Oh Dishonored, how I misjudged you! At first I thought you were just Deus Ex in Victorian England with slightly better graphics, but I was WRONG! You’re so much more than that! Like Far Cry 3, I found that Dishonored to be the kind of game that grows on you the more you explore and learn about and interact with its world, until you suddenly find yourself completely drawn into it. Dishonored is a first person stealth-action game (or a stealth or action adventure game, whatever you prefer) and was developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks. It’s evocative visuals, cohesive and fully realised world and intriguing characters are some of what made this one of the memorable games I’ve played in recent times and was what earned it numerous awards. I won’t deny it’s also a flawed game in many ways, but it’s still one of the strongest gaming experiences of 2012.
The story follows Corvo Attano, Royal Protector to the Empress and takes place in the industrial, dirty and rat plague-ridden city of Dunwall, the capital of the Empire of Isles. It’s a city rotting from the inside with power-hungry and corrupt leaders fighting and scheming among themselves to attain ultimate control of the Empire. The real story beings when the Empress is assassinated, her daughter kidnapped and Corvo framed for both crimes. It’s up to him to either restore the delicate power balance or to seek revenge against those who have wronged him.
The overall aesthetic of the game and some of its technologies are reminiscent of Half Life 2, which is unsurprising considering Viktor Antonov, the Visual Design Director of Dishonored also designed much of the look of City 17 and the tech of Half Life 2. It’s got that desolate, run down and oppressed city-scape of Half Life 2, except with a Victorian-era feel to it. The inspiration for Dishonored’s visuals was stated as being more that of paintings and artwork than books and films and result is a unique art style that looks straight out of an painting. It’s certainly a refreshing after all the hyper-realistic games of recent times and it bravely breaks new ground in the way that Borderlands did. Its also the look of the game that really pulls it all together. It feels grimy and dark and violent as you might expect an Victorian steampunk-esque industrial port city infested with rat plague to look like. The exaggerated and almost cartoon-y character models emphasises their personalities, whether its a corrupt politician, vicious and unsympathetic guard or plague-stricken weeper and fits in with the over-the-top aesthetic and general vibe of Dishonored. The only downside is that the graphics are kind of average and the textures aren’t great; they’re a bit simplistic and a little outdated, but considering how interesting the visual aesthetic of the game is I can easily forgive that.
One of the best things about Dishonored is that Arkane Studios has managed to create a world that’s fully fleshed out. You learn much through books you can find along the way (both non-fiction and fiction) that fill in much of the history and culture and political structure of Dunwall and the wider Empire. What I discovered was a fascinating, corrupt, superstition-filled place with some interestingly high-tech futuristic inventions courtesy of the discovery of whale oil as fuel and the scientific geniuses of that generation. It’s an interesting blend of past and future and the result is a unique world that feels real even with its non-realistic look (similar to what Bioshock Infinite achieved). Each main mission (9 in total) shows you another part of Dunwall and its inhabitants and you can further the experience by completing the optional side missions or just exploring. There is also a cast of excellent characters that are sure to stick in my memory, especially the batty old Granny Rags, the strange genius Piero or your friend Samuel the boatman. Even though there isn’t an awful lot of interaction with any of the characters, the bits of dialogue you do get with them, as well as the conversations you overhear and the journal entries or audiographs you pick up, give you glimpse into the psyche of some fascinating characters. At first, they were just fun distractions in the midst of whatever mission I was on at the time, but over the course of the game I found myself really caring about the characters and that’s definitely a good sign.
Choices, choices, choices. You may have heard it before, but this is absolutely the best part of the game. This is what really made me a permanent fan. There are so few games out there that really give you choices. Of course invisible walls still exist, but that’s to be expected. It’s not like Arkane Studios have somehow managed to make this NOT a video game. It still has restrictions. Despite not being an open world game as mission progression is largely linear, each level is very open for exploration and is very sandbox-y in the way it offers you multiple routes of entry into whatever house that you happen to be stalking at that moment. There’s the go in guns blazing option, the quiet assassination option or the good guy stealthy non-lethal option and everything in between. The usual guns blazing option will have consequences – more rats and guards and weepers (people too far gone by the rat plague to be saved), as well as a darker final outcome (as they warn you right at the start). Unusually, I went with the stealthy non-lethal route, because I generally like being the good guy (to make up for all the evil things I do in real life… I’m joking! Or am I…?) Surprisingly, it was a really satisfying experience in a way that I find a lot stealth games aren’t. Like Deus Ex, stealth isn’t tacked on or just another way passing through the same area that you would have gone through regardless or where the routes are strictly defined and choice is merely an illusion. Every area is a labyrinthine of secret pathways, rooftops that you can climb or blink to and even pipes you can pass through when you possess a rat or a fish. There are tons of paths to get through every areas and numerous ways to get around every obstacle. It’s really up to you how you want to proceed and even if you’ve decided your Corvo is a super-stealthy assassin, there’s still the matter of how you’re going to enter that castle, by the front, back, side or some other way entirely? It’s a true stealth game, if you choose to play it that way, but from what I’ve heard it’s also fun to play it the other ways. The beauty of the game is that you’re never forced into any choices or playstyles. Arkane Studios gives you the tools and you can run with it however you want. Are you going to play through the whole game without killing anyone or maybe even remaining completely undetected or are you going to make sure your enemies pay for crossing you? It’s your choice and it’s a genuine choice.
All these choices and routes are also makes this game very much replayable. It’ll leave you curious about what would have happened if you’d gone a different way, for instance, what would have happened if you had decided to go in the main entrance rather than blinking up to the second floor balcony. Each pathway has so many snippets of conversation, so many rooms to explore and so many characters to meet that it’ll take many many playthroughs to explore it all. Of course, its the variety in each route that keeps it engaging. The paths open to you are at least partially determined by how you upgrade your powers and items. That means you’re sure to have a different experience each time you play.
As I mentioned, this game did have it’s flaws. One problem was that there was at least one of the side missions that I couldn’t seem to complete in a non-lethal way and a couple of others that just didn’t have a particularly satisfying outcome, which is a shame. I realise you could just avoid problematic side missions and maybe that’s realistic in a way (that killing people is often the easy way out), but I don’t feel you should be punished for not going a certain route in game that’s trying to promote choices. Also, sometimes the non-lethal route did get a bit repetitive in how you take out enemies. For me it was pretty much sleep dart or blink and choke most of the time. There just wasn’t a huge amount of variety. I’ve heard that the lethal route has its own problems, particularly that it’s simply more difficult. It does seem that it’s not entirely balanced and the kind of experience you have will depend on the route you choose. I don’t have a problem, however, with the overall outcome being darker if you hack and slash your way through the city as some people do. Surely that’s actually fairly realistic? Also, that’s really the main point of the game. It’s about making those choices and having them affect the world around you. Do you choose revenge? Do you try to do what’s best for the city?
The customisation option were generally good. There were 10 powers that you could have and quite a few items and upgrades available in the store. The problem was that you’re probably only going to upgrade a few of the powers and buy a fairly small selection of items, depending on which route you choose. Since I went the stealth route the only powers I really needed were Blink (to teleport short distances instantly), Dark Vision (to see enemies and useful items even through walls), Possession (so you can possess enemies or animals for a short duration), Bend Time (slows or stops time temporarily) and Agility (increases climbing/jumping height and movement speed). I managed to fully upgrade all of them to level II, but some people seemed to focus on only a few powers. There’s little point to upgrading many of the other powers, because they may not be relevant to the way you’re playing the game, unless you’re being very well-rounded way and you’re fighting and sneaking equally. However, I think that most people would end up specialising in some way by the end. Powers are upgraded by collecting runes dotted around the levels. You can also find bone charms, which provide a variety of further enhancements, for instance, to choking speed or stealth movement. These collectibles are pretty much the only reason, other than looking for books or logs and collecting coins (to buy or upgrade items) that you would have to explore. The problem is that if you do a lot of exploration at the beginning of the game, you’ll quickly find enough runes and money to fully upgrade all the powers and items that you need and even some that you obviously don’t. By that point you’re so powerful, you really don’t even need any more bone charms to beat the game with little trouble. That meant that exploration at the latter part of the game felt a little bit pointless, considering I really didn’t want or need any more money or collectibles. However, there were still some new books and logs to read and listen to, so it was still worth looking around for those, even though they were a little scarce in some areas.
Also, I can only speak for the PC version of Dishonored, but I did notice some minor graphical glitches. These weren’t really much of a problem though, considering they didn’t really affect the gameplay, but it did break immersion in places. Also, I did find the controls awkward at times (choking for instance didn’t always work well). The AI was a little on the unresponsive side at times and occasionally inconsistent, which made sneaking a little tricky sometimes. However, as long as you save a lot, it’s not a big deal, since you can just reload and try that bit again. Overall, I thought that on the whole game mechanics were fun as they were variable and the issues I ran into relating to gameplay were only minor inconveniences.
Something that has been pointed out many times about Dishonored is that its overarching story is not the most original. For all its court intrigue, betrayal and political machinations, it’s actually an age old story that’s been told many times, although granted this one does have its own twists and interpretations. The less-than-stellar voiceacting in some places and a number of lucklustre characters doesn’t do Dishonored any favours either. However, it does have a few tricks up its sleeve and more importantly, it does what it sets out to do well. Dishonored takes your familiar archetypes and expectations and runs with them and uses them. Its adherence to certain conventions is what helps flesh out the world and characters created in Dishonored. I wouldn’t necessarily write off the plot either. The individual missions are interesting enough by themselves even if the overarching plot doesn’t quite match up and there are some truly chilling and surprising moments in the game.
My main complaint is that there was simply not enough exploration of Dunwall or the main themes raised by the game. Most of what you learn about the city and the world Arkane Studios created is through second or third hand accounts, the maps themselves are not huge and there’s actually not that much to experience of the culture and history first hand. I would have liked to see a few more locations, especially some that weren’t abandoned or completely decrepit and to meet more people. The history of Dunwall might have been fleshed out in the books you find along the way, but it would have been nice to see some of the technology or places they were discussing. How cool would it have been to actually see the Academy of Natural Philosophy or a whaling trawler close up for instance? Obviously there’s limits on how much they can show of Dunwall, considering the city is essentially in lockdown throughout the game and the rat plague keeps most people indoors or dead, but it still would have been a nice change from the sewers and the multitude of empty buildings you pass through. There were also numerous questions raised, for instance about the nature of magic and science or religion and superstition that were never fully explored. There was some truly fascinating issues raised, but they seemed to have been cast aside by the end. I felt a deeper exploration of these themes would have added a level of complexity to an otherwise fairly straightforward game.
Although there was much that could have been improved, I think it’s a testament to the game that I want to learn more about the world and people it created. There seemed to be so much beneath the surface, a veritable wealth of untapped potential that I would love to see developed and explored and built upon. As it stands however, Dishonored is still an excellent game that dares to be bold in its execution, even if it’s overall narrative was a little unpolished. It’s one of the few games out there that I feel really offers you choices in how you want to play. Above all, it’s just fun and although that might seem to be a basic requirement of any game, it’s one that many fail to get right.