On a gameplay level, there are few games as satisfying as Dishonored. While many releases claim to offer multiple ways to handle every situation, Dishonored truly pulls this off, giving you various options and making each one a viable choice. The superb stealth may be the focus of Dishonored, but a varied suite of abilities and thrilling combat mean that pacifists and killers alike can have a great time with this excellent title.
Neck stabbing is entirely optional, but also entirely awesome.
In Dishonored, you play as Corvo Attano, ex-bodyguard to the Empress now turned assassin after he was framed for her murder. Corvo’s new job is to aid some self-proclaimed loyalists as they take down important targets, rescue the late Empress’ daughter, and place her on the throne. This tale of revenge manifests in the industrial city of Dunwall, a fictional port that resembles a mix of Half Life’s City 17 and late-1800s England. Even with its similarities to Half Life 2 (due to sharing the same lead artist), this enticing blend of old and new does feel like a unique setting. The other major feature of Dunwall is the rat plague, a horrible disease spread by the dirty rodents wreaking havoc on the lovely city. The plague is not only window dressing, though; this infection has a real impact on Dishonored’s gameplay, its spread throughout the game relatively dependent on your actions. If you kill your way through Dishonored, expect the scourge to get worse as the rats feast upon the corpses you leave in your wake. If you keep your body count low, then things won’t be so bad for Dunwall's citizenry.
In addition to the whale oil industry and high-tech gadgetry, Dunwall is also home to magic. This magic is rarity in the world of Dishonored, and Corvo is one of the lucky few able to wield it. This aptitude for the arcane arts bestows Corvo with many interesting gameplay possibilities. The list of available powers may not be huge, but in this case less is more. All the powers feel well designed, well balanced, and adaptable enough to suit any style of play. An ability that lets you stop time, enabling you to move on undetected, can also be used lethally. You could walk through the frozen group of guards, or you could fire a crossbow bolt at their heads, resume time, then watch them all die instanty. You could also use this power to dodge enemy gunfire or perhaps reposition said enemy (with the help of other abilities) in front of his own bullet. The powers of Dishonored enhance the open-ended nature of the gameplay, allowing the player to think outside of the box, as imagination's the only limit.
The art design can be very atmospheric.
Not all the abilities are unlocked from the start. In fact, only one power is given to the player; the rest you will have to earn. After the prologue mission, the Outsider (a shadowy figure and the source of magic in this world) visits Corvo in his dreams and grants him the ability to Blink. Of course, this is no ordinary blinking; it’s actually a type of teleportation. Blink permits you to instantly (and silently) cross a set distance in the direction of your choosing. All you need to do is aim the reticle where you want to go. As your staple power (the mana it uses will even regenerate, ensuring you always have access to this ability), Blink allows you to take advantage of the impressive level design. The environments of Dishonored are built with verticality in mind, meaning you are not simply relegated to sneaking or shooting your way through corridors. Although some areas remain inaccessible, most of the areas open up to Corvo immediately, giving the player more freedom of choice. Navigating your way around the world is in no way complex, and maneuvering from platform to platform rarely feels limiting.
To unlock the rest of Corvo's powers, you need to find runes dotted around the environment. Luckily, hunting for runes is not just random searching, nor as tedious as it sounds, thanks to an item Corvo carries: the pulsating heart, when equipped, creates waypoints on your screen for all the runes and bone charms, which assign you passive benefits. The heart speaks and reads minds, too. If you aim the organ at a person, a voice will tell you secrets about that character. It’s a small touch that really helps flesh out the world with a lot of interesting information. But once you locate the runes, you can access your unlocked powers and equipment from a radial menu or equip them to a quick select bar. This quick select makes mouse and keyboard far more advisable than using a controller, as the radial menu does not stop time. Much like The Witcher 2, time merely slows rather than pausing the game. Although not an issue in The Witcher thanks to the small amount of skills, in Dishonored, this flaw is problematic. If you access the radial menu mid-battle, you will keep being attacked while selecting powers, which adds an unneeded sense of urgency to an otherwise deliberate game. It's an incredibly minor irritant, but the inability to pause pressures you into taking swift action.
The heart... it talks, and it knows all your secrets...
And yet the radial menu is not the only slight interface issue. Dishonored faces problems with its visual feedback. If you hover the Blink reticle over a ledge, the logo will turn into an upwards arrow, meaning you will vault over the obstacle instead of teleporting into a wall. While exceptionally useful for getting around, the visual cue could be better. It’s sometimes very hard to tell (especially at a distance) if the reticle has changed, and you may find yourself plummeting to the ground several times rather than scaling the desired platform. The length of the powers could also do with more tweaking. The game makes clear when slowing or stopping time ends, but an indicator of the abilities' entire duration would have been better. Some of the context sensitive prompts can be very finicky, too. Aerial assassinations should prompt you to execute a guard before Corvo hits the ground, yet this mechanic can be very difficult to time, and sometimes it just doesn't work. When you pull these moves off, you feel like a badass, but issues do occasionally crop up.
However, the amount of inbuilt variety in the game means you can skirt around the hindrances and still have a fantastic time. The design fully embraces the philosophy of player choice (on a gameplay level at least), and levels set up assassinations in large areas that exercise a lot of player freedom. The end goal involves taking out your target and escaping, though this simple task can be carried out in multiple ways. A single level may offer you the choice of poisoning your victim's wine, freeing a feral dog so you don't have to get your hands dirty, or putting into action a series of events that culminate in him being excommunicated from society. Of course you could just opt to shoot your target in the face, but to do so would be to miss out on some delightfully intricate and clever lethal/non-lethal ways to get rid of your prey. The array of skills at your disposal leaves room for some improvisation as well, so even if you don't follow a set path there is always a creative way to deal with your mark.
Colorful characters? Check!
Dishonored remains truly exceptional from a gameplay standpoint. Sadly, the same cannot be said about its story. Arkane Studios sets up a very intriguing world fleshed out well through items around the environment, but the narrative they have based in Dunwall is rather predictable. It serves its purpose to get you from one fantastic level to the next, though, and apart from a completely unsatisfying ending, the storytelling doesn't get in the way of your enjoyment. A stealthy completionist playthrough of Dishonored can be completed in about twelve hours. While twelve hours occupies a decent amount of time, it does leave you wanting more. Things start tying up before you want them to, and the gameplay is of such a high standard that you will hunger for more. This is almost made up for by the game's replayability, but the replay value is lessened by a lack of a new game plus option. You will want to play through Dishonored again, because there are so many options available to you, though you will have to start from square one. Having to acquire powers from the beginning and over a relatively short period of time doesn't provide the player with the sandbox experience that Dishonored could have done. By the time you gather all the powers you want, your experimentation time is running out, and that experimentation is Dishonored’s greatest strength.
In spite of its minor problems, Dishonored's putting control in the hands of the player is incredibly fun and all the more rewarding for it. The stealth is accessible enough not to be frustrating and open-ended enough to provide a deep gameplay experience, while cleverly implemented powers and some great weapons mean that a more action heavy playthrough can be just as enjoyable. Dishonored's easily one of the year’s best titles, and the staggering amount of player choice on offer makes for a wholly compelling game that you should, and will, play through multiple times.
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Arkane Studios
Release Date: October 9, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation 3