“A Dish Best Served Cold.” — A Dishonored Review
By Eric Stuckart
It’s always nice to see a new title release — that isn’t a sequel or a reboot of some sort — that manages to take things that we’re all familiar with and shake them up in a way that still makes it well worth playing. The only other game that I’ve had the pleasure of playing this year that did that was United Front’s Sleeping Dogs, but technically that game was originally an unfinished sequel in the True Crime series, so that leaves Arkane Studio’s first person stealth title Dishonored one of its kind 2012, for me at least.
There’s a lot of games that make claims to stealth being a huge drive to the gameplay, but few of them actually live up to the premise. Just look what happened to the Splinter Cell series. The last one basically might as well been called Michael Ironside Crushes Skulls Interrogates Bad Guys: The Game, with how far removed it had become from the stealth genre. Fortunately, Dishonored gives players a wonderful amount of breathing room as far as how stealthy they truly want to play the game. Not once in the game does it feel like it’s all or nothing; it’s quite the opposite, really.
The game takes place in the fictional, quasi-steampunk/clockwork city of Dunwall, which kind of looks a bit like 19th century London, during the ravaging epidemic of a rat plague. Corvo Attano, the bodyguard of Dunwall’s Empress, is returning from a trip overseas to request help of the neighboring cities against the outbreak. Upon his return he is framed for her murder by assassins, as well as the kidnapping of her daughter Emily. Months later, he is broken out of prison by an underground group of rebels still loyal to the late Empress and set on his way to work up the food chain to find the missing princess, right the wrongs and the consequences that followed, and most importantly — get revenge on those that framed him.
In the city of Dunwall, the player finds that there’s a certain air of class warfare going on, with the rat plague hitting the worst in the poorer, slummy areas of the city, while the upper class still enjoys a bit of protection from the disease, going so far as to hold swanky masquerade parties and all of the other things that such a society would hold comfort to. However, even they aren’t immune to the disease, something that becomes quite evident with everyone’s reliance on elixers and remedies — health and mana potions to the player, but important rat plague medicine to everyone else in the game’s world.
Through his alliance with the loyalists, Corvo is given a number of weapons, from the requisite pistol, crossbow and sword, to the slightly more sneaky, such as mines that shoot out metal shards when set off and tools that can be used to rewire enemy security systems to work against them rather than the player. The loyalist’s in-house scientist, Piero, is available to sell the player any needed ammo and tools, as well as upgrades to both weaponry and personal equipment. With the amount of loot that is strewn throughout the game’s expansive levels, as well as on pretty much everone that walks around in the game, there’s no excuse to not take advantage of the many upgrades available.
Early in the game, the player receives a visit from a mystical being known only as The Outsider, who grants Corvo with magical powers, the first one being the ability to teleport across short distances. He also gives Corvo a human heart imbued with both mechanical and magical properties which allows him to find runes and bone charms hidden throughout the game’s levels. The runes serve as in-game currency to buy magical powers for Corvo to use, such as the ability possess other living creatures for short periods of time, to see through walls, or to even stop time itself, among other things. This all comes at the cost of mana, and all of the powers are limited in how long they can be used for, making everything have a cost and requiring them to be used strategically in the levels. Bone charms, on the other hand, offer small perks to the player, and can help with everything from health regeneration to the amount of loot or ammo the player will find from time to time. The player is only allowed to equip a limited number of them at the same time, so once again strategic planning is the name of the game.
It’s not hard to notice aesthetic and certain gameplay similarities to Bioshock; the visual style itself — between both the characters and levels themselves — has the same colorful, imaginative appeal of that game. Dishonored also has that same weird affinity for having levels full of strange foods hidden everywhere in the game. However, much like Bioshock, it’s little things like that that give the game’s world — as fictional as it may be — a very realized and fleshed out feel to it. The game has its own very palpable culture, something that can be taken in to a greater extent by seeking out and reading all of the books lying around the game. There’s everything from history volumes to science tomes, diaries, even books with nursery rhymes and plays in them. Why? Why not? It’s just one of those things that’s there if you want to check it out, and if not — fine, don’t. But in many respects it only helps to enrich this fictional place and makes it seem all the more real to those that have the pleasure of exploring it.
The game itself is always dependent on giving the players the ability to choose their plan of attack every step of the way. There’s always the typical straightforward path to get from point A to point B, but what’s the fun in that when you can climb rooftop to rooftop to get there, or — even more ridiculously — possess a rat and sneak around dilapidated alleyways and the sort of holes that only a rat would be able to sneak through? Even more importantly though, not once is the player ever required to kill anyone. Granted, a completely pacifist run through Dishonored is both a test of skill and patience, but even when the loyalists give Corvo his next assassination target, there’s always a less violent way to neutralize the target, as the game calls it. It might not always be evident or obvious from a passing glance, but it’s always there. That alone gives motivation to players to explore a little and dig into the world that Arkane created.
For players not determined enough to attempt a completely non-lethal runthrough, it’d be recommended to find a happy medium between stealth and combat, as going out guns blazing has its drawbacks as well. Given the time period, Corvo’s gun and crossbow manually reload, so initially players will have to make each shot count. There’s always the alternative of using melee combat, but guards are more than skilled swordsmen, requiring proper use of blocking and counterattacks. Of course, with enough weapon upgrades, the player can eventually get a bit of an upper hand, but it’s still not going to count for much in later levels, which find more guards, as well as the powerful Tallboys, watchmen that tower above everyone else on mechanical stilts, with bows and explosive arrows in their possession. It’s possible to survive just about any encounter, but it’s not nearly as fun as picking off enemies one by one and only getting aggressive when truly necessary.
If it sounds like I’m gushing a bit, it’s because I am. I haven’t been this excited to replay a game immediately upon beating in quite some time. Dishonored is beautifully realized from a visual and conceptual standpoint, and despite many of the areas being quite desolate in their nature, it’s all explained quite purposely, given the plague and the number of people that died and/or escaped the troubled city. For the most part, the controls suit the game quite well, with only a hiccup here and there. For me, the only time I felt that the controls were a bit clunky was when traversing the levels in a near-parkour manner, and it felt to me that it was more of a matter of them not being tight enough for that type of movement, but otherwise they seemed to work well. On a side note, it must also be mentioned that this is probably the first Bethesda published game I’ve played that hasn’t been hampered with tons of bugs and ticks. Granted, there’s still some framerate issues from time to time (I played the 360 version, so results may vary), and every once in awhile the game’s autosave would cause the action to pause, but nothing of the gamebreaking variety that I’ve come to expect from the publisher.
As much as I loved Dishonored, there are a couple of minute things that I’d hold against it. First and foremost, for a game that promotes player choice like this, it really does kind of spell some things out a little too much at times. I assume that a lot of that is because there are so many variables in how one can solve some of the game’s problems that the developers wanted the player to know just how many options were on the table, so to speak, but that really takes away a bit of the discovery that could have been possible otherwise. Of course, I did end up becoming surprised myself in more than a couple of situations due to happy accidents, but I still felt like some of the initial in-game tutorial messages that popped up might have been better as an option that players could toggle on or off should they choose. The only other issue I had was that while the game does wrap up in a tidy fashion, via cutscene, it kind of just ends, leaving me wanting more, but that’s not exactly a problem when you really come down to it.
With a sharp, fully-realized environment and play style, Dishonored took many things that we’ve all seen in games before — political conspiracy theories in a dystopian society, a heavy emphasis on player choice, stealth elements, actions with consequences — and tied them all together in a very original, very engaging title. It’s also rare for a single player title to be unhampered by the stereotypically requisite multiplayer modes hogging up precious development time, but I think that Dishonored was better for it. As I said before, it isn’t perfect, but with a game this addictive, this compulsive and engaging, it hits all the marks as perfectly as possible.
Front page image and screenshots photo from dishonored.com.
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