Developers: Arkane Studios
Publishers: Bethesda Softworks
How will you neutralise this target? This is the question that really forms the heart of the Dishonored experience. Is it best to invest your money in upgrades for your crossbow and optical gadgetry, to clear the rooftops of squealers, and then to send your target to sleep with a drugged dart, teleport in through the window, throw him over your shoulder, and then teleport back out again?But how to get in to the complex in the first place? Do you go in all guns blazing, deactivating the watchtower with a well-placed explosive round, before freezing time, possessing a guard, standing him in front of the bullet he just fired in your direction, before escaping into the shadows, and watching as the guard's own shot takes him out.
Maybe you're the sort of gamer who'd prefer to summon swarms of rats to cause a disturbance, before slinking on by silently; or perhaps you're the type of person who'd set about rewiring every piece of enemy hardware in sight, turning the fizzing and spitting Arc Pylons of Dunwall's City Watch against their own men. Are you the harbinger of redemption or retribution?
You step into the shoes, and behind the hideous mask, of Corvo Attano. Once the Royal Protector to the Empress Jessamine and her daughter Emily, you find yourself returning to the city of Dunwall after months away seeking aid from neighbouring countries for a deadly disease - the rat plague. The aid never comes, and Dunwall finds itself blockaded; the news you return with is grim indeed. Whole sections of the city are in lockdown, the plague-stricken forced into quarantine already, and Dunwall is being left to bubble and burn. In such circumstances, strong decisive leadership is surely need, and there are those who do not find that the Empress its the bill. Mid-way through your report, she is murdered by masked fellows who vanish into thin air, leaving you at the scene of the crime, and kidnapping Emily.
The game begins properly, following a scene-setting prologue that sees you approach the city's water lock from the ocean and ascend to Dunwall Tower, with Corvo breaking out of prison, with the aid of a small band of rebels called the Loyalists. The six months following the opening scenes have witnessed much change: Corvo finds himself framed for the Empress' murder, with the old Spymaster Hiram Burrows having carved out a tyrannical dictatorship as Lord Regent. With the help of the Loyalists, it's time for Corvo to find some answers, save Emily, and administer some justice.
In many ways, Dishonored owes much to the freeform aspects at the heart of IO Interactive's Hitman series. In the majority of the missions on which Corvo is sent, he is given a target, alongside a number of optional objectives, one of which will always include a non-lethal solution to the main objective, for low Chaos purposes. But unlike the standalone mini sandboxes in which Codename 47 finds himself, the areas of Dunwall that Corvo roams about in are essentially lots of larger sandboxes stuck together. It really roots you in an urban environment, giving you a great sense of the city itself, but also constantly giving you the impression that there's much more to Dunwall that you'll never get to see.
You begin the game armed with a blade and a gun, and it's not long before you're introduced to the mysterious (and woefully underdeveloped) Outsider - Dishonored's ethereal deity of sorts who brands you with his mark, and reveals that you'll be able to unlock supernatural powers such as the ability to conjure up a whirlwind, see enemies through walls, possess the minds of men and beasts, and stop time. You'll need to find Runes for these upgrades, with little enchanted bone fragments also providing small character buffs, and the Outsider gives you a a semi-mechanical heart to use as a divining rod.
The most useful ability of all is the one you begin with - Blink - giving you the opportunity to cross a short distance in the blink of an eye, and ostensibly teleport to higher ledges, cross gaps you'd not normally be able to jump, and move swiftly from cover to cover. Each of your abilities drinks mana, but thankfully there are plenty of opportunities to top up. Pleasingly, you can map four abilities or items to the D-pad to allow for swift swapping between powers, something that can be essential when it comes to not being seen.
There's no doubt that at its heart, Dishonored is a hardcore stealth game. You can get up to some deliciously wicked things in this game and, as with all wicked things, its best not to get caught doing them. Open combat is never explicitly advised against during the game, but should you find yourself surrounded by guards and running low on elixir, you'll be swiftly taught lesson in swordsmanship. White bolts will appear above an enemy's head if you make them suspicious, turning red if they identify you, but there are plenty of options to assist in an ingenious escape. Whether you Blink into safety, Possess the man who spotted you or freeze time to run away, there's always a way out. It might be by the skin of your teeth, but you'll be alive.
Of course, you can always opt to stand and fight. The swordfighting in Dishonored is marginally better than that in The Elder Scrolls games, but Corvo is an assassin, not a warrior. He's pretty fragile, the guards are well-versed in melee combat, and should you run into an Overseer - Dunwall's quasi-religious nutbags - their strange musical organs will prohibit you from using any of your magical abilities. The sound of your gun will bring more men running, and unclean kills will yield startling screams that may attract further attention. Worse yet, those around you will judge you should your Corvo become too bloodthirsty, and the level of violence you dish out on the streets will directly affect the already volatile and changeable nature of Dunwall's disease-ridden society.
Dishonored measures your infamy in Chaos. The more violent you make Corvo, the more conspicuous his actions become, the more Dunwall's streets become militarised. Practically this means that your Chaos rating will rise with each victim killed, each body found, each alert triggered. Should the turmoil move from low to high, it'll mean more soldiers on the streets between you and your objective, perhaps greater structural security in the form of watchtowers and Walls of Light, and your mission will require more thought, planning, and deft dexterity.
With this in mind, it's important to note that Dishonored does not give you limitless choice, and indeed although so much of the game might prove reminiscent of Bioshock in terms of a fantastically crafted, incredibly detailed world, Dishonored is not really an action game at all. It has action elements, certainly, but you won't find all-out action particularly satisfying, you'll die an awful lot and you'll completely miss the point. Better yet, Dishonored refuses to apologise for that.
Embracing the shadows means that the action elements become even more satisfying than out in the open, quick flashes of Corvo's blade the payoff for a well-worked, meticulously planned kill. It's not about picking one element over another, it's about combining all of them, trying out each one, and finding out which combination works best for your Corvo in whichever situation you find yourself. No two playthroughs will be exactly the same.
If there is an area in which Dishonored falls down, it's in the story itself. Though the books in the game do contribute to your knowledge of the world around you, it's disappointing to see that not reflected in a wider narrative. Even the story that is there feels a little predictable and under-nourished at times, which is a shame because the voice-acting is superb, and the characters hint towards interesting backgrounds and the potential for something truly special. Admittedly, you'll glean little snippets of information - both helpful and cosmetic - from eavesdropping, and this in itself often provides incentives to play through a mission again, but the story is never as satisfying as it perhaps should be, the Outsider himself is nothing more than a rambling narrative MacGuffin, and the finale falls pretty flat.
Dunwall itself is a masterpiece of design, and is truly the star of the show. It feels diseased and decaying, a throwback to plague-stricken London, but with architecture evoking Eastern European influences. The constant geographical challenges - how do I get there? - invite exploration, and the slightly stylised art makes it looks at times like a 3D watercolour. At first I found myself inspecting textures closely and frowning; by the end I was taken aback at how stunning the big picture can be.
It's a shame, therefore, that Dunwall's character isn't explored more closely - the lore behind the supernatural elements of the world, the code of Daud's assassins, the background of the Overseer's, and the political turmoil that forms the crux of the game's story are all hinted at in the books that are strewn across the world, but that's about it. Even the characters that form the heart of the story are never explored fully. Corvo's interaction with others is so minimal that there's no real plotline payoff. When the conclusion does come, it's difficult to feel anything as a result of it. It's a bit like having Bioshock without meeting Andrew Ryan - it would still be a fantastic game, and Rapture would still be a captivating place to be, but that moment is what elevates Irrational's game into the pantheon of all-time greats. Arkane's reaches, and it so nearly succeeds, but it feels like we're waiting for that moment in Dishonored, and it never quite arrives.
That said, Dishonored is unmissable. The stealth genre has given us some stupendous first-person classics - Thief, Deus Ex, No One Lives Forever - and Dishonored deserves to be ranked alongside them. Arkane have not just revived an ailing genre, but made us wonder why it ever fell out of fashion in the first place. In stubbornly refusing to buckle under current trends, Arkane have focused all of their time and effort on an enormously engaging singleplayer experience that oozes quality. In the end, it doesn't matter that the penned story falls a bit short, because frankly the narratives that you'll write yourself are the ones you'll remember .
- Breathes life back into the stealth genre in immensely satisfying fashion
- Large-scale missions and detailed sandboxes offer up a plethora of potential gameplay opportunities
- Dunwall's design is as detailed and lovingly crafted as Rapture...
- ...But the story fails to really do it justice
- Low Chaos requirements are fiendish
- Textures can look a bit dodgy up close
The Short Version: Dishonored is, quite frankly, Bethesda's watercooler game of 2012 - the game that all should be talking about come the year's end, with no two narrative anecdotes the same. It does better than simply revive the stealth genre, it makes us wonder why the hell it went away in the first place. Arkane have delivered a blank canvas in Corvo Attano, with a commendably mature approach to player freedom that asks much of you, and delivers ultimate gameplay satisfaction in return. Nothing short of astonishing.