Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: First-Person Shooter / Action
Reviewer: Nick Stewart
Overall: 9 = Must Buy
For years, Thief II: The Metal Age stood as the arguably undisputed pinnacle of stealth-based gameplay, a genre its predecessor helped to create. With its heavy, foreboding atmospheric blending of steampunk and magic, it introduced a frail but mighty protagonist whose ability to use light and shadow allowed for some innovative first-person shooter mechanics and fantastic gameplay that had few contenders before or since—until now. Arkane Studios’ Dishonored is an intensely ambitious, muscled effort at claiming that particular crown, one that evokes equal parts Thief, BioShock, and Half-Life as it puts forth a character whose deadliness works best when unseen. It’s a truly dark first-person title that marries careful, clever gameplay with light role-playing elements and a whole lot of hiding, all while introducing some fascinating ideas of its own.
Dishonored immerses players in the role of Corvo Attano, the personal bodyguard for an empress who rules over a pervasively dark, Dickensian land where a rapid industrial revolution has introduced steampunk sensibilities to an Elizabethan-style population. Popular but not immune to some decidedly deadly political machinations, the empress is murdered and her daughter kidnapped in the game’s opening scenes; naturally, Corvo is framed for the job, and the killers step in to rule the country with an iron fist. Following your escape from an imminent execution, you meet up with a band of folks loyal to finding the empress’ daughter and restoring her to the throne. Using an abandoned pub in the plague-stricken city of Dunwall as your base of operations, you soon set out to right the many wrongs against you, the country, and the Crown through a series of missions where you dig up information and brutally dispatch your enemies.
The plague figures heavily in your time with Dishonored, as it has required the new ruler to impose a form of martial law, walling off entire areas with newly invented barriers of pure electricity, as mechanized sentry towers and countless guards oversee a city in heavy lockdown. This leaves you with no end of obstacles even as you merely seek to travel from Point A to Point B, let alone pursue the many side objectives that can take you through nearby houses, workshops, inns, and forts. Getting around such obstacles represents much of what makes Dishonored special, as Corvo is a deadly assassin but one that can’t take too much punishment: with a few guards swinging or shooting at you, your odds of survival are pretty low. This means that sneakiness is typically the order of the day as you wander through Dunwall, forcing you to plan your moves before launching into action.
The options initially available to Corvo should be instantly recognizable to most fans of the stealth-action genre: sneak up on a foe to backstab them or, for a less lethal approach, choke them into unconsciousness. Oddly, shadows have little to no impact on your visibility—something which is heavily distracting for much of the game if you’ve been trained on the Thief series. Although you can occasionally snuff candles and put out some lights, these moments are very few and far between, and only really serve to confuse those making their first run-through of the game. Instead, Corvo’s ability to flit about undetected is all about line of sight, so it’s rather handy (if slightly bizarre) that he can peer around corners without fear of being spotted, and if all else fails, he can frequently hide under furniture, flooring, and more. Logically, this makes sense, since a guard standing a foot away from your face should be able to spot you even if you’re not standing underneath a blazing torch, but it does require that gamers unlearn some of the habit of dashing from one pool of shadow to another, and instead look for actual hiding spots.
It’s when the game begins to put fantastical tools in Corvo’s arsenal that it really begins to open up, as he soon develops magical powers that allow for some entertaining strategy and different approaches. This includes a fun mix of offensive and stealth abilities that can be upgraded, RPG-style, as you discover various items hidden in the game’s many nooks and crannies. If you’re inclined to take a less murderous route, you can focus on skills that allow you to see enemies through walls or give you more agility for jumping and softer falls. If your injustices have you seeing red, you can grab the ability to toss around your foes with gusts of wind, or to have their corpses disintegrate to avoid further detection. There’s plenty of room for experimentation, too: by combining the ability to stop time with the ability to possess living creatures, you can force a pistol-toting guard to move into the path of his own bullet.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning the game’s marquee, groundbreaking ability, known as Blink. It sounds simple enough, as it allows you to indulge your Nightcrawler fantasies by teleporting short-to-moderate distances within view. The degree to which this changes the FPS experience cannot be overstated, as you soon begin blinking from place to place, either to reach high-up ledges, climb onto distant balconies, or simply evade guards who are in hot pursuit. It opens up the world in a more three-dimensional way as though you were an Elizabethan-era Spider-Man, urging you to constantly look at elevation as an opportunity for exploration or combat advantage. What’s more, this is something the level design happily obliges. Even though the ability to control it can be a bit dicey at times, it’s such a glorious and liberating addition to an already great set of powers that you’ll soon find yourself wishing it were implemented into other games as well.
The game also puts actual tools into your hands, from a binocular-style mask to swords, pistols, crossbows, and trip mines. You can replenish your stock by finding some throughout your travels, or by buying them from someone in your hub area between missions, using money earned by cashing in treasure you pilfered along the way. This money can also be used for all kinds of equipment upgrades, from increased ammo capacity, to building new tools based on various blueprints you come across during exploration.
Your ability to make use of all three of these options—stealth, powers, and tools—can be even further enhanced through the use of whalebone charms that are also scattered throughout the game. Each of these two-dozen-plus items boost or add to your skills and can be inserted into one of three slots that Corvo has available at the outset, though these too can also be upgraded over time. From more health and mana earned through potions to faster choking, these runes each provide a small but important edge to your efforts, and help to tie together what can eventually become a very personalized loadout for Corvo.
This flexibility is emblematic of the true strength of Dishonored, which is player choice. By selecting the options that most reflect your style of play, you can mould Corvo and your experience into something truly satisfying. This works in tandem with the game’s semi-open world, where missions offer you access to one or two areas that in turn offer offshoots into two or more other areas. This gives you many options for exploration and discovery of all sorts of alternate routes, treasure, and interesting quests. For instance, one early segment requires you to make your way past an electrical field. If you’re a combative sort, you can pick off nearby guards with your crossbow, fight the two guards protecting the power source, and unplug the device before walking right through. Or you could find an underground passageway, attempting to stealth past the plague-crazed denizens to emerge on the other side. Or you could simply blink and climb your way across a maze of rooftops to bypass the gate entirely. These kinds of options are prevalent throughout: do you sneak past the sentry tower, or blink up and deactivate it? These are a constant source of player empowerment, something many games promise but very rarely deliver. Dishonored weaves this freedom throughout its entire duration, something which is both striking and astonishingly well done.
This is also reflected in the game’s Chaos system, which also serves as a metagame ranking system for how you’ve chosen to tackle Dunwall’s many obstacles. If you choose to march in, guns literally blazing as you skewer and destroy your foes at every opportunity, Dishonored gives you a high Chaos ranking and makes the world noticeably darker; this is a plague-stricken city, after all, and added corpses breed more plague, which breeds more zombie-like plaguebearers that you’ll have to avoid or kill. A high Chaos rating and the nefarious actions you took to earn it also have a direct impact on how non-playable characters treat you, on how the end of the game plays out, and on the closing cinematics. Conversely, by taking the harder path of sneaking around and avoiding unnecessary killing, you’ll earn a low Chaos rating and subsequently fewer plagued citizens to avoid, a kinder reputation among NPCs, and a notably happier ending sequence. Fortunately, there is considerable satisfaction to be gained in both low and high Chaos runs, each offering a distinctly different experience and instilling the rare, burning desire to immediately replay the game upon completion to test out the opposing Chaos approach.
Those seeking to play a much more challenging version of the game should consider its No-Kill route, one which Dishonored rewards not only with a shiny Achievement but also with a much different experience. Just to survive, you’ll have to be careful to ensure that you don’t end a single guard or target’s life, even accidentally; for instance, you even have to be sure to store unconscious guards in places where rats won’t feast on them. It’s all much, much harder than it sounds, and it forces you to adopt very different tactics, designed for maximum avoidance and stealth. For instance, because stun darts can’t be upgraded, you’ll want to hold onto them for crowd control in those instances where you’re spotted, making sneaking and chokeholds your primary tools.
The game happily accommodates this approach by offering non-kill methods for dispatching each of the game’s various villains. By listening in on conversations or coming across the right books, you’ll learn of different ways of putting your main targets out of commission for good, often through fulfilling all sorts of additional tasks beforehand. The often despicable but non-lethal ways of neutralizing these equally despicable people are as shocking as they are satisfying, and so spoilers will not be provided here; suffice to say that they present a great challenge while fully allowing for your choice of play. What’s even more satisfying is that your no-kill neutralizing will even be reflected as you move throughout the game, occasionally hearing about the consequences through Dunwall’s propaganda speakers, reading about it in abandoned diaries, and other, more surprising ways. It’s heartening to see a game of this nature reward players with something much more tangible than a bump to their gamerscore as they take a path beyond the Low Chaos / High Chaos approach, while making that path something genuinely viable and appealing.
It’s also worth pointing out that the tools and general motivation to explore Dunwall are enhanced tremendously by its profoundly atmospheric environment. Arkane has created a steampunk-tinged world that feels as though it exists above and beyond the moments you travel through it, a rare trick. Indeed, there are countless opportunities to delve into its ample and heavily detailed lore. From diaries describing the horrors of the plague, to scientific journals on the wonders of whale oil and a variety of religious texts, the written word is heavily emphasized here, and it’s bloody everywhere. If that’s not enough, you can also pick up on BioShock-style audio diaries scattered throughout key characters’ quarters. Finally, there are also countless chances to eavesdrop on the many people populating the world, whether it’s the folks staffing your hub area, the guards you’re trying to avoid (or kill) throughout the missions, or just general NPCs going about their business. Each of these three venues offers a unique glimpse not only into the people that surround you but also into the hidden corners of a world that would ordinarily be denied you through regular play. These are unnecessary, certainly, and your success or failure as a player will never be a result of breezing past them. They are, however, integral to building the fantastic sense that what you’re experiencing is but a small part of a much larger picture, a feat few games even attempt, but something which Dishonored has pulled off rather wonderfully.
Dishonored stands as a fine example of a talented, creative game studio gradually honing their craft to near-perfection. Their evolution can be tracked throughout the course of their history, as placing players into their fleshed-out worlds in a first-person perspective has become somewhat of a hallmark. That said, one could argue that their real claim to fame is the sense that, in each outing, they provide a feeling of freedom and physicality rarely seen in other games: Arx Fatalis was a bit raw and certainly rough around the edges, but there was a pervasive sense that you were seeing a lavish update of the Ultima Underworld-style of roaming free throughout a system of subterranean caverns. More importantly, it felt as though your presence had genuine weight in your environment, which was one of the most striking elements of Arkane’s Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, a game that tightened up the sprawling environments a bit without losing its sense of freedom or exploration. These elements have been honed to a very fine point in Dishonored, which offers players some incredibly detailed, carefully crafted, and nicely varied environments to make use of the many options laid out for them.
Dishonored is a brilliant combination of ideas and abilities, environment and exploration, which all come together to create one of the most compelling games of the year. Player freedom—a concept that many games advertise but few are able to achieve—is one of the real hallmarks of this experience, and one that’s reflected in nearly every moment. Whether it’s pure stealth, death-dealing, or a combination of the two, the approach that players wish to take can be altered or customized in countless ways. It’s something that also encourages careful exploration of its fantastically atmospheric world, providing upwards of 20-30 hours of high-quality and enduringly entertaining play. Much has been made of the fact that Dishonored is one of a very few original IP to land as a major-market game this season, but so appealing and engrossing is this world that it would truly be a disappointment if players weren’t able to return to explore even more of its many mysteries in Dishonored 2.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)