Dishonored was one of the stand-out titles from this year’s E3, so it was with moist anticipation that I was awaiting the game’s release last week. A first-person stealth adventure with a steampunk setting and an emphasis on magic? That’s just awesomeness three times over. However, where there’s awesomeness there is always an opportunity to disappoint. I am glad to report, that this is absolutely not the case with Dishonored.
The setting of Dishonored is one of its most unique elements – taking place in the city of Dunwall, a fantasy/Victorian-era-inspired cesspit of plague and filth. Rats run rampant through its streets, while plague victims (named ‘Weepers’) spew their guts over anyone within vomiting distance. The city has all manner of electrical devices, from trains to mech-like walkers, but it’s all run using whale oil, which you’d imagine would be hard to harvest. There are dozens of documents you can find littered throughout the world, as well as conversations you can overhear that lend a lot of rich detail to Dunwall, making it one of the more memorable gaming environments in quite a while, something that the writers should be credited for.
However, the actual story that’s propelling all this isn’t as inventive as the world it’s set in. As the protagonist, Corvo, you are bodyguard to Dunwall’s Empress and her daughter, Emma. After assassins kill the Empress, stage a coup and frame you for the murder, you’re enlisted by loyalists to exact your revenge and re-take the city. There is a twist that takes place towards the end of the game that’s startlingly easy to see coming, and the whole thing just kind of ends suddenly after a less-than-epic confrontation.
Despite an average plot, the real enjoyment in Dishonored comes from the well-crafted stealth gameplay. There are nine main missions of the game, eight of which have multiple paths to exploit depending on your style and moral alignment. The moral high ground belongs to the path of stealth – bonus points are awarded for ‘ghosting’ a mission and remaining undetected the entire time. Killing enemies has a negative effect on the condition of Dunwall, as the rat plague grows more dire and other characters speak ill of your actions. There are varied ways of completing objectives – while most of your missions involve assassination, sometimes you’re able to simply spare or neutralise your target. Rather than turn the High Overseer’s neck into a blood fountain, why not find a way to discredit him completely in the eyes of the public?
Of course, it’s a lot of fun taking the path of ‘chaos’, too. Enemy kills often have hugely bloody and entertaining animations, and there’s a simple yet fun swordplay system in effect as you clash with guards. Don’t think you’re able to simply take your enemies head on with a blade – you’ll need to parry and time your attacks to effectively duel. There’s a selection of other weapons to utilise as well – the crossbow is the most fun with several ammunition types including sleep darts and incendiary darts. You can mix and match between the paths of good and evil – that’s what I did, as I spared who I could, explored every option open to me but I wasn’t afraid to slit a throat to avoid raising an alarm. I still wound up with the ‘happy’ ending.
The coolest part of all this are the magic powers Corvo can wield – given to him by a totally-unexplained, yet well-dressed, being known as The Outsider. The first one you gain access to, and my favourite, is ‘Blink’ – a short range teleport. Using this, you can jump around the map undetected, with a rather fancy effect. It’s an insane amount of fun spotting a guard in the distance and then blinking right behind him to instantly take him out. Other memorable powers include the ability to summon rats to devour an enemy, ‘dark vision’ to see through walls, and possession – allowing you to fuse with any person or animal for a limited period of time. Your spiritual power tends to run out rather quickly, which would be my only complaint, although it does balance the game so that you can’t use continuous possessions to cheat your way through a mission.
Dishonored‘s presentation is a mixed bag, in my opinion. While the design of Dunwall and the ideas governing it are great, the graphics are stylised in a way to make everything less detailed. There’s a painterly quality to the world, with textures looking like brushstrokes, and characters with exaggerated features. Unfortunately, this style combined with the dismal atmosphere make the game appear a tad bland. The voice acting only contributes to this problem, as well. An impressive cast has been enlisted for Dishonored, including Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass), John Slattery (Mad Men) and Michael Madsen (ass-kicker). Great actors don’t always make great voice actors, and they all deliver their lines in flat, uninterested monotones that make it hard to care about or pay attention to what’s going on. Even Brad Dourif, who put in an amazing performance in Myst III: Exile (Really! Check it out!), is just way too slow and boring.
These minor issues aside, Dishonored really is one of the best stealth action games out there. It has an unforgettable environment filled with detail, mystery and mythology, even if the story that takes you through it is a little by-the-numbers. Combining crazy magic powers with more grounded steampunk weapons opens up so many possibilities, to the point that multiple playthroughs are required. This is a good thing, as the game does feel a little short, especially towards the back-end, but this is one experience where it is what you make of it. You can rush through, killing everyone in your path, becoming a master assassin in the process, or be slow and methodical, discovering the secrets of Granny Rags and Slackjaw, and unlocking the full extent of your supernatural abilities. Any way you choose to play Dishonored, you’re guaranteed to have one of the most unique experiences out there.