Dishonored is a lot like the TV show Lost. It starts out amazing and is clearly going to be something special (which it absolutely is), but the ending might leave some people feeling a little disappointed.
As a first person assassin game, it is easy to see where Dishonored gets its inspiration from. The gameplay is a mix of Thief and Deus Ex, while the art style / direction hints at Half-Life 2 and BioShock - the latter thanks mainly to how strongly its environment sets the mood and tone for the game.
Based in the fictional city of Dunwall - which is inspired by industrial England, but with a whale oil powered electric steampunk vibe - you play as Corvo, the royal protector of the Empress. Early on, she gets assassinated, and you are framed for it.
Long story short, you join up with a group of loyalists, get some magical powers from a mysterious figure known as “The Outsider,” and go on missions to take out key targets behind a conspiracy to rule the country and rescue Emily (The Empress's daughter to whom Corvo is very close), who was kidnapped by the people behind her mother’s assassination.
The story, unfortunately, is my biggest gripe with Dishonored. It starts our reasonably strong and the game is filled with interesting characters (some of whom offer optional side-quests during missions), but sadly none of them seem to do anything all that interesting. To make things worse, by the end there is no real payoff for the main plot. It is this weak final quarter of the game that stops Dishonored from surpassing “great game” status into being something truly legendary. However, with that said, there is nothing wrong with being a really great game.
I cannot remember the last time a game presented me with this much creative freedom. Each mission takes place in a sandbox area, and it is up to you to decide how you want to get to your target and eliminate them. You can either go in and kill everyone or be a ghost and not kill a single soul. There is even an achievement for going through the whole game without killing anyone, if that’s your wish.
In order to get the job done though, you will have to use all the tools at your disposal. Besides a sword (for both stealth kills and use in a decent melee fighting system, with fun counter attacks), a gun, crossbow, grenades, and other weapons, you also have your magic. The first ability (and easily the most useful) is blink, which lets you teleport a short distance.
Then you have powers that let you see enemies through walls, possess things, stop time, summon a swarm of rats, and blow a powerful gust of wind. Best of all, every power, as well as your gear, is upgradeable, and there are some extra passive abilities you can get as well. On top of all this, you can find bone charms, which give you other passive bonuses when equipped.
All of which encourages experimentation and exploration, and that is really where Dishonored shines. Each level is fairly large, with multiple outdoor and indoor locations to look around. There are also books to read and conversations to listen to, both of which flesh out the world and sometimes provide clues that can help you with your mission.
One criticism about the gameplay is that you are encouraged to be stealthy via the game’s Chaos System, which translates to “more kills = more chaos, and more chaos = darker ending”. The problem is that stealth gameplay can actually be a little boring after a while. Killing people has a ton of cool animations and the combat is fun. But non-lethal options for non-targets is limited to choking people and shooting sleeping darts. However, if you want action, Dishonored has you covered with some great, yet challenging, combat, which is made all the more interesting when you experiment with using your powers in the middle of it.
Another big issue is the lack of a new game+ mode. Dishonored is filled with missions screaming to be replayed, however when you do so you only have the abilities you had when you last did the mission. There is no way to reset your abilities, or max out your character for a particular mission. This seriously limits the game’s replayability, since it limits experimentation with different powers / gear without having to play through everything again.
On the looks and sound side of things, Dishonored delivers. This is one gorgeous game, that often looks like a water painting come to life. It is beautiful, with some fantastic lighting effects used at times. On the sound side, it’s got excellent background music that keeps a good level of tension throughout, and the voice-acting is top notch - even though you will get tired of re-hearing some of the same conversations by the end of the game.
In the last few years a lot of games have promised creative freedom, but instead limited your choice to set paths with which to achieve your goals. Dishonored, however, is more of a simulation, where you are free to experiment. And while executing a plan you’ve come up with is very satisfying, my favourite moments were when I was going with the flow and dealing with the situations as they came up.
While I am disappointed that the story failed to deliver in the end, Dishonored is still easily a top contender for Game of the Year 2012. The gameplay is just that fun and special.