Reviews

Dishonored – Review

Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Developer: Arkane
Publisher: Bethesda
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No
PEGI: 18+

This game was provided free of charge by Bethesda for review.

Launching a new intellectual property in today’s market is a tough task: publishers aren’t often willing to take the monetary risk required to fund a games creation, and gamers often aren’t willing to chance their hard-earned cash on something new, because they simply don’t know if they’ll enjoy it or not, choosing to instead play it safe with the big-name triple A titles that they’re comfortable with. But Arkane Studios have managed it, getting publishing back-up from Bethesda they’ve created one of the best new IPs in a long time, as well as one of the best games this year.

Humans, and gamers in particular, absolutely love to draw comparisons between things. It’s simply in our nature to do so. During Dishonored’s developement it drew many comparisons to various games. In particular it drew comparisons to the Assassin’s Creed  and Thief series because it was primarily a stealth game where you played as an assassin, and it drew comparisons to Bioshock due to the first-person viewpoint and the ability to use supernatural powers. However, if you absolutely have to compare Dishonored to anything then Deus Ex: Human Revolution would be a far more likely option. Like Human Revolution, Dishonored focuses on player freedom above all else, allowing for numerous ways to play the game and complete levels. The truth, though, is that Dishonored is a little like all of those games, and yet completely unlike them at the same time. It takes various elements from them, but, most importantly, makes them its own.

 

Samuel the boatman. Every mission begins like this, with a gentle boat ride before the carnage.

The game opens as Corvo, the Royal Bodyguard of the Empress, returns from his long voyage to  other countries to ask them for aid in combating the plague that is decimating the city of Dunwall, his home. As he walks up the stairs in defeat, Emily Kaldwin, the Empress’ little daughter, is there to greet you and wants to play hide and seek. It’s an innocent introduction to the basic mechanics of stealth that’ll most likely form the basis of your play through Dishonored. But it doesn’t have to be; the stealth that your game with Emily teaches you barely ever has to be used again if you don’t wish it. The game finished you head further up the steps with your little ward toward the Empress to deliver your report.  Just minutes later the Empress lies dead, stabbed by a group of mysterious attackers who boasted supernatural powers. As Corvo you were unable to stop them, your  sword no match for their powers and skill. Emily is gone, kidnapped. And Corvo has been framed for a murder he didn’t commit as the Empress’ spymaster and palace guards arrive at the scene. In short, things don’t look good for the Empress’ bodyguard.

It’s six months later and Corvo is due to be executed today, having been found guilty of his beloved Empress’ death previously. Things are looking grim for our voiceless hero, until a message arrives from a group calling themselves the Loyalists. They want to help Corvo escape because they know he’s innocent and they need his help to find Emily and depose the Empress’ spymaster who took over as Lord Regent in your absence. And with that Corvo is given a chance….as are you, dear player. The jail from which you’ll be escaping is your first, and of course basic, introduction to the core concept that drives Dishonored: player choice in how to approach the game. It starts with the basics; as you escape the prison will you simply kill every guard in a blur of fury? Will you merely incapacitate them with chokeholds? Will you avoid them entirely, acting as a shadow in the night? Or will you be a sadistic nutter who comes up with ingenious methods in which to torment your captors?

This is from a nifty mission in which you….nah, I won’t spoil it.

But I’m getting somewhat ahead of myself again, a habit that I really must break. No out free of the prison Corvo is free to set off on his journey. Whether it’ll be a journey of blood and revenge or sneakery and mercy or anything in between, well, that’s up to you, dear player. And of course free of the prison is also where I must stop my explanation of the story for the obvious fear that should I continue I’ll spoil something. That’d be terrible. As such all that is left is for me to deliver some vague comments about the pros and cons of  story and such. Hurrah!

And indeed, there’s quite a few pros to talk about. Arkane have succeeded in creating an engrossing tale for you to play through, made all the more immersive by the fact that they’ve taken a leaf out of Bioshock’s rather hefty book and ensured that you never leave the first-person view-point. It’s a little easier to find yourself getting drawn into the story when you’re seeing everything through the eyes of Corvo himself. Although a point of contention does arise due to the first-person nature of the game: should Corvo have a voice or not? Arkane chose to go down the voiceless protagonist route, and while it’s a choice I understand it’s also one that I’m entirely sure if I agree with. Had Dishonored been a full RPG rather than a game with some RPG-esque elements then it would have been perfectly fine, but Dishonored isn’t and it aims to deliver a strong tale, which makes the oddly lopsided dialog feel a little strange at times. I can’t help but feel a Mass Effect style dialog option system with full voice acting for Corvo may have suited the game better. But perhaps I’m entirely wrong. And once again I’m veering a little of course from the subject at hand: the pros of Dishonored’s storyline. As it progresses the game succeeds in delivering  relatively strong dialog and an interesting tale with some neat twists along the way to keep you engrossed. By the end of the game I was completely caught up in Corvo’s shadowed world.

But the backdrop to the storyline is almost as intriguing. The city of Dunwall is a dark, grimy place filled with little stories of the exploits of its richer citizens while the poor fester in the streets at the hands of the plague. Perhaps once it was a lovely city to behold, but as Corvo you’ll experience it as place of misery and decay. The streets are largely empty, and ruined buildings act as hiding places for people simply trying to survive by any means they can – perhaps they’ll attack you, perhaps they wont. Some may even offer you side-quests to partake in which offer up new ways to complete objectives or simply just more backstory for the world. Speaking of which numerous books, notes and little details around the world of Dunwall also help to fill in more of the game’s backstory.

He made a yo mamma joke. He had to go.

What’s most interesting about the world, though, is how you, as Corvo, can affect it, and the story to a small degree, with your actions via the Chaos system. Certain actions you perform increases your overall Chaos rating; choose to kill your target rather than find an alternative and it’ll go up; choose to go on a killing spree through a level and it’ll go up; Complete certain quests in specific ways and it’ll go up. The higher the overall Chaos rating climbs the darker the world will become, reflecting your actions within it. More Weepers, people infected with the plague, will roam the streets, attacking you on sight; swarms of plague carrying rats will become more common, creating yet another problem for you as they attempt to eat you alive and guards will start using more hounds in their patrols. It’s not just the world that is changed by your actions, either: the storyline itself changes based on the Chaos rating. As it rises the attitude of your loyalist allies toward both you and each other begins to change – arguments start to spring up, characters personalities being to become a little harsher. Don’t go away with the wrong impression: your actions will never change the core of the storyline, or alter plot points events too drastically, except for the games final mission which plays out quite differently with a few different endings depending on the overall Chaos rating you’ve gotten during the other missions.

While the Chaos system may never radically alter the game in massive ways, it is a fine example of how to handle morality in games: Dishonored doesn’t tell you that one way to play over another is right or which choice is good and which is bad, it simply presents you with a situation and then shows you the consequences of your actions reflected in the world and characters that inhabit it. It doesn’t do what so many other games do when implementing morality and wimp out, it doesn’t sign-post the “good” choice and the “bad” choice in neon lights and encourage to a moral paragon. Both Chaos system and the way Dishonored handles morality are nice touches that helps flesh out the game a little further, although I would have liked the Chaos system to have an even larger impact on the storyline and for moral choices to feature a little more heavily.

And what about those cons? While Dishonored’s storyline is thoroughly enjoyable throughout it definitely does have a couple of cons worth mentioning, with the primary flaw coming from trying to form connections with the various NPCs that you’ll meet on your journey. Dishonored features a fairly expansive cast of characters for you to meet along the way, most of which are at your home base at the local pub. Yes, that’s right, the Loyalists HQ is a pub. Don’t question it. As you progress through the game you’ll obviously spend a fair amount of time with these characters, but the problem is that you’ll likely not form any sort of real connection with any of them. The strange thing is their written pretty well with solid dialog, but for some reason they’re just not easy to connect to or even give a damn about, which takes away some of the impact from certain storyline moments. In particular there’s one character, who I won’t name for fear of spoilers, that you really do need to form a connection with but simply can’t as you don’t get to spend enough time with them. The game wants you to form the connection, and as the player you do to, but it’s just not there.

Tallboys. They send a tingle down the spine, and are great fun to take down.

The other criticism that I’ll level at the game comes from a story element that is never fully explored or even explained to my satisfaction. I refer to a character known simply as the Outsider who plays an integral part in the overall story, and yet his existence in the Dishonored universe is never really brought to a satisfying conclusion: why does he exist? Why did he do what he did? What are his motives and reasons for his actions? Dishonored simply asks you to accept that within this universe he exists. This in itself is not a problem, but his  involvement in the story did feel like it needed to be fleshed out more, especially since he’s so interesting.

And finally the finale is an abrupt end to the tale. The last level is surprisingly short, and then it’s just over with a anti-climactic finish. As said there’s a few endings to achieve in the game, but only one of them feels close to being truly satisfying, while the rest are just a little hollow feeling. The endings do deal a little with the ramifications of your actions and provide some closure, but they’re made up of series of pictures and a voice-over. They just don’t quite cut it.

Criticisms aside, though Dishonored delivers a good tale set in a dark but entirely believable world. At times the empty streets can feel a little like an empty film set, but most of the time they set the atmosphere brilliantly – Dunwall is a city under siege by the plague, its richer citizens reveling in all sorts of depraved antics as the poorer citizens die in the thousands. Combined the story and world kept me riveted from beginning to end.

Once outside of the confines of the prison in which Corvo was so cruelly imprisoned Dishonored wastes little time in fully introducing you to its ideals, the fundamentals on which the entire game operates. If you hadn’t already managed to figure it out from my brief rant at the beginning of this review regarding Dishonored and comparisons, this is a game that places freedom of gameplay above all else: it hands players a set of tools, presents them with a situation and then demands that they got on with it whatever fashion they deem appropriate, be it a psychotic barrage of bullets and blades or a more subtle ballet of supernatural power (we’re getting to that, don’t worry) and trickery. The result of all this is a game that offers up a tonne of replay value as you’re able to play through each mission from the main menu in radically different ways.

The reason for this is that Arkane are fantastic at doing one of the harder things in gaming: creating the sensation of true choice for the player. Many games boast freedom as one of their key selling points, and yet as gamers we’re almost always very much aware that it’s nothing more than an illusion created by the developers. Each option we can choose to tackle is pre-ordained by the developers because they created it, and it shows in the design. Few games manage to create convincing illusions where you, as the player, actually feel like it’s your mind, your creativity, your choice that’s getting you through the various challenges thrown at you. Dues Ex: Human Revolution is a prime example: the game featured a couple of different ways to navigate through each level and ways to play, but as the gamer you were always very much aware of the fact that it had all been very carefully designed for. Even at its most non-linear, it still often felt scripted. Maybe it was the over-abundance of ventilation shafts that did it. Other games like Skyrim simply take huge worlds and then let everything loose in them, thus giving players the sensation that it’s a real world in which they’re free to tackle things how they like. Dishonored doesn’t quite go as far as Skyrim: it’s more focused, hence the comparisons to Human Revolution, but considering this more focused nature it does what Human Revolution couldn’t by creating a convincing illusion of freedom, of creating emergent gameplay that changes every time you play the game.

Let’s face it, they dont’ stand a chance, really.

This freedom to approach the game in multiple ways begins with the level designs that Arkane put together. In the build up to the launch of Dishonored it was often assumed that the game featured one massive, open-world for gamers to play in, but this is in fact not true. Rather, Dishonored’s missions are best described as a series of self-contained sandboxes. Each mission will usually be made up of several different areas, and these areas all feature numerous routes and ways to progress through them toward your overall goal, which is usually to deal with a target. They ‘re also filled with things to find, items to pick up and even a few side-quests on which to embark that usually reward you with some useful thing like a Rune, which are used to purchase and upgrade the aforementioned supernatural powers, or even something which will help you in a later mission, like information or an alternative access route. As Corvo you’re an extremely agile individual, able to leap and clamber around the environment, turning every level into an assassin’s dream playground. Perhaps you should sneak through the sewers, or swim through the river. Maybe you should clamber over the rooftops, stalking your targets unseen. Or perhaps you’ll stick to the streets, using the game’s lean mechanic to keep a watchful eye on patrols from around corners. Regardless there are of course obstacles in your way: not only are there plenty of guards keeping a watchful eye out, but there’s also security devices to deal with such as the Wall of Light, a barrier which insta-kills you should you step through it. Again, this is where choice comes through: you could simply disable it, find a way over, under or around it, or you could turn it against your enemies, stand on the other side of it and laugh as they fry themselves as they try to get to you.

As just a normal flesh and blood person Corvo has a range of skills and equipment at his disposal that form half of your virtual toolbox, your tools of the trade that allow you to craft your own approach to the game. But let’s just kick things off with the basics of tackling enemies. Wielding a blade in his right hand and a  pistol or some other thing in the left Corvo is a badass capable of wreaking destruction in a whirlwind of pain. Dishonored is one of those games that simply wants you to feel awesome no matter what you’re doing, and you do. When it comes to close-combat, first-person games haven’t got the most reputable history as it’s often disorienting and messy, but Dishonored isn’t. The right trigger is mapped to your blade, with RB acting as block, and the left trigger obviously using whatever is in your left hand, be that a pistol or a crossbow or supernatural power. Combat is generally just a simple case of blocking and striking. A successful block at the exact right time can be followed up with a brutal counter attack that kills whoever you’re dealing with in a single hit. It doesn’t have a lot of depth, but it is more realistic because in real-life sword fights don’t generally last ten-minutes. In fact most sword fights would be decided in just the first few seconds. One one level it does make fights a little easy as counters are pretty easy to pull off, but it’s balanced out by the simple fact that Corvo can’t take a whole lot of punishment, and a fight with just one guard can often attract the attention of many more. Combat is satisfying, brutal and quick-paced, making it a joy to play.

As for when you’re sneaking around, you’re just as dangerous as you are in a straight fight. Sneak up on a foe and a pull of the right trigger will result in a satisfying and brutal quick kill. Or you could pull of a lovely drop assassination, initiated by doing exactly as the name implies and leaping off a high-point, pulling the trigger when prompted to execute a sweet kill that incidentally stops any fall damage you might have taken. And if killing a guard doesn’t appeal to you then you can always sneak up and hold RB which results in wrapping your arm around their throat and choking them out. Regardless, after the deed is done you’ll want to hide the body somewhere so that nobody else spots it, unless of course you want to play with their minds, freak them out a little….in which case you could get really sadistic by decapitating a guard and throwing his head at people. Yup, this game can really let the evil side out of you to play. And if hiding bodies sounds like too much hard work then there’s a skill called Shadow Kill which you can purchase that disintegrates the body of anyone you kill. Handy, huh?

Aside from a pistol Corvo can wield a few other toys to make his work easier. The crossbow is a silent alternative to the pistol: not as powerful, but slightly more flexible as it can utilise standard bolts, sleeper bolts and incendiary bolts, giving you a few different options. A vicious trap and grenades round out your basic armory. The selection isn’t huge, but like the supernatural powers it’s about how you use them, with the more creative players out there finding even more satisfaction in Dishonored’s gameplay than those that choose to use the tools in their most basic fashion.

The other half of Corvo’s toolbox is a range of supernatural powers that turn him from a just a regular badass to a super-badass, courtesy of the mysterious Outsider. Powers have to be bought and upgraded using special Runes found scattered around levels, and you can’t purchase them all, so you’ll have to choose carefully, but Corvo does get one ability for free at nearly the start of th game: Blink. Blink allows you to move extremely rapidly in one direction, or, to put it a better way, it’s like teleporting, although it is still possible for a guard to see you mid-transit. In combination with your climbing skills it opens up a realm of possibilities, allowing you to flow across the landscape at great speed. Or, of course, you can employ it more strategically for quick strikes: Blink in close enough to a target and hit the right trigger and it becomes one, beautiful flowing movement of death. Aside from Blink and the Shadow Kill ability I briefly mention you can spend your hard-earned Runes on four other powers that can be played with and combined in many different ways; Dark Vision lets you see through walls for that extra edge over guards; Bend Time allows you to slow down or even stop time completely; Possession allows you to possess the body of a rat, fish or even a person if it’s upgraded; Devouring Swarm allows you to summon forth a plague of rats that will attack enemies or eat bodies, and finally Wind Blast does exactly what it says on the time, allowing you to blow people backwards with a powerful surge of force.

FUS RO DAH!….I mean Windblast. For when you want to remind yourself that you’re the Dragonborn.

It’s fair to say that Dishonored’s range of tools is actually comparatively quite limited to other games we’ve seen in the past, but those games tended to just throw things at you while Dishonored’s abilities, powers and equipment are more carefully thought out, much like Bioshock’s. They’re not just thrown into the game because someone with an over-active imagination had gone nuts with a piece of paper and a pen, they’re thrown in for a reason. And so the key to Dishonored is to experiment and play with everything that the game gives you. The more creative you are, th more you’re going to enjoy the game. Sure, just playing through using each ability in its standard way is fun, but the more creative, the more you’re willing to play around and try new things, the more fun you’re going to find yourself having. For example you could summon up a plague of rats, slow down time, attach a trap to the back of one of the rats and then possess it, steering it through a tunnel into the feet of an unsuspecting guard. Perhaps the most fun I had was during one of Dishonored’s most elegant missions in which you’re at a fancy dress part where your target is one of three sisters wearing the same dress but in different colors. There’s a lot of ways to play through the mission, be it just going in and killing everything, talking to the guests, just killing each sister until you get the right one, luring the correct one away, completing a side-quest and more. But for me, after I’d discovered the correct sister I decided that my sadistic side wanted out to play, and so I clambered up high, without anyone seeing me, and then activated my upgraded time power so that time itself came to a halt. I dropped time, chopped off some heads, and then climbed back up. And then I watched as the guests freaked out as people’s heads suddenly just vanished. After that I amused myself by attaching traps to decapitated heads and throwing them at people. At another point I found myself being held at gunpoint, so I stopped time, possessed another guard, walked him in front of the gun and then went back to my own body and just stepped backed. Sure enough as time came back on the guard pulled the trigger and blew his buddies brains out. Did I mention this game really let’s you unleash the evil? Maybe I should get my head checked out.

Regardless of my psychopathic tendencies one thing that remains perfectly clear throughout is that though Dishonored boasts the ability to played in several ways, it’s at its best when played as a stealth game. As a straight action game it is extremely fun, if a little easy at times, simply because it feels so smooth and awesome in its execution, but as a stealth game where you utilise your creativity and desire to try everything it comes into its own. That’s why I recommend when you buy Dishonored, and I do recommend you buy it, that your first playthrough of the game is as a stealth ninja, whether that is a ninja who loves to stalk his or her prey or one that is merciful is entirely up to you. After that play through Dishonored again and then once again after that, because you really can just tackle the game in so many ways. It’s also worth point out that should it be your style you never have to use any of the games supernatural, nor do you actually have to kill a single person if you don’t wish to. For the ultimate challenge ramp up the game’s difficulty as high as it’ll go and then play through the game without ever killing a soul or using your powers – it’s an awesome experience.

There was no just reason for his death. He was just there.

However, Arkane did miss a great opportunity to increase the replay value even further by failing to allow players to replay missions with their upgraded powers and gear intact. Instead, if you replay a mission via the main menu you’ll have your powers stripped back to what they were. Why can’t I go back and have fun in earlier missions with my ace ability to stop time?

To sum up, then, Dishonored’s best moments don’t come from the story or the few scripted moments it has, they come from the antics of the player, the stories that you create yourself. A carefully planned exit that goes wrong leading you to a daring escape in which you vault over a ledge, slide down the roof, drop onto a guard and barely make it out alive by leaping into the river and possessing a fish. A tense moment as you thread your way past the stomping Tall Boys who are bound to send a chill down your spine. These are the best kinds of moments, entirely created by you and the world Arkane have made.

There are most definitely some other flaws in Dishonored, mind you, and the first is that of its length. To give an accurate playtime is a little tricky, because that really depends on how you choose to play the game: blast through it just killing everybody in your way, not stopping for much and just completing objectives then 4-5 hours is the likely time. Play it my way, which is largely stealth with plenty of experimentation, fun, exploration and side-quest completing and it should take you 10-12 hours. Then you’ve got to take the game’s replay value into consideration, which is pretty damn high given that you can play in multiple ways. However, I’m getting a little off from the point I was originally going to make which was that the story felt like it should have been longer. Unlike most games when the ending came I really felt like I wanted and needed more to it, for it to last at least another two hours longer, that it had more it could have done.

There’s also a few AI problems where they act like morons. Like Skyrim, they tend to react to such things as decapitated heads being thrown at them by claiming, “Must have been rats” and carrying on like nothing happened. Must have been one hell of a rat. At other times they’re capable of spotting you from some distance away, while the next they won’t spot you when you’re mere feet away from them.

Graphically Dishonored is also a rather beautiful game to behold, featuring an unusual art-style that has elements of Bioshock. In the run up to release Arkane stated a few times that they were going for the effect of an oil painting in motion, and boy does it show. In particular models have a very unique style, almost caricature in nature. And truth be told I don’t have the words to adequately describe or do justice to how Dishonored looks. I’ve never had the words to fully explain  a graphical look, and I have no problem in admitting that, but then that’s what screenshots are for, I suppose. I can, however, talk about the technical side, and that’s a little complicated. Look around Dishonored’s world and you’ll notice an abundance of blurry textures on the walls and on characters clothes, and in any other game this would obviously indicate that on a technical standpoint the game is a little weak, and yet with Dishonored it almost feels like the textures are deliberate, to further fit in with the oil-painting theme. I’m at a loss: just poor textures or deliberate? Regardless, Dishonored is lovely to look at with a stunning world and distinctive character style.

Sit down and take Dishonored apart piece by piece and you can pick out a range of influences and elements; there’s hints of Bioshock, the methodical pacing of the Thief games, Half-life 2 echoing through in the style of Dunwall and the characters, Deus Ex and its focused levels that still provide freedom. But that’s the point, they’re just influences used to create a broader game that encapsulates everything they attempted to do. The influences are there, but Dishonored feels fresh, it feels different, it feels unique. And it feels uniquely fantastic, easily standing as one of the best games in the past few years.

The Good:
+ Play it how you want.
+ Being a badass.
+ Looks purdy.

The Bad:
– Were the guards hired in from Skyrim?
– Needed to be longer.
– Not being able to replay missions with powers and gear intact.

The Score:

Graphics: 9
Beautiful. I’m sorry, you want more words? Tough.

Sound: 8.5
The voice acting is great throughout and the music suits the tone of the game well. Toss in solid sound effects and you’ve got a good package.

Story: 8
A dark, dirty world where the rich rule and poor die. Dishonored tells an engrossing tale, but one with several big flaws.

Gameplay: 9
A world brimming with possibilities and the tools with which to make those possibilities a reality. It’s just a joy to play.

Lifespan: 8
It needed to be longer, but there’s still plenty of playtime in Dishonored. However, if you don’t enjoy replaying a game, even if it has numerous ways to tackle each level, then you obviously won’t get as much out of Dishonored as someone who likes to experiment and play in different ways.

The Verdict: 9
Arkane have done it. They’ve launched a brand new IP and it’s absolutely outstanding. And what more do you need me to say? Like any game not everyone is going to love it, especially those that don’t really don’t like to experiment or like to have a more linear experience that guides you through everything. But for everyone else, this is a game that lets you craft your own moments, your own stories, in a beautiful world filled with ways to play.

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