Developer: Arkane Studios
Genre: First Person Stealth
Game Version: Steam
Many of the most eagerly anticipated game releases recently have been sequels in well established series. Dishonored was 2012’s big exception to this. There was good reason for the hype for the game, even before details of the content were revealed. Just the names involved were enough to raise excitement: published by Bethesda, created by Arkane Studios (responsible for the excellent combat in Dark Messiah of Might and Magic) and with Harvey Smith of Deus Ex fame on board as one of the designers. It’s like a roll call of great computer game talent, and in keeping with this the game borrows some of the best elements from some of the best games and combines them to create something that feels fresh.
Based in the city of Dunwall, you play as Corvo, protector of the Empress. Unfortunately, she is soon murdered and Corvo is framed for the crime and imprisoned. Power is seized by the real villain, the Empress’ Spymaster, and the city becomes a dystopian nightmare. On escape from jail, Corvo joins the loyalists as an assassin and they try to restore Emily, the Empress’ daughter, to the throne. In a way reminiscent of Bioshock, one of the keys to Dishonored’s success is the setting. The city of Dunwall is almost a character in itself. Alongside the mentioned plot, the game is as much a story of a city in crisis. The place is being ravaged by a plague which gradually turns its sufferers mad. Large packs of vicious rats roam the alleyways and buildings, at times in large enough numbers to attack and kill any humans that get in their way. Background information is provided in various ways. Books found in people’s homes give a brief glimpse at life in the city and eavesdropping on conversations fleshes out the characters even further. As you move around Dunwall you can stumble on other situations that you can help out with or ignore at your will. They don’t really feel like the sort of side quests you get in most games and won’t usually be added to your journal. They feel like spontaneous events in a living city. This is naturalistic storytelling through environment in a way that is perfectly suited to gaming but which is only rarely done this well. Everything gives a sense of place rather than feeling like a bunch of levels strung together.
This is vital to the gameplay too. Fundamentally, Dishonored is a stealth game and as is fitting for this, you’re free to choose your own route through its levels. The stealth is very much in the Thief mould in this respect and it contains some of the most open levels since that classic series. (The only other game I can think of that offers a similar level of openness is the equally classic Deus Ex.) You can take your chances on the main streets, sneak through alleyways, cut through buildings or climb across rooftops. Aiding you in your navigation is a power called Blink that you gain early on in the game. It allows you to instantly move to any spot within a certain range. You can invisibly cross exposed spaces without being seen or use it to reach otherwise inaccessible areas higher up, amongst many other uses. It also evades the usual problems of judging distances in a first person game by showing exactly where you’ll land before you release the button to activate it. It’s an extremely useful skill and is one of many available in the game. Bestowed on you by a mysterious supernatural entity known as The Outsider, these skills allow you to customise your character to suit your playing style. They range from a night vision mode that lets your see through walls to the ability to slow down or even stop time. For the more lethally violent players, there’s the ability to unleash a swarm of killer rats at enemies or turn dead bodies to ash leaving no trace. You can even obtain the ability to possess animals for brief periods to get through areas unnoticed or to get through alternate routes, and if upgraded you can also possess other humans too.
These abilities are obtained and upgraded by using runes which are found in various locations around the city. To aid you in finding these you can equip a heart (for reasons which I won’t even attempt to explain) which points you in their direction and tells you how far they are. The heart can also be pointed at characters and places to reveal secret information about them, fleshing out the game world even further. Finding the runes can be a challenge in itself at times. In addition to the runes, the heart will also point out bone charms. These provide passive abilities but only a limited number of them can be equipped at any one time. They have a variety of effects such as increasing your maximum health, increased movement speed while carrying bodies, faster attack speed, etc.
Speaking of health, the game utilises a health bar that has to be regenerated with potions called Sokolov’s Elixir, which is justified in game as a plague remedy. The rival potion to stave off the effects of the disease is Piero’s Spiritual Remedy, and that can also be used by Corvo to regenerate his mana. This is used to activate his various abilities. To make sure you always have access to at least the basic abilities such as Blink, there’s a small portion of the mana bar that regenerates automatically if left for a few seconds, so you only need to actually deplete the bar when using the more advanced skills or in emergency situations that may arise.
Dishonored is one of the rare cases where the game genuinely lets you maintain your chosen style of play throughout the game. If you sneak up behind a guard you can knock them unconscious and you also have a limited supply of sleeping darts that can be used in your crossbow. The scarcity of these darts prevents a non-lethal playthrough from becoming trivial. Guards can be distracted by throwing bottles and other items around to create noise. And you may be playing an assassin but if you explore the levels you can always find a non-fatal alternative way to deal with your target. Very few games ever manage this as developers seem to think that you can’t have a game without big fight sequences. Even the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution, despite letting you play non-lethally throughout, would suddenly force you into a big boss battle that you were often not prepared for. Happily, Dishonored never betrays its strengths like this.
For the more vicious players there are plenty of options available. Corvo permanently has his sword at the ready to engage in melee combat and can also equip his crossbow with normal darts and later on with incendiary darts. He also has access to a pistol and grenades as well as some lethal traps. Generally stealth is still a good idea, though direct confrontation is usually an option and the combat is quite well done. Fighting with the swords is a satisfying mixture of attack and parry. Blocking at the correct time can lead to a counter attack and kills are shown in a variety of showy and gruesome ways. The options available can be combined in imaginative ways to create new ways of taking out your enemies.
The quality of a game like this truly becomes apparent when you try to look for things to criticise it for and struggle. Digging deep I can come up with a few minor niggles. Perhaps it would have been nice to have a few more non-lethal options available. For instance, if you’re perched on a ledge or a wall or any location above a guard, you can drop down on them and get an instant kill with a drop assassination, but there is no non-lethal alternative to this. I see no reason why I shouldn’t be able to drop down and knock them unconscious. There could also be some form of alternative trap that would take out the enemy without killing them. I understand that too many options would have made this route too easy and with some thought you can use different techniques to your advantage, but just a couple of minor additions such as the ones mentioned would not have gone amiss. The ending is also a bit sudden, wrapping everything up in a cutscene which only provides a very brief dénouement. It’s not actually bad and certainly not enough to spoil the game, but just a brief interactive segment to wrap things up would have helped. One other issue, albeit a very minor one, is that immediately after a level or a save game is loaded, the graphics can stutter for a couple of seconds when you turn, but after that everything runs perfectly smoothly. Counteracting that is the fact that level loading times are incredibly fast, often loading the entire level within about 5 seconds, so it’s a small price to pay.
Graphically the game doesn’t have the highest technical quality but it doesn’t need to thanks to its unusual art style. Everything looks almost like an oil painting, with lots of colour to make it stand out from the greys and browns that were so common in gaming but which now thankfully seem to be a passing trend. It looks fantastic in motion too and gives a consistent feel to the game. It’s all rendered in the ever reliable Unreal engine, as the game insists on telling you every time you load it up and are forced to watch those unskippable logos that start most games these days. Sound is also of a high standard with strong voice acting throughout. It makes sense that the acting is good too; I didn’t realise until the closing credits, but the cast included the likes of Susan Sarandon, Chloe Moretz and Carrie Fisher.
Dishonored is one of the best games of 2012 and sets a good standard for freedom in games. It packs a huge amount of variety in its various levels, from the huge city areas to a seedy “bathhouse” to a level where you infiltrate a fancy dress party basically disguised as yourself. The few minor niggles aside (and yes, I’m afraid even here you do go down into a sewer at one point) I’ve no qualms about recommending Dishonored wholeheartedly. Whatever type of gamer you are, you should find something to enjoy here. Dishonored is many things: a dystopian nightmare, a whale oil fuelled steampunk fantasy, a father-daughter relationship, rebellion and betrayal, a painting brought to life, a city full of death. Mostly, Dishonored is an entire alternate universe that we’re getting just a brief tantalising glimpse of. If it leaves us wanting more, it’s only because what we’ve seen so far is so intriguing.
It’s just a shame they don’t know how to spell “dishonoured.”
Save System Review: Save anywhere, both quicksave and manual saves available. There’s a limited number of permanent slots, but there’s quite a few of them.
Graphics: An art style that makes the game look like a moving painting keeps everything looking great, despite not having the highest quality textures around.
Sound: Strong voice acting, a good score and fitting sound effects.
Bugs: The only bug I encountered was getting stuck on scenery one single time when I was trying to find an alternate route. This wasn’t an issue though, since the Blink power means you can never be stuck anywhere permanently anyway.
Gameplay: Excellent stealth gameplay with a huge amount of choice in how you approach any given situation.
Storyline: A good storyline with some surprising moments, marred only slightly by the rushed ending. But the city of Dunwall itself steals the show with its imaginative steampunk-styled dystopian vision and believable sense of place.
Arbitrary Final Score:
If you like this, you might also like: Thief series, Deus Ex series, Bioshock
Was Dunwall done well? Did you play stealthily or did you charge through it in the Blink of an eye? Discuss the game on our forum.