“You’re just trying to break the game, aren’t you?” asks Bethesda’s PR rep from the chair beside me.
I grin as I hurl the body of the noblewoman I just murdered through the air at a guard, before freezing time and using the pause to cover her body in sticky grenades. Time unfreezes and my newly-created corpse bomb smashes into the unsuspecting guard, detonating and blasting him into chunks. His head rolls past me down the corridor.
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
We’re playing Dishonored, upcoming stealth-stab-spellcasting-sandbox game from Arkane, and easily the most interesting original IP of the year — even if it doesn’t know how to spell its own name. This is the infamous Lady Boyle mission, first demonstrated at Gamescom and now here, in Australia. You’ve been sent into the Boyle family’s masquerade ball to take down Lady Boyle, but with three women all with the same last name and all hidden behind masks, you’ve got no way of knowing which one to stab. That’s the theory, anyway.
The mission sees you arriving by boat a short distance away, and having to make your way through heavily-guarded territory over the walls into the mansion proper. Colossal tallboys clank as they stalk the bridges over the river, while guards meander around between watch posts. This is a quarantined zone, and they shoot you on sight.
I clamber up the docks and ghost past an oblivious guard, seeking shelter in the ruined buildings. My intrusion disturbs several plague victims hiding out in the slums, and they swarm at me, covering me in vomit and biting at my face. It’s like a night out on the town with Toby. I’ve only been playing for two minutes and have no idea what I’m doing, so the pack of retching homeless men make short work of me while I fire my pistol wildly into the ceiling.
Arkane’s Julien Roby chuckles sympathetically, and helpfully explains Dishonored’s stealth mechanics to me while I reload. Dishonored has struck many as a stealth game, but in fact its stealth mechanics are less detailed than one might initially think. Due to the constant pressure of trying to give players as many options as possible rather than forcing them to rely on stealth, Corvo only has two options – press B to enter ‘Stealth Mode’, or… don’t.
Upon activating stealth mode, Corvo crouches, moving slowly and more softly — and combined with the Dark Vision power to let me see through walls, turns me into an Dishonored’s equivalent of an omniscient stealth master. I sneak up behind the group of shamblers and fill them full of crossbow bolts. Then, to my surprise, they burst into flames and start screaming. A guard nearby pipes up something about a noise.
I’ve accidentally shot them full of incendiary bolts. I love this game already.
Eventually I make it over the wall into the party proper. My first time is by a connected rooftop and a series of cunning teleports. On subsequent runs I possess a fish and swim through a grate in the river, or creep past a striding tallboy and enter through a sewerage pipe under the main gate. Arkane are going to great lengths to give people multiple options for every problem, whether it’s as simple as running up to the mansion wall and teleporting directly over, or something stupidly more complicated and involving as many deaths as possible.
Once over the walls, the objective is to locate Lady Boyle inside the party and put an end to her — but I’ve got a sidequest to deliver a document to a nobleman in the gardens. I locate him quickly, only to discover that the document I handed him was to challenge him to a duel. Well then.
We take our pistols, take our positions, and wait for the countdown before turning to face each other and pulling the trigger. When the announcer hits “one”, I pause time, stride casually behind my frozen opponent, and put my knife through his spine.
Naturally, I am declared the winner of the duel. I also have to fight the man’s companions, who can’t abide a hacker, but it’s no big deal: covered in blood and kicking a severed head across the gardens, I enter the party.
Once inside the manse, the primary conceit of the level becomes clear. With Lady Boyle’s identity obscured behind a mask, it’s up to you to talk to the guests and use deductive reasoning to determine which one is the one you should be shanking. I spend a bit of time moseying through the party and chatting with the guests, mosts of whom only have one line or so to repeat to me.
Often, that line is a variant on “I wonder if the lady’s diary is upstairs in her room?”, and after the fifth NPC straight-up told me that the Lady Boyle’s diary was upstairs and would tell me which dress she was wearing, I spitefully resolved to work it all out for myself.
Eventually, I’d narrowed down Lady Boyle to the black or the red dress, but then it all became somewhat redundant when a man in a bizarre bunny mask pulled me aside to explain that he knows I’m here to kill Lady Boyle, but he’d like me to do something else instead — knock her out and take her down to the basement so he can spirit her away to be his bride. ‘Not creepy at all dude’, I think, agreeing instantly.
He then helpfully reveals that Lady Boyle is in a black dress, allowing me to find her and convince her to join me in the basement — for her own safety. One quick chokehold later, and me and the Lady Boyle are on our way to the canals underneath the house for a bit of a pre-arranged wedding. My original intent is to hurl the lady’s corpse at her bunny-headed kidnapper and turn it into a makeshift bomb, but a cut-scene takes over as soon as I get close and before I know it, the happy couple are disappearing into the sewers. Blast.
I reload for another run through. This time, I find myself face-to-face with the rabbit-man again, who instantly offers me the optional Boyle-disposal adjective and tells me which one she is. I don’t even need to do any detective work or anything.
Confused, I reload and try again. I find him hanging out in the piano room, and he… immediately solves the puzzle for me. Call me crazy, but the whole point of having Lady Boyle being randomly generated each time is somewhat redundant when there’s an instant-win button wandering around the party in a manky rabbit hat.
Fortunately as a pure sandbox, the mansion itself is a tonne of fun. By the time I’m finished, I’ve possessed a rat and headed into the breaker room to re-wire the security field so that Lady Boyle and her guards vapourise themselves trying to enter the restricted area; I’ve thrown an explosive-laden bunny-headed paramour at Lady Boyle from across the room, killing them both in a tragic explosion; I’ve leapt from the top balcony and crushed Lady Boyle under my boots before fleeing the scene as a rat; and even watched, giggling, on another screen as games.on.net almuni Brenna Hillier folded the unconscious Lady Boyle into a fireplace, where she instantly roasted to death.
The point I’m trying to make here is that Dishonored is fun. It’s a smart sandbox with all the right elements in it for a good time, and even if the Lady Boyle costume party concept is a bit clunky and handhold-ey, that’s okay — at least it’s something new and interesting in a year that’s seeing yet another addition to every major military shooter and sporting franchise.
About the only real problem I found was engaging in swordplay, as it’s difficult to read opponents and therefore to know when to counter and when to follow up on a stagger with a killing blow.
For this preview build we were given access to a range of powers we might not have at this point in the normal game, which meant I often fell back to blowing people away with magic rather than conserving mana and killing them the old-fashioned way. It’ll be interesting to see how this works out in the long run.
Although Dishonored developers Arkane are taking care to stress that they will be catering to PC gamers, they’re still not willing to deploy the PC version for this hands-on session and, with launch fast approaching, there’s very little chance of this happening. Our hands-on time was exclusively with the Xbox 360 version which, although serviceable, was visibly low-resolution and suffered from some strange shader issues in the water areas. Arkane would later assure us that the PC version comes packed with HD textures, so hopefully this shouldn’t be a problem — and for somebody like me who can’t use a control pad to save his life, the PC version can’t come soon enough.
Dishonored launches in Australia on October 11.