Stealth has never been so much fun.
When Dishonored was announced earlier this year, I had modest expectations for what it would become. Sure, the trailer was well done and quite impressive, but a great trailer hardly makes for a great game. To go along with humble expectations, Dishonored's developer, Arkane Studios, have only a short track record for making lesser known “cult hits”, so their ability to take on a big budget major release was questionable. It didn't help their cause that they revealed that Dishonored would be a highly stealth based, open world, first person game, a genre that hasn't seen a huge amount of success ever since the original Deus Ex was released over 12 years ago. What Arkane did have going for them was that the game's designer, Harvey Smith, was actually a part of the company who developed Deus Ex. With what Smith had learned from past projects, and with Bethesda Softworks producing the title, it seems likely they were set up for success.
Dishonored is set in a fictional stylized version of Victorian London, known as Dunwall. At this point in their history, a plague is being carried around by swarms of rats which are quickly infecting the whole city and leaving death and destruction in their paths. For as devastated as the city is, it still manages to be a beautiful and lush world to explore. Dunwall's aesthetics are very appealing, with a mix between steam-punk and Half Life 2's “City 17” (which is fitting, because the game world was designed by Viktor Antonov, the man responsible for Half Life 2's artistic direction). The perfect word to describe the levels in Dishonored would be “dense”, with countless ways of exploring and completing tasks.
You play as Corvo Attano, a royal bodyguard for the Empress. Right off the bat things start to go poorly, when you are a witness of the Empress's brutal murder in front of her daughter, Emily. The men responsible for the assassination immediately set you up for the murder and take Emily, the heir to the throne, hostage. This lands you in jail where you will soon be executed, knowing full well that the people who set you up are actually the ones who are quickly inheriting the Empress's power. However, there are people on the outside who know that you aren't the one truly responsible for the killing, and mastermind an exit plan for you to flee the prison and take revenge.
The story ends up being fairly predictable, although I was quite shocked at some of the revelations later on. Thankfully, the game redeems itself by letting you interact with characters that you actually care about. Without being invested in some of these character's outcomes, I don't think the ending would have meant nearly as much, and the plot ends up being the weakest aspect of the game. Dishonored lets you mould specific outcomes by rewarding you for not killing targets and enemies. It's a very simple mechanic: kill lots of people, the higher your chaos rating will be and your outcome at the end will be significantly more savage. The game offers up some non-lethal ways of taking out targets, but the player must seek out these options by exploring the world and talking with characters.
As you escape from prison you are teamed up with a group of Empire Loyalists that include former admirals, lords, doctors, and everyday Dunwall citizens. It is from here that you are given the task to hunt down the people who betrayed you, and rescue the rightful heir to the throne, Emily. It is also where you are visited by The Outsider, a supernatural entity that gives you most of your abilities that you use in the game. Some of these abilities include blink, dark vision and devouring swarm. Blink allows you to teleport or reach higher ground, dark vision shows you people through walls and their line of sight, and devouring swarm lets you summon a group of plague infected rats to fight on your behalf. You can unlock more of these abilities by collecting runes scattered throughout the world. The player is also given the choice of using more conventional weapons that include a sword, pistol, and crossbow. These can also be upgraded over time by paying the engineers at the Loyalist base in between missions.
When used in combination with the magic abilities, the combat becomes extremely satisfying, making you feel like a real assassin. In particular, the blink ability makes getting around the city of Dunwall incredibly smooth and exhilarating, thereby negating the typical clunky first person platforming that so many other games have relied too heavily upon. With quick load times, going back and retrying a specific section is easy, and makes experimenting with abilities less punishing and a lot of fun. Quite a few of the most memorable scenes in the game don't involve combat at all, which says a lot about the designers ability to take risks and change up the pace.
Dishonored managed to surprise me more than any other game from this year in the best way possible. I can find no real reason to complain about anything; the visuals were unique and elegant, the level design was full of options and exportability, and the way it played made me feel like I was in complete control of all of my actions. It lets the player play the game and doesn't feel the need to bog you down with loads of cut scenes or moments that disconnect the player with the world. I found myself being highly engrossed throughout the entire experience, and jumped right back into the game as soon as it came to a conclusion.