A solid contemporary to Deus Ex-style stealth/action games.
There’s a specific niche of gamers that fully appreciate the depth and multitude of options in Deus Ex-style stealth/action games. It’s nearly polarizing to an extent—you either enjoy them immensely, or strongly dislike them; there doesn’t seem to be a middle-ground. Dishonored is that rare game that attempts to be “that one game” that appeals to not only the hardcore stealth nuts, but also appeal to the crowd of gamers that have never enjoyed these types of games before. Does it work? Well, the game certainly works, but is it still fun? That’s the ultimate question.
Dishonored is easiest to compare to something like Deus Ex: Human Revolution from Eidos Montreal last year. It’s not necessarily an “action” game in the same vein as Call of Duty or Uncharted, nor is it completely slow and methodical like something in the survival horror genre. It’s a blend of stealth and action, letting you turn the tide of battle with quick decision making. So, for example, you could run into a room full of enemies and slash them all to bloody pieces with your super-sharp sword, blow them all to smithereens with grenades, or you could simply sneak past them all using your stealth abilities (like possessing fish or jumping across chandeliers).
It’s very choice-heavy, letting you pick and choose how you want to tackle each of the missions throughout the game. Each mission is located in a specific segment of Dunwall, a City-17-looking metropolis that has recently been devastated by a deadly plague. Your character, Corvo, is a body guard of the Empress of Dunwall, but unfortunately for him the Empress is suddenly murdered by a gang of assassins after he gets back from an out-of-town task. This sets the stage for the game’s narrative where Corvo joins with a gang of resistance fighters that agree to help find who’s responsible for the Empress’ assassination. Oh, and Corvo is blamed for the murder, too. Whoops.
Progression throughout Dishonored is done like most linear games where it’s split into levels (or stages), each of them connected by a load screen and/or story segment. There are nine of them in total, but each of them vary in length. They aren’t linear, either, as some of them can take up to two (or even three) hours to complete. They’re also incredibly varied, usually possessing 5, 6, or even 7 ways to approach each section of the general area. So unless you literally run in a straight line from the beginning to end, murdering everyone that gets in your way, you’ll definitely have a good time.
If I had to suggest a “proper” way to play the game (even though “proper” isn’t necessarily the best way to describe it), it would be to sneak past as many enemies as possible, only fighting in combat to get yourself out of a pickle. This is very Deus Ex-like where the combat doesn’t match up to the game’s stealth mechanics, making it easier to just load your game whenever you accidently get spotted. And with Dishonored, the combat was never fun at any point throughout the story. I usually just snuck my way through every part of the game, completely avoiding all possible instances of combat.
The nuance of the stealth makes up for the lack of variety in the combat. Even though shooting a dude in the chest then turning around and stabbing another dude in the face can be satisfying, it becomes a chore once enemies wield better weaponry and armor, making it much better to just avoid them at all costs. The stealth isn’t perfect either, however. There’s a small icon in the lower left side of the HUD that shows if Corvo has activated stealth or not... and that’s your only indication of, well, anything. It’s very difficult to tell if you’re hidden or not and most of the enemies’ sight is very inconsistent. Sometimes you’ll be right beside them and they won’t notice you but other times they’ll spot you 30, 40 metres away. I never felt like I was ever in control of my surrounding, making me save and load more often than I would’ve liked.
Corvo’s abilities are much better tailored to stealth as well, letting you dump skill points (by collecting them throughout the environment) into things like better vision, better Blink (that lets you warp across the map) and possessing animals (and eventually humans). Most of the ways you can travel throughout map, too, are stealth-related. Most of my time with Dishonored was saving my game, finding the best route into a building, then loading my save and trying to do it without getting spotted. I can’t necessarily say that this will be everyone’s experience with Dishonored, but I don’t see anyone having more fun with the lackluster combat than the stealth.
I found that upgrading your abilities could’ve been done much better in the grand scheme of things, too. Early in the game Corvo is given a beating heart that will be faster when you come across either a Bone Charm (which is like the perk system in Call of Duty’s multiplayer which grant you specific traits) or Runes which you can spend on upgrading your abilities. The problem I had was I kept forgetting that these are usually off the main path, making you explore more of the area in order to get most of them. Sure, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to make the player explore, but I would’ve rather earned them rather than find them.
Exploring Dunwall is only rewarding when you find hidden ways to get to your destination or when you find Bone Charms or Runes. Other than that I never really found myself wanting to know what’s around this corner or what’s on top of that building. The city itself looks nice, at least, even though the visual design on the whole is pretty lackluster. The character models in particular have weird-looking faces and odd body shapes (even if this was by design). The textures sometimes look flat and will often pop-in while playing (it IS running on Unreal Engine 3 after all). Dishonored also runs poorly, often dropping frames in more intense fights or areas with lots of backdrop. Luckily the audio is great with a mixture of a nice soundtrack and generally good voice acting. I still can’t get over how many times a guard asked another guard, “So, you think you’ll still get your own squad after what happened last night?” Seriously I heard that line 50+ times.
Stripped to the core, Dishonored is a stealth/action game that attempts to cater to fans of the Deus Ex-style stealth/action genre and to the group of players that generally don’t like these types of games in the first place. It’s not a revelation by any stretch of the imagination but it’s very solid, possessing some of the most fun stealth sequences I’ve ever played (though coming from the stealth genre, that’s not saying much). The stealth usually outweighs the combat, and that could potentially turn some players off who like a more action-oriented approach to gameplay fundamentals. Either way, Dishonored is solid, but don’t expect it to be the game that changes everything—it doesn’t. It’s just pretty good.