Killing With Whale Oil
When stealth-action games are created, developers strive to find a fine balance between games being soul-crushingly hard and too simplistic. This balance is not easy to reach. Many games such as Hitman: Blood Money and Deus Ex have successfully reached this balance, but many more have failed miserably. With their game, Dishonored, Arkane Studios was able to avoid creating the next Velvet Assassin by striking a perfect balance between stealth and action.
Dishonored is the story of Corvo Attano, the protector for the Empress of Dunwall, a steampunk-style city that that is overrun with a deadly plague. Corvo returns from a quest to find a cure for the plague only to be framed for assassinating the Empress. Corvo is freed by a group of freedom fighters known as The Loyalists, who are on a mission to find the Empress’ daughter and capture the real assassins.
The Loyalists take Corvo to their hidden base, The Hound Pits Pub, which serves as the central hub area where Corvo can obtain missions, talk to the different Loyalists, and purchase upgrades. Talking to the different Loyalists is one of the areas where Dishonored shines. Each character has a very specific, if not creepy, look to them, and the actors turn in very impressive performances (Sam, the boat operator, has some of the best lines of the game). Corvo can learn about side missions and objectives from each of these characters that may affect the outcome of the story.
The Hound Pits is not just a standard hub area; Corvo can search the area around the pub for hidden runes and bone charms that unlock special abilities. These abilities serve as the skill tree that allows Corvo to possess guards, turn enemies to ash, or jump higher than normal. The skills are split evenly between lethal and non-lethal upgrades so those who play Dishonored a certain way can save up their skill points to unlock only their chosen path.
Dishonored does feature multiple ways to achieve each objective. Corvo can sneak around different areas and avoid guards by using tunnels or his teleportation/Blink power, or he can run into an area and murder every single guard he finds. The stealthy route turns Dishonored into more of a puzzle game while the more direct route turns results in an extremely violent and bloody action game. These different play styles affect the chaos level of the world by increasing or decreasing the amount of plague-infested citizens that roam the sewers and city streets.
Like many other stealth games, Dishonored features many different options for dispatching of the main targets; however, these different options allow Corvo to dispatch of the main targets without actually killing any of them. These non-lethal options take more work to fulfill, but the rewards are worth the effort. One such option involved Corvo subduing a target with either sleep darts or bare hands, carrying them to a hidden boat dock (while avoiding a house full of guards), and sending them away forever with a lover. One other option for Corvo would have been trying to assassinate the target and hide their body in the large house in order to avoid fighting a houseful of guards.
The non-lethal route may have a better karmic reward than the lethal route, but the choice in weaponry is not as vast. Corvo begins the game with combination of a sword and pistol, but he later gains access to crossbows, bombs, and traps. Upgrading the lethal attacks with runes also gives access to extra attacks and bonuses. One such power on this skill tree gives Corvo the ability to conjure a group of rats that swarms and devours any nearby guards. If the rats aren’t enough, Corvo can also use a blast of wind to throw his enemies off of tall buildings and bridges.
Unfortunately, Dishonored does have some aspects that keep it from being the perfect stealth game. The Blink power, while effective, can be difficult to control. When Corvo is looking at an accessible ledge, blue arrows are shown. When Corvo is looking at anything else, blue lines are shown. This can make teleporting quickly very difficult because the slightest miscalculation can alert the patrolling guards or severely damage Corvo. One other troubling aspect is that the stealthy and non-lethal approach to missions is simply not as fun as the stealthy and violent approach. Rewiring a trap to kill patrolling guards provides so much more entertainment than avoiding or knocking out the guards does.
The Blink inconsistencies and less entertaining stealth routes may be troublesome at times, but they seem negligible when compared to everything that is purely wonderful about Dishonored. The city of Dunwall is a virtual playground for Corvo to explore when he is not in the middle of an assassination; the different characters are delightfully creepy yet entertaining. Dishonored takes the standard stealth concepts and murders them in a back room as if to say, “I can’t be classified as a pure stealth game.” Truly, Dishonored is so much more.