”, and also allows you to appreciate all the great detail thats put into the levels, both in its layout and the characters you’ll be stalking your way around.
Regardless of how you may want to play it, though, it’s worth noting that Dishonored is very much a game of planning. The game does a solid job with Corvo’s offensive capabilities. In combat, the swordplay is kept pretty simple with a “slash, block, counter” setup, you’re armed with a crossbow and a pistol (each with a few different types of ammo) and there are plenty of unique abilities that can benefit in a fight (Possession, Stopping time, sicking a plague of rats on people, etc.) If you plan on slicing and shooting your way to your target, that’s certainly a strategy that can be pulled off. But Corvo can’t take too much abuse, even with a good supply of potions. So if you want to rip your way through a group of soldiers, you’ll still want to stick to the shadows to plan out your fight.
But, if you’re like me, fighting is only a last resort when stealth is the name of the game, and indeed, Dishonored is at its most satisfying when you try to approach it as an assassin would. The stealth here is just about as good as it has been in any game and when it’s done that well, exploring, stealing, planning, and striking from the shadows provides a thrill I don’t know if I’ll ever get tired of. And considering all the abilities you can potentially get (though you won’t be able to unlock them all) and all the paths you can take in a level, Dishonored does a good job of providing a faster pace beyond just crawling behind every guard from dark spot to dark spot.
That’s not to say it’s the most polished stealth game you’ll ever play, however. Certain stealth-focused abilities such as Dark Vision were tedious to constantly have to re-use since they were treated like any other spell, and being unable to take out sources of light beyond blowing out candles just felt inconsistent for how often you’ll interact with the environment. Corvo also seems to have troubling differentiating “Drop” from “Throw”, despite them being two different buttons, which can have some unintended consequences, as hilarious as they may be.
In all honesty, though, these nitpicks don’t keep Dishonored from being on par with some of my favorite stealth titles. I don’t think there’s been a game that really pulls off being an assassin quite as well and part of that is because of its solidly executed stealth mechanics, but it’s also due to how you can take advantage of your environment. Whether it’s turning guards’ machines against them, or letting an “accident” take credit for a target’s death, you always feel like your solution was a clever one. Even when it comes time for you to get up close and personal or for you to explore a non-lethal option to take out a target, leaving them to a fate potentially more disturbing than death, you always seem to feel like you’re doing something right.
But if I could make one suggestion to you, it would be to try to play Dishonored naturally, at least for your first game. People, myself included, have a tendency with stealth games to constantly try to play a certain way and reload saves until they pull it off. The game even encourages this to an extent with it taking note of how much chaos you caused and if you killed anyone after each mission. But I found I was getting the most out of the game when I was allowing for things to occasionally go wrong.
Successfully sneaking around meant more when I knew I could end up in a bad situation. And when I did screw up, whether I had to fight, run, or some combination of both, I could appreciate the adrenaline rush.
Unlike me, Dishonored itself won’t care how you choose to play it. Whether a plan came together perfectly or you find yourself having to improvise, every part of the game is well-made, and I say that having had to do plenty of both. This a game that juggles a few different ideas at once but, at its core, knows what it wants to be. It’s a proud single-player adventure that carries elements that are familiar and elements that are refreshing, and merges them together pretty excellently. And who wouldn’t want more of those?
The copy reviewed was for the Xbox 360.Posted in Reviews by Ben Matlock on October 17, 2012