mento's Dishonored (Xbox 360) review

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This unordinary stealth game deserves attention.

I've never read Moby-Dick. My knowledge of Herman Melville's classical literary text begins and ends with that broad Futurama parody and the fact that Captain Picard likes it, or conveniently did by the time he was having a similar crisis as the book's central character Captain Ahab. Probably doesn't say a whole lot about me, but even with that base level of knowledge it was hard to avoid how prominently that novel is referenced throughout Arkane Studios' Dishonored. Not least of which in the central conceit itself: That of the dangers of seeking one's vengeance, and how destructive taking such a path can be for oneself and the innocents unwittingly and unwillingly drawn into it. Moreover, the entire game's technology appears to run on a whale-based phlebotinum, which means you can find many, many texts in-game that go into great detail about the world's fascination with whaling, whaling practices, whaling techniques and whaling superstitions - the same kind of densely-esoteric asides that made Melville's book so difficult to access for so many.

The protagonist Corvo (a less-subtle reference to a certain other supernatural revenge tale) is framed for the murder of his Empress and spends a period in the chokey before being freed by a loose coalition of loyalists eager to usurp the Lord Regent, who is very clearly the real culprit behind the assassination. Unfortunately none of Corvo's seething hatred of those who wronged him - or, indeed, the saint-like clemency he offers them for those players on a no-kill path - fails to materialize outside what the player projects by playing as violently or as compassionately as possible. The world does indeed change because of his actions, subtly at first but made increasingly apparent as the game goes on, but his own thoughts and reservations about what he's doing are given no voice. Literally, as this is perhaps one of the least congruous cases of "the silent protagonist" we've yet to see from the medium. For a situation so dependent on the disposition and morality of this betrayed avenger it's odd nothing of it ever materializes, save what other characters choose to imprint upon him based on how he carries himself.

That bizarre narrative misstep aside, there's still a lot of good things that can be said about the setting. It's very much of the steampunk persuasion, with many anachronistic (yet justified, somewhat) technologies thrown in among the clockwork pistols and grim Victorian-era fashion. It immediately evokes that of the Thief franchise; a close relative mechanically-speaking, given both games' proclivity towards rewarding stealth and the cautious exploration of the surroundings before committing to any decisive action. Each environment, though relatively compact, is filled with small details about the various side-characters of the game and offer many hints about how best to proceed. There's collectibles to find for the truly daring (or truly completionist) and incidental side-missions to wander into that are also conducive towards creating a fully fleshed-out world that would appear to be able to operate with or without the player's involvement.

Choosing, as I did, to follow a zero-kills, zero-detection approach adds a level of challenge to the game that is a definite port of call for those coming into this game as seasoned experts of the stealth genre, but the game offers many outs for those either new or perhaps simply averse to that style of play, instead providing them with many tools with which to get around the world and perform missions. Tools, in this sense, can range from upgraded weaponry and gadgets to supernatural powers, granted early on by an enigmatic figure who is - like many other characters in the game - someone the player can dig into a little further should they choose to search hard enough. The most fundamental power being that of Blink, a near-instantaneous teleport that can move the player a few yards across the environment. Integral for scooting between areas of concealment or out of danger when the chips are down, it's a versatile cantrip that offers resourceful players a breadth of applications and is easily the game's trump card even as other, perhaps more impressive powers - such as the ability to possess creatures and slow down time - start becoming accessible. It is entirely possible to get through the game with the basic Blink alone, which is - once again - another achievement-based challenge the game has to offer its veteran players.

Dishonored is, if anything at all, a game that provides options. It modifies itself to suit the way you are playing, either through the effects of Corvo's morality (or apparent lack thereof), its myriad paths to success, the many tools with which the player can follow said paths and the many challenges the player might choose to impart upon themselves for the sake of gamerscore or their own gratification. That the game is fairly short - a scant ten hours or so, even for the most obsessive of explorers - is fairly inconsequential given the added longevity provided by this veritable smorgasbord of decisions to make. Though far from perfect, I cannot recommend Dishonored enough for fans of deliberate, stealthy gameplay; nor would I dissuade those apprehensive of such an experience to try it for themselves, regardless of their preconceptions.

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