Developer: Arkane Studios / Publisher: Bethesda / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 /ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language]
Dishonored is an odd beast. It’s a bold, stylistic attempt to deliver stealth-action gameplay in a steampunk quasi-Victorian setting dogged by wretched politicians, corrupt guardsmen, and plotting nobles. It showcases a terrific script and a unique aesthetic. So why am I having such trouble figuring out how I feel about it? When I look back at my 10 hours with Dishonored, I enjoyed most of it, but I can’t help shake the feeling that the game is one giant domino set: when it’s all set up and you push it from the top, as designed, it’s rewarding and exciting. But when you accidentally knock one of the dominoes over during setup, it’s extremely frustrating to watch the game mechanics tumble down carelessly, leaving you to try and set up all the fun again.
You are one Corvo Attano (which is an awesome name for a protagonist, by the way), Royal Protector to the empress of the city of Dunwall. As the game begins, the city roils in the grip of a debilitating plague spread by rats, a plague that causes those afflicted to vomit uncontrollably and spew blood from their eyes. Less than an hour into the mystery, Corvo witnesses the death of the empress at the hands of assassins, and the abduction of her daughter, Emily. Corvo is set up to take the fall for both events by the empress’ cabinet of advisors, and you’re off on a merry tale of revenge and redemption to oust from power the newly made Lord Regent and his cronies. Each of the game’s missions has you targeting a different member of this weaving conspiracy, until the somewhat expected story twist, which then catapults the plot into a more sinister and unpredictable direction.
There are definite pacing problems near the beginning of the game, caused by the fact that you visit the same area two times in a row for the first two missions, which makes the game world feel small. But once you get rolling, you climb up to building rooftops, assassinate city guards, and generally causing a ruckus in the self-appointed government’s backyard. The game’s third act, in particular, is exceptionally well-paced, slowly building drama and layering that with situations in which you truly feel like a badass assassin out for revenge.
What really helps enhance the impact of the story is the writing, which is superb. Each journal, note, and audio log you find along Corvo’s journey is incredibly rich with cultural subtext about the city of Dunwall and its surroundings, and you can glean a substantial backstory from these miscellaneous narrative elements.
Then there’s the contextual storytelling a la Half-Life. Dishonored opts to let you stay in control of Corvo in most instances where other games may have opted for hands-off cutscenes, and focuses your attention with scripted conversations or events in the environment that enhance the immediate narrative. As a tool for making the world feel lived-in and real, it’s fantastic. Almost every guard you come across is engaged in some topic of debate with his fellow guards about the mission you’re on or your objectives. Or a story emerges without the need for words, like when a swarm of rats is gnawing on a corpse and you find the victim’s journal nearby revealing his last moments of life.
The characters are also well written, though I would have liked to feel more of a sense of hatred towards the assassination targets; because you only see them right before you kill them, you don’t really get much time to build your own sense of enmity, which lessens the emotive impact of the kills. This feeling is compounded by Corvo’s role as a faceless, silent main character. I felt like a huge tool serving everyone’s bidding without a word of disagreement or at least begrudging acquiescence. Plus, I never got to see his face, so that cool skull mask everyone kept talking about throughout the game was visually relegated to the cover of the box and the rare instances where he took it on or off.
The oft-mentioned Unreal Engine issues of texture pop-in are, sadly, part of the Dishonored story. Up close objects are muddy and lack detail, lending a flat overall appearance to the entire game world. The city of Dunwall itself is a depressing coastal community ravaged by plague, and transformed by a new era of industrial revolution from the discovery that whale oil can power all sorts of mechanical contraptions. The world is imaginative and bleak, oppressive and captivating. I just wish we got to see more of it outside the narrow swath of alleys, sewers, and gray buildings that populate almost every level. Does Dunwall have a park? A casino? Something that isn’t colored gunmetal or made of steel? I really like the caricatured art style used for the characters, but the color palette left me wanting.
The mood of most scenes is helped tremendously by some absolutely stellar water effects (the best I’ve seen since BioShock, a game from which Dishonored draws heavy inspiration to great effect), and some truly spectacular lighting. The way the moon shines over the peaks of Dunwall’s towers is breathtaking, and the way shadows are cast over large distances give the dank corners of the game world real inky uncertainty.
Dishonored is a first-person stealth action game. You traverse a variety of large sandbox environments filled with optional objectives and sub missions. They’re all very well designed, incorporating both verticality and hidden recesses to let your imagination run wild. As you traverse the landscape, you kill or bypass city guards and their defensive emplacements lest you have to fight or flee from a sticky confrontation. You also develop a host of special weapons and powers: Blink lets you teleport short distances; Possess allows you to take control of small animals (and, later, other people) for short periods; you can even summon a swarm of rats to consume corpses or unconscious enemies (probably my favorite effect in a videogame this year).
The game also incorporates a Chaos score at the end of each mission. If you get a low Chaos score (determined on your actions of killing perps, sneaking by, and completing sub-missions), the next mission will feature fewer enemies; a high Chaos score, however, makes the game harder, with more rats and more enemies. The last mission of the game calculates your Chaos score, and ultimately the way Dishonored concludes is either sunshine and butterflies, or sinister and depressing, based on your overall Chaos score.
It’s a subtle system, but becomes more noticeable as the game progresses thanks to varied NPC dialogue and small environmental cues that appear more frequently the closer you get to the end.
In general I like the way it plays out but Dishonored has some fundamental issues that really irk me. For one, whether or not you’re hidden seems determined at random, as there are instances when I’m spotted through walls when I should clearly have been hidden. I’ve encountered horribly inconsistent AI, where an object I threw into the ocean outside the bounds of the map alerted guards halfway across the level. Once I hid a body in a small guard hut, and an enemy saw his body through a wall. Worst of all, though, is that when an enemy does see you, it somehow alerts every enemy in the level to exactly where you are, as if everyone in Dunwall has some sort of mystical Corvo Attano radar. It’s incredibly frustrating to have a clean, undetected run completely ruined by shoddy AI.
Needless to say, if you’re going for a nonlethal playthrough of the entire game, you’re going to be reloading checkpoints a lot. Eventually I just said screw it and started killing everyone I came across, which in turn fueled some perverse pleasure in preventing the AI from being cheap. As an action game, Dishonored is merely average; as a stealth game, it’s quite good when every part of the machine is working correctly. Just don’t expect that to happen a lot of the time. It’s one of those difficulty issues that really annoys me from a design perspective: the game doesn’t teach me how to get better at it through failure, it merely makes me retry the same sections without reinforcing what I did wrong.
Dishonored is a good game. It falls flat a bit on the pacing, the AI has a laundry list of quirks that become frustrating real quick, but on the whole the game delivers an experience you won’t find anywhere else this year. The underlying themes are very complex and different for modern era videogames; themes about power corruption, whaling and environmentalism, classism, science and mysticism, and murder all play a huge part in the overall feel of the experience. There really hasn’t been a game world like this before, and there really hasn’t been a game that lets you assume the role of what is ostensibly steampunk Batman. For a new IP, Dishonored is a good first outing; it’s creative, visionary, and ambitious. I want more of this universe because it’s clearly ripe with amazing potential, hinted at, but not fully realized.
8 / 10