In one of the middle-ish Dishonored missions, I find myself in a quandary. The city watch have blockaded a bridge to the next section of town and set up an arc pylon: a device that will detect me if I get close and automatically convert me into a small pile of ash via the medium of white-hot lightning. I can’t get close because the pylon is always watching, and I can’t sneaky-on-by because there’s no room and, oh damn, they’ve got dogs on patrol as well.
I leap to the roof and assess the situation. Every electrical device in Dishonored has two weaknesses: a control box, and a whale-oil power tank. The control box can be rewired to force it to attack enemies instead, while the power tank can be simply disconnected. I can see the power tank, but the control box is… wait. It’s facing away from the guards, over the edge of the bridge?
A couple blinks later and I’m on the docks, approaching the bridge from the side. There’s no cover by the control box, and I hear the tell-tale musical sting of a suspicious guard who has spotted somebody fiddling where they shouldn’t be. Calmly I open the power wheel and freeze time, rewiring and closing the box and then disappearing into the sea below. Time unfreezes, and the newly rewired pylon starts to spark angrily at all the enemies suddenly surrounding it. The death screams of the guards filter, muffled, through the water above me. I feel a twinge of sadness for the dog.
Immersive yourself in a world of rats
I’m not going to really bother recapping the story of Dishonored because frankly if you don’t already know about the supernatural-assassin-revenge-stab-stab plot line already then you’ve probably been living under a rock and, let’s be honest with ourselves, the storyline of Dishonored is pretty naff. It’s a tale of vengeance and betrayal painted in enough of a broad stroke to give you a justification for a bit of the ol’ revengey-stabby-stabby but really, when it comes down to it, isn’t going to win any awards. No, where Dishonored really shines — and shines greater than many other games in recent memory — is in its setting.
Dishonored’s setting is, as Penny Arcade accurately surmise, a melting pot — but it’s one that works. It’s a glorious world of dystopian alt-London steampunk whale-oil voodoo nonsense, with religious paranoia and devil-worship shades-of-grey stirred in over a furnace powered by a thousand scurrying, festering rats. It’s the creative genius of Raphael Colantonio and Harvey Smith, shaped by the watchful eyes and hands of Viktor Antonov’s artistic direction. It’s such a delightful, well-rounded and above all well-curated world that it would be a capital crime if it remained un-explored by future games.
In fact the Viktor Antonov connection is perhaps one of the most important here, because Dishonored and Half-Life 2 share not only Antonov’s stylish industrial European art direction, but the same basic conceit: the frankly uninteresting story of a personality-free and unconvincingly mute protagonist, told in a staggeringly well-crafted world full of weird gameplay systems that you can arrange in bizarre fashions to unexpected ends. Sure, Half-Life 2 doesn’t feature the ability to teleport from rooftop to rooftop and then summon a swarm of rats to give an unsuspecting guard an involuntary exfoliation, but hey, there’s plenty of time to fix that particular glaring error when (or if) Half-Life 3 ever makes it out. Get on it, Valve.
A swiss army knife disguised as a game
I always had Dishonored pegged as a stealth game, and if that’s what you want to do with it then it can certainly be that for you. It’s a fine stealth game and one of the best I’ve played in ages (and one that doesn’t allow you to get away with utterly unbelievable shadow-hiding that so many others do), but it’s so much more than that. Dishonored is a genuinely special game: not only does it actually make good on its promise to allow you to play any way you like, but it does it really well.
Unlike Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which shouted from the rooftops about its ‘four pillars of gameplay’ but ultimately was deathly boring if you were anything other than a stealth hacker, Dishonored’s gameplay systems are highly adaptable. Pure stealth? Not a drama. All-out combat? Get in. Ghost through the level, never seen even by your final target? Yep. Completely non-lethal? You can do that too – you’re never forced to kill someone literally ever in the entire game, not even in the boss batt- oh wait! There aren’t any boss battles. Snaps and dang.
You don’t get your supernatural powers until maybe an hour or so into the game, but here’s the ultimate kick in the teeth to the pre-scripted games which we’ve become so used to: even with all these amazing powers — possession, teleporting, stopping time — you don’t need to use them at all. You can reject The Outsider’s gift completely and finish the game as a normal, angry man with a sword and a gun who never inhabited the body of a rat in his life. Some might call this “hard mode”. I call it “a triumph of game design”.
The game supports this flexibility not only with its level design — which is beautifully filled with nooks, crannies, vents, basements, rooftops and tunnels — but with its mechanics as well. Enemies have a three-level detection system allowing you to fade from sight if a guard is getting suspicious, and a broad cone of vision coupled with occasionally unpredictable patrol routes to spice things up.
Even if you’re going in guns blazing you’ll find a system that rewards the thinker: careful parrying, blocking and sword-crossing is integral to success, as is knowing when to pop a blunderbuss into a guard’s torso and when to scamper away, bleeding.
Objectives emerge organically as you play through the levels. If you miss a conversation between two guards that reveals the existence of a non-lethal way to dispose of the target, tough luck. Pay attention to your surroundings, and you’ll see a handful of ways to reach — and get rid of — anybody. During the game’s final confrontation, I idly wondered if I could take out my ultimate target with a well-aimed crossbow bolt from 100 feet away. It turned out not to be a good idea as he and the person he was holding plunged to their death, but that wasn’t the point: there was an enemy, I had a crossbow, and nothing stopped me from shooting him in the face. There genuinely is no best way to play, and anybody who tells you otherwise is in need of a good kicking.
Take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours
Despite this, Dishonored has been the subject of some discussion around exactly how many hours of gameplay-bang you can expect for your buck. I personally clocked in at 21 hours, but I’ve been told you could do it in as little as eight or so if you just legged it for the objectives and ignored everything around you (or a matter of minutes if you’ve played before and know where to blink to). Don’t do this. I mean, sure, you can and the game won’t stop you — Dishonored rarely stops you from doing anything at all — but you’re cheating yourself.
With the amount of sidequests, optional objectives, loot, bone charms, runes and secret areas to find, there’s no reason at all to rush it other than a self-defeating desire to have as shallow a time as possible. Take your time, turn the HUD off, and see what Dishonored has to offer. You can always come back for another go — and you should, because with the way Dishonored tracks your progress and adjusts to your play style, you’d be crazy not to play it at least a second time.
Great PC support completes the package
On the subject of the HUD, Dishonored’s PC configuration options are sure to please: although they’ve already been extensively detailed ahead of time, in practice they’re still a delight. Your level of control is quite granular, with minutiae present like the ability to disable shadows on rats specifically because… well, let’s not question it.
Graphically speaking Dishonored is hands-down gorgeous, with a lovely painterly-texture and slightly distorted, stylised anatomy to it that brings the world to life in a way that the ultra-realism of modern military shooters has never achieved. The system requirements aren’t exactly going to push your rig to overheat, but with all the settings cranked up you’ll get a genuinely pretty game that’s a lot more than just a console port — and fully rebindable controls that actually recognise all the buttons on my mouse are the icing on the cake.
No game is perfect
I mentioned earlier that Dishonored’s storyline and character are a bit colourless, but from the excited words you’ve been reading so far you might think that’s the worst of Dishonored’s problems. It’s unfortunately not: although there is a bit of the ol’ repetitive dialogue and occasionally painfully dense AI, Dishonored’s biggest issue is that it will sometimes spawn enemies out nowhere just to frustrate you. During the Golden Cat level in particular, I was surprised multiple times when enemies came from behind me, despite the fact that I’d worked my way up through the levels and left every single guard sleeping in an office. At one point the guards literally appeared directly in front of me out of thin air, which was superbly illusion-breaking and more than a bit irritating. Corpses also have a tendency to disappear, which is unsettling to say the least. Presumably, both these are bugs that can soon be ironed out.
Dishonored can also sometimes be a bit heavy-handed in presenting its options. “Don’t touch the valve near the steam room,” a note might say. “Whoever is in there will be boiled alive! P.S. Also, the guy you need to kill is in there!” Or at the Boyle party, every guest you talk to will remark on what a mystery Lady Boyle’s real identity is and then in the very next breath loudly and unsubtly remind you that you could solve the puzzle by heading upstairs and reading the lady’s diary.
When I spoke to Dishonored’s executive producer Julien Roby about this, he lamented that players simply had no idea what they should — or even could do — if they didn’t get a little suggestion. Sometimes though, it feels like Dishonored’’s suggestion is more of a shrieking megaphone blast. You never need to obey these suggestions and you can, to Arkane’s absolute credit, always deal with a problem your own way. But it is a little bit jarring, and it does deserve note.
At the end of all things
Dishonored is part Bioshock, part Half-Life 2, part Deus Ex, part Thief, part Mirror’s Edge, and yet still a game and a world all of its own. It’s the game that the our industry desperately needs: a breath of fresh air in a release schedule filled with annual instalments of military shooters with tacked-on multiplayer and licensed sporting titles, a game that not only refuses to run pre-scripted events but tears the script up and throws it out the window. It’s not perfect, but it tries so hard and gets so many things right that to let it pass you by un-purchased and un-played would be a crying shame.
- Amazing systemic gameplay that allows you almost total freedom to accomplish your objectives
- Brutal supernatural powers that are a joy to use
- Gameplay that adapts to and reflects your choices as you progress
- Deeply compelling world and setting
- Gorgeous artistic direction
- Impressive replayability
- Purely single-player, no tacked-on multiplayer
- Solid PC support and options
- Characters and actual story are fairly shallow, game is clearly built around world and mechanics
- Occasional bug with re- and de-spawning NPC’s
- Some unsubtle hints may discourage initial experimentation
- There’s no way to do a non-lethal drop-takedown on an enemy, for some bizarre reason