The world of Dishonored is hardly an animal loverâ€™s paradise. Far from it. Itâ€™s a dysfunctional dystopia of false dreams, betrayal, and broken promises.
This is a game where power is generated from rendered whale oil, and where roving packs of rats consume the helpless and the sick. Rabid hounds are pitted against each other, and carnivorous fish munch on polluted flotsam and jetsam. Made by Arkane Studios, and with the help of Bethesda, the mad world of Dishonored stormed onto our radar with an impressive showing at this year's E3.
Set in a neo-victorian steampunk-style universe, Dishonored promised us something new. With its ambitious mix of stealth mechanics, first-person swashbuckling combat, and strange magical powers, it offered an engaging and novel singleplayer experience for gamers.
For the most part, it has delivered on that promise. Arkane Studios set their sights high, and has delivered a game that is innovative, challenging, and fun to play. But it's also a game that is frustrating, meandering, and oddly repetitive.
Dishonored thrusts you into the hobnailed boots of Corvo Attano. The protector of the Empress of Dunwall, he is a ruthless assassin and loyal soldier. However, on returning to Dunwall he is framed for the brutal murder of his employer. After escaping the executionerâ€™s blade he, helped by a band of rebels and plotters, sets out on a quest to clear his name and rescue Emily the Empressâ€™ daughter, and a girl that he has fatherly affections for.
Itâ€™s a good premise, albeit a familiar one, and it sits well in the world that Arkane have created. Heavily influenced by the City of London and the Victorian world of both Oliver Twist and Sherlock Holmes, Dishonored oozes character. And thatâ€™s not all it oozes. In a steampunk twist, the City is clogged with odd metal contraptions, pipes, and potions, and it hums with whale oil powered electricity.
This inventive style is carried through the entire game and is accompanied by well rendered environments and design. From the metal and stone fortresses of the nefarious Lord Regent and the cultish Overseer, to the shanty houses of downtrodden citizens or the discombobulated distilleries of the cities gangs.
The aesthetic of Dishonoredâ€™s world casts a foreboding feel over the game, and through that feel it manages to link together the titleâ€™s discreet sections in a consistent, understandable, and enjoyable way. Arkane should be praised for the attention to detail they have shown. Buildings are masterfully rendered, meta-narratives are reinforced by scrawled wall messages and graffiti, and the cityâ€™s mix of poverty and politics is borne out on every street corner. These are all built on by the items that can be picked up and inspected, such as books, trinkets, and paintings.
The actions that you take also have consequences. If you prefer to hack and slash your way through the game, Dunwall becomes a darker place, and more plagued inhabitants and carnivorous rats will appear. Your decisions matter too; choosing to complete side quests or save characters opens up new storylines. Numerous playthroughs will give players the chance to explore further and drill deeper into the secrets Dunwall has to offer.
This mise en scene is integral, because without the glue of Dunwallâ€™s streets and rivers, Dishonored could easily be another run of the mill assassination simulator. Because if you were to remove the novelty of its place and its setting, Dishonoredâ€™s nakedness quickly belies its difficulties.
The first is the illusion of depth in the gameâ€™s combat mechanic. Taking a leaf from Bioshockâ€™s book, Dishonored offers to the player a variety of choices in how the action can be played out. After escaping imprisonment, Attano is giving magical powers by the mysterious â€śOutsiderâ€ť, an unexplained spirit that appears to control the porous boundary between the real and the supernatural. These powers can be used in many ways. They can be used to slow down time, blink instantly across distances, possess people and animals, or even see through walls. These powers are upgraded throughout the game by spending runes which are hidden throughout Dunwall.
This level of variety should create a game where every combat situation is different, and where inventiveness is rewarded. What it shouldnâ€™t create is a game where every combat situation feels strangely similar.
At its heart Dishonored is a stealth-action hack and slash. Each part of the story is based on Attano finding out who to kill, sneaking his way through watchmen and guards, and then sticking a blade in his quarryâ€™s heart. And while it's possible for players to invest time in skill in figuring out how to do that in different ways, its just as easy for you to blink behind each hapless soul and dispatch them with factory like efficiency. By not varying the type of gameplay, Arkane have created a game where many tools of mayhem are available, but there is no real need to use them.
And sometimes just using them is difficult. Arkaneâ€™s decision to place all combat options on a central scroll wheel smacks of necessity, not intuition. There were numerous times when I fired off precious pistol ammunition, just because Iâ€™d forgotten blink wasnâ€™t active. As a gamer who prefers the clack of keys to the push of buttons, itâ€™s obvious that Dishonoredâ€™s gameplay is better suited to a keyboard and mouse.
But control issues aside, kudos should be given for the way the combat is delivered. Attanoâ€™s powers hum with energy, and his assassination kills are gory, brutal, and satisfying. Sure, you might be seeing the same type of takedowns each time, but it's always worth it. And each one is always enjoyable in that suppressed, sadistic way every gamer understands.
In spite of the gleeful gore, a second challenge rears its head. For a game with so much charisma in its setting and in its story, Dishonored has trouble pushing its narrative along. The game is slow to get going and its mid-game â€śtwistâ€ť is both obvious and predictable. Those holding their breath for a climactic end will also be sorely disappointed. Like many of my Saturday nights, Dishonored ended with a muted â€śwas that it?â€ť.
Simply meandering the action through Attanoâ€™s deathlist leaves little room for good characterisation and depth. Part of this is mitigated by great voice acting and dialogue (Susan Sarandon as the woefully under-used â€śGranny Ragsâ€ť is excellent) but frustratingly, little is done to make you care about the people who you are rescuing, conspiring with, or murdering. As a result, you feel perhaps as Attano must feel, wandering from scene to scene, taking out people you donâ€™t know and care little about. While this may be a truer reflection of the desensitization of a career assassin, Iâ€™m not sure it is the effect Arkane were going for.
So all of this leaves Dishonored in a strange position. At first blush, it is a highly enjoyable game with a great feel and a novel angle. Its combat is satisfying, and the world of Dunwall is both foreboding and enticing. But underneath its mysterious veneer there is a game plagued by structural hiccups. Its pacing is slow, its combat lacks impetus, and its characters are hollow.
How much this affects you depends on what you are looking for. For some gamers it will mean little, and the stealth-based action will be enough to make the experience worthwhile. But for others, story and characters matter - and Dishonored will feel a little undercooked.
Strangely, what holds this title together is not its gameplay, but its place. As a stealth-action game it has its flaws. But sometimes experience wins out over action. Dunwall is full of death, disease, and dishonour. Just being there is enough.