The prospect of new franchises in the somewhat cramped world of gaming is always exciting for core gamers. When fresh intellectual properties are shown at events like E3 or Penny Arcade Expo, we can’t help but be anxious to see what new niche the title will carve.
The reveal of Dishonored was one of the most exciting announcements of the past E3 and for many reasons. The developers promised a blend of the stealth gameplay from series like Thief and Deus Ex with the atmosphere of something similar to Bioshock or Half-Life 2. The game was to bestow players with special powers to accomplish their task – of finding the assassin that murdered the Empress of Dunwall, who Corvo Attano, the player character, was charged with protecting.
Fortunately, Arkane Studios came through with their promises; unfortunately, certain elements of the game do disappoint. Dishonored is a good game, and well worth the full retail price, but unpolished and unfortunate in certain aspects of its execution (pun totally intended).
As previously mentioned, the story follows Corvo, bodyguard to the Empress of the plague-ridden port city of Dunwall. Magical assassins appear on the day Corvo returns from a journey to seek help for his city, and they murder the Empress. The assassins kidnap the Empress’ daughter, Emily, who would be the successor to the throne, and Corvo is thrown into prison. A revolutionary group called the Loyalists help free him and set him on a quest to save Emily and regain his honor. To help him on his quest, The Outsider, a magical god-like entity bestows powers upon Corvo allowing for more efficient sneaking and killing.
Unfortunately an interesting premise for a story does not make up for the poor story-telling present throughout Dishonored. The world of Dunwall screams for more attention and Corvo’s quest seems flat despite what could be a very tense, very intriguing path for redemption. By far the best example of the lack of care woven into the story comes at the very disappointing ending, which although it was very weak, won’t be spoiled here.
Dishonored has one very strong point going for it, and it lies in gameplay. The skills bestowed to the player from The Outsider allow an incredible array of possibilities in the heat of combat, or the darkness of stealth. Blink, one of the most important abilities of the game, allows for what is essentially teleportation from one point to another. Blink can be used to escape from combat, move into position to assassinate a target, or even reach heights previously inaccessible to Corvo. Other skills allow for enemies to turn to ash after being killed (so that you don`t have to hide their bodies), dark vision, which grants sight through walls, rat plague summoning, possession of animals and humans, or even double jumping.
One small issue does arise in skill use, despite its execution when done well. The blink ability is a riot to use, though sometimes it is hard to tell whether or not the ability is going to work properly. A blue reticule appears when using the power, showing where Corvo is going to teleport to. The problem arises when the reticule changes to an arrow to indicate that the player will climb up the surface rather than land on it. Often I would see the arrow appear and I would use the ability and fall to my death, just missing the point where the arrow was. This issue could have been solved with a change of color or a more drastic animation switch. It is a small problem, but happened often enough that it became a nuisance.
The use of stealth felt somewhat unpredictable. While enemies would walk right by the player certain times, there were many occasions in which the guard would see Corvo from some impossible angle, and alert the others. I found myself reloading often to try and achieve stealthy playthroughs when the actual fault of alerting the enemies was not my own.
The abilities allow for the player to find and assassinate the targets (which form the crux of all missions) however they wish. Depending on how the player acts during the missions – whether enemies are killed or subverted – changes the flow of the story. The story doesn’t change drastically, though more rats and weepers (incredibly sick victims of the plague, nearly zombies) will appear, as well as a “darker” ending.
The endings are tracked with a “chaos meter”, essentially a good or evil dichotomy. The inclusion of this meter feels rushed, with very little reward for going one way or the other. A problem does exist in min-maxing, which is essentially gunning for one end or the other, not playing the game how you feel but rather how you want it to end up. I mostly chose the good side, low chaos, and so I was afraid to kill anyone and mess up my chances of getting the “good” ending. This did result in some creative strategies, and a lot of reloading old saves.
Near the end of the game, I began to kill more enemies and experience more of the weapons, and I found myself having a lot more fun. The game seems to continually remind the player about the chaos meter, though, driving the idea of wanting a good ending into your head, through in-game dialogue and loading screens.
The game sounds great, especially with big-name celebrity voice actors like Susan Sarandon and Carrie Fisher. Corvo is, unfortunately, a silent protagonist, which is always a bit of a disappointment to me, but selecting dialogue choices occasionally allowed him to have a bit of a voice, just with no audio counterpart. Repetition of idle dialogue in the world does break immersion, but some of the notable characters, like Granny Rags’ (voiced by Sarandon) excellent acting, do allow for the lost immersion to resurface.
Dishonored has some fantastic style. The art direction is excellent as well. The characters have a cartoon-y look, particularly to their faces, with elongated noses and chins, as well as larger hands. When approaching textures, there was often pop-in and sometimes characters in the world appeared blurry (particularly when carrying bodies).
The most well executed part of the game has to be the assassinations. In every instance where Corvo must kill someone to complete a mission, there is always a nonlethal alternative that presents a far more gratifying option. In one of the more publicized examples, Corvo is tasked with eliminating two brothers. By making allies with a character named Slackjaw, it is possible to have the brothers sent to work in their own mines, with freshly shaved heads and newly cut out tongues.
The world of Dunwall is ripe for some great storytelling. Flooded out districts and steam-punk machinations, as well as some brilliant inventions by one of the more interesting characters of the game, Sokolov. “Walls of Light” decorate the darkened streets, disintegrating any who pass through without clearance. A little hacking and Corvo can switch the light to disintegrate town guards. Turrets and “tall boys”, jacked up guards using bow and arrows on gigantic mechanical stilts, watch the streets for any who would oppose the new, corrupt law. It is just a shame that Dunwall wasn’t written as the character it really is.
Dishonored is a strong attempt at something incredible, it just falls short in some very key elements – the largest offender, of course, being story. Some unpolished gameplay elements and blurred textures do not a bad game make. Unclosed story beats – most noticeably The Outsider and his intentions, as well as anything Corvo thinks about throughout the story – just drag down an otherwise exciting game. I still recommend the game despite its shortcomings, though it is important to know what it is you are getting into. Dishonored is a valiant attempt at something very promising and I certainly hope we see more of the franchise in years to come.