No pun intended, this is a game that sneaks up on you
Bethesda as a developer can create some of the most beautiful and interesting worlds that just beg to have every corner of its map explored. While prone to technical hiccups and gameplay mechanics are not always perfect, they help support the exploration and sense of discovery those games provide. Bethesda as a publisher on the other hand is something else entirely. From the beautiful-but-gameplay-deficient Rage to the heavily disappointing Brink (the only game in recent memory I regret putting money towards, let alone full price), maybe it's that reason why "Dishonored", a new IP from Arkane Studios under Bethesda's publishing banner, didn't immediately pull me. Granted there wasn't a self-imposed desire to see more of it but imagine my surprise when the game I thought would get average review scores not only turned out to be on most personal game of the year lists but is in fact nominated for one. And while it's not completely flawless, Dishonored went from being "just another game in 2012" to "one of the best ones".
In the city of Dunwall, whale oil is a valuable and useful commodity which helps power various technologies and machines. Down in the streets below, a plague spread by rats and dogs ravage the townsfolk. While this is going on, the Empress Jessamine has been assassinated, her daughter Emily kidnapped and you, Corvo Attano and bodyguard to the Empress, is framed and sentenced to death. Escaping from captivity six months later, you awaken to find an oppressive government keeping everyone in line with armed soldiers, Walls of Light which are force fields that disintegrates any unwanted people from passing by and Tallboys, armored soldiers riding a bi-pedal vehicle with long, mechnical legs. A small band of Loyalists whose purpose it is is to restore order to Dunwall, takes you in and you are to eliminate key figures in toppling those ruling the city and rescue Emily.
Similar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored does an incredible job in making the city and its various regions fully realized and "lived in". While it's not exactly realistic, the care into making Dunwall feel like an actual and threatening yet beautiful place is well on display. While it's not the most graphically outstanding game with some occasionally iffy textures, the art design more than pulls its weight at making an intriguing playground for you to be in. The story itself is fine, a tad unremarkable in its plot yet filled with some intriguing characters and concepts which I'd love to see further exploration of, possibly in future sequels. Voice acting is incredibly solid yet at the same time it's filled with notable talent such as Susan Sarandon, Chloe Grace Moretz (of "Kickass" fame) Brad Dourif and Michael Madsen who provide adequate voice work yet feels like their roles could've been done by other people and still provided great jobs but I digress.
The gameplay though is what really shines and helps make the game that playground a lot of similar games try to achieve. Your goal is to assassinate key members who had a hand in Empress' death and you have many tools at your disposal. First one is Blink, a kind of quick dash move that lets you teleport great distances in less than a second which lets you scale buildings and reach what would be inaccessible areas. It helps bring about a "hunter stalking its prey" vibe while losing some of that passive "crawl/crouch from point A to B as slowly as possible" issue other stealth games run into. But there's more such as springtraps which act as proximity mines, sleep and incendiary darts for your crossbow and your ever trusty sword. You can also slow time so you can grab grenades or bullets out of thin air, possess a human and make him run into the path of the bullet and many others.
And it's not just tools that you do personally but also interacting with things in the environment to give you an edge. Towers that only shoot at you can be rewired to shoot at enemies along with the gates as well which resulted in one hilarious moment where guards running to me which disintegrate themselves trying to get to me. Even your actual targets don't have to be eliminated solely by your hand which helps for the "no kill playthrough" types with accompanying achievement. There's a remarkable sense of not only experimentation but improvisation as well and not having an XP system per se (you can upgrade your skills and powers in combat) but the game never feels like "this area will be way too tough because you dont have 'X'".
If there is any downsides, they tend to be somewhat minimal. The game's twists you can probably smell a mile away and the story's ending certainly leaves something to be desired as it kind of just...starts but it never felt like it was earned or that there was a good feeling of "deflation" as you winded down towards the ending. I killed one guy, did one other thing and poof the ending rolled leaving me with a "oh I thought I had to do more but okay then" feeling. Further story DLC should help flesh out the ending but in the base game the ending was both satisfying yet starting with no sense of accomplishment towards it. And one final remark is the game's music or what I personally felt was a lack thereof. Whether going for that Demon's Souls-esque minimalist approach or rather it was a bit TOO ambient, the music in Dishonored doesn't really leave its mark and it felt like I spent more time listening to the actual sounds of the environment with the music not really making its presence known.
While we are towards the end of the console's life cycles which can certainly make publishers want to save their big bold ideas for the next series of consoles, it is refreshing to see a game like Dishonored provide some much needed new ideas and a game world I enjoyed being in. May not be a landmark title but it's certainly one of the best offerings in 2012.