Developer: Arkane Studios / Publisher: Bethesda Softworks / Platform: PC, Xbox 360, PS3 / Release: October 9, 2012 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language]
TESLA OF THE D’UBERVILLES
Consider even the briefest, shallowest scan of the premise for developer Arkane Studios’ forthcoming Dishonored: A first-person, open-world, Neo-Victorian/Steampunk stealth-action videogame, with strong elements of the tech/magic schism and Machiavellian-intrigue overtones, and haunted by the shades of Deus Ex and Bioshock (and a pinch of Thief)—it’s as if the designers are deliberately pushing every evocative button they can think of in order to garner the attention of the increasingly discerning gaming public…which is fair enough. But, like…are they serious? Can they really cram all of this together, and actually make it work, and not have it be just a complete thematic and mechanical mess? From what we witnessed during our recent virtual VIP tour of the city of Dunwall, the answer so far appears to be an emphatic Yes.
Lead designers Harvey Smith (he of lead designing Deus Ex 1 and 2) and Raphel Colantonio (Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, Arx Fatalis) are the lead designers on this ambitious and hugely stylish game set in a notionally steampunk-tech-level world already reasonably far apace into its own industrial age—carriages, cobblestones, fey snooty top-hatted nobility, and the looming specter of rat-born Plague, yes…but also smoke-belching factories, exotic electrical intrusions, stilt-legged, ‘meched-up armored constables-cum-executioners tottering around the city streets, the age-old furball between Technology and that other technology called Magic…and quietly (insidiously?) lubricating it all, that oh-so topical, allegorical (and, it would appear, damn-near all-purpose) precious fuel, whale oil. It also boasts a compellingly evocative world-that-might-have-been-somewhere setting, and some of the best, most thoughtful game-character/vehicle modeling ever created—simultaneously dramatically exaggerated, unflatteringly, warts-and-all ‘realistic’, and painstakingly, anachronistically crafted (of course that’s how the chassis suspension would be on a heartless Neo-Victorian noble’s personal armored carriage—it’s so obvious!)
You take the role of Corvo, a once-legendary and now—wait for it—dishonored royal guard for the Empress. Corvo has been thoroughly, expertly framed and defamed for the Empress’ assassination…but with the help of a mysterious being/entity called The Outsider (he/it appears to Corvo in the form of a smug, slightly sketchy and a bit wheedling man while Corvo is rotting in prison for his non-crime), Corvo will have the chance to take revenge on those who framed him. Corvo acquires The Outsider’s ‘mark’, ultimately imbuing the dishonored former bodyguard with a host of abilities ranging from the usefully extra-normal to the inarguably super-natural.
Throughout the course of the game, you can visit disparate game locales such as the desolate Isles, the greater Pandyssian Continent, and most importantly the city of Dunwall itself, which was featured so prominently in the game’s trailer. While Dishonored is nominally open-world, the game progress is broken up into discrete but vast areas which, within their boundaries, can be freely explored. The degree of freedom in combat and movement is promising, and we’ve seen Corvo clamber up the sides of buildings from the cobblestoned streets to skulk along the chimney-potted rooftops above, leap from building to building, drop down on balconies to gain entrance through windows, turn a sprawling, decadent high-society waterfront brothel into a free-running bloodbath, vault out a fifth-story window without opening the window first, splash down into the cold sea waters, and make an escape through sewers belowground.
Where the game’s degree-of-freedom throttle really opens up, however, is when Corvo uses his Outsider-granted ability to possess other living things. There you are, on a rooftop, looking through the open window across the street at the half-dressed working wench in the fourth-floor boudoir—and then, bzap!, now you are the half-dressed working wench; or rather, now you are in control of the radio-control Tonka Truck that is her unwilling corporeal form. You see what she sees, you hear what she hears, you make her move where you want her to move, and nobody in her immediate vicinity is any the wiser (although you’ll probably raise some suspicions should you casually stroll her comely form to the balcony and summarily chuck it/you over the railing). Sometimes you’ll perform these ‘possessions’ purely for intel-gathering purposes…and sometimes, you’ll use it to hitch a trans-physical ride (to bridge the gap from one side of the street to another, to get past a checkpoint unmolested, etc.). When you’ve had enough time in the pilot’s seat, you ‘eject’—and you’re now in a new location (from what we know, the game never really even tries to address what actually happens to you, Corvo, physically during these transitions, as you are throughout the game a most decidedly physical being, capable of wielding blades, guns, etc.)
Also in regard to possession: We’re not just talking nobles and nobodies, guards and goons, concubines and constables here but, like, fish and rats, too—no concrete word on whether, as one of the game’s five disclosed chromatic varieties of vermin, you can bite your foes and give them a nice bucket of Plague; for now, we can but hope.
The sheer range of Corvo’s potential super-human abilities is quite broad, and you can boost, hone, and otherwise focus on the particular ones that suit your favorite style of play. While the aforementioned possession technique (paired with the different-but-related ‘blink’ ability, which allows you to instantly translocate across varying distances) is obviously an immensely useful advantage in just about any situation, there are others that are more specialized, or which are purely destructive in nature…or that are just really, really fun. Among these are: The ability to slow (or flat-ass stop) time; to instantly summon hordes of diseased vermin on command (a nice touch in a Neo-Victorian game); or to direct a powerful, localized wind-blast of hurricane violence (this last, often but not always coupled with foes standing near upper-story windows, just never seems to get old).
Another point that might seem largely cosmetic but in fact pointedly isn’t: The designers have on more than one occasion referred to the game-world of Dishonored as a ‘simulation’—that is, the ambient goings-on around you are not just kind of ‘zapped in’ to existence in your path. If you find occasion to save a pedestrian’s virtue from a pair of ruffians in the low-quarter streets, said ruffians were actual characters with bad things on their minds long before you got there. The designers also adamantly pointed out to us a related but potentially far more significant fact: As Corvo goes on his Neo-Steampunk slash-and-burn through Dunwall and points beyond, there are other (and certainly more creative and poetic) paths to Revenge than just ambushing your upper-society foe in his posh penthouse apartment and leaving him bleeding on the carpet; engineer your in-game, long-term, cause-and-effect house of cards just right, and you could work things so that the formerly high-and-mighty evil industrial taskmaster—who’s made his living and his wealth off the suffering of the unfortunates working his ghastly, unsafe mines—ends up destitute and unrecognized, slaving away in his own subterranean hell for the rest of his natural life. Now that is a ‘living-world’ scheme!
Dishonored is slated to ship by Q2 2012; if you don’t want it as badly as we do, make no mistake: There is something wrong with you.