November 19, 2012
Way back in 1998, when shooters were trying to expand themselves beyond “shoot what isn’t you,” gameplay, Looking Glass Studios released a game with the idea of “shoot nothing.” Thief instead encouraged and rewarded avoidance of confrontation, especially by casting a player character who had difficulty in a one-on-one fight, let alone superior numbers. The higher difficulties in the game stacked the odds increasingly against the player, even including mission fail conditions if the player killed anyone. The game and its sequel are often credited for popularizing the stealth genre, heavily influencing games to follow. Stealth games since have been a lot less about avoiding confrontation and more about doing it in a quiet and efficient manner while not getting caught. Now, Arkane Studios (Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, Arx Fatalis) are tossing their hat into the ring with Dishonored, and it lands pleasantly close to the totem planted by Thief all those years ago.
Akin to Thief, Dishonored is a steampunk setting, though in a much later Victorian era than medieval. Set briefly after the downfall of a large empire, the game world is draped in nobility and the pomp associated with it, as well as the corruption that so often follows. With this, the game sees you in the role of the empress’ bodyguard, Corvo Attano, and within minutes you’ve failed your job and you’re fired in the worst possible way: Framed for the empress’ murder. Thus the game’s title and the whole setup, Corvo is cast down and, thanks to some conspiring benefactors, is set out on a path of revenge against those who killed his empress and fingered him. Along with his backroom supporters Corvo finds himself assisted by the mysterious and mystical occult figure “The Outsider,” who grants him dark magical powers. All of this snowballs into Corvo becoming a master assassin on the warpath, and you’re the one directing his vengeance.
Gameplay is highly reminiscent of Thief in its very basic stealth elements and core movement, but it quickly diverges from there. Corvo moves fast and low to the ground, can lean around corners to peak past them, and tends to stick to the shadows or above guards’ sight lines. He can even climb just about any object he can fit on, making it real easy to scramble up to rooftops and alternative routes. It all feels weighty and solid while remaining nimble. Corvo also splits off from the tradition with his supernatural movement abilities, an unlockable double-jump, and the far more potent teleportation. The former just allows more height on jumps and extends the distance you can hop forward a little. It’s useful and on a new game I found myself missing it, but the power squarely in the spotlight the entire game is Blink. Allowing Corvo to teleport short distances, it will become the primary mode of movement through the game, as without it the places you can reach are restricted to either nimble jumping sequences, or completely inaccessible. Throughout the game, despite unlocking other powers, my use of each was limited to less than ten times on any of them, some going completely unused. Blink’s use as a movement power cannot be overstated, but it’s also an incredibly handy power for when things go awry.
Thief’s protagonist , Garrett, was more often than not in trouble when he got caught. For years, stealth games have been at the mercy of quickloads. “Oops, he saw me, I better redo this whole thing!” This was largely due to either poor combat, or combat so heavily stacked against the player they couldn’t win. Even in games where combat was escapable or winnable, often the go-to move was to just reload. Dishonored finally presents a stealth game where messing up is not only acceptable but it’s fun as well. This primarily has to do with the fact that the game was designed so players could take a Rambo approach if they wanted to. This means that Corvo is neither a weakling, not do the combat mechanics suffer from last-minute design.
Swordplay has a system of blocks and parries that allow quick and brutally efficient dispatch of any basic guard who engages you alone. Later game enemies see you on your back foot, though Corvo has a wealth of tricks up his sleeve to kill with. The combat rarely ever has just one thing going on at once, Corvo oft teleporting behind an alerted guard to slit his throat while another two close, and a third fires a pistol that Corvo can avoid by freezing time and simply walking away from the shot and killing him while time stands still. Te tools, powers, and environments play so well together that combat can be extremely fun with gleeful experimentation. On lower difficulties the game actually becomes ridiculously easy to blow through by slaughtering everything in your way, negating the stealth elements completely. Thankfully, on the highest difficulty the game encourages stealth over combat, which the game executes to a fine degree of success.
The principle character of Dishonored’s gameplay is moving behind, above, below, and sometimes in front of characters who don’t have any idea you’re there. In that regard, the game performs stealth very well and there’s a satisfying feeling to having made it through a heavily populated area without anyone even thinking you were there. The typical stealth caveats of remaining unseen are present: silly conversations talking about you, guards doing things when they think no one’s watching, passing comments between guards that repeat themselves endlessly. Other stealth elements are fundamentally well executed, but not far beyond that. It’s pleasant to find most enemies have far wider fields of view than most stealth titles, but that’s easily dampened by the fact that anything almost literally above their eye level is invisible to them. Also underwhelming is the fact that guard alert states often last less than a minute before they act as if nothing happened. Though a staple of stealth gaming, it would be nice if higher difficulties had them remembering things for longer, perhaps even permanently remembering seeing you, a corpse, or hearing an alarm raised. It’s especially jarring considering that guards are highly acute at spotting you if you’re on their level, despite the amount of light surrounding you. Darkness seems to only decrease the distance you can be spotted at ever so slightly, rather than varying degrees of invisibility titles such as Splinter Cell offered up. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of stealth is the fact that the game gives you only two nonlethal options to take out enemies and a dozen ways to kill them. This Is accented by the fact that the underlying metagame encourages nonlethal and unseen play.
Dishonored actively acknowledges whether or not you complete a level without being spotted. Likewise, it keeps track of whether or not you killed anyone in the level, even going so far as to offer you nonlethal ways to take out all of the primary targets. This in turn affects the overall game world. If you go on a rampage and kill many people, it causes more plague victims in later levels, and a much darker ending. The overall effect on the game is negligible, save for the final level, which keeps it from interfering with the overall game but it’s so intangible that it might have well been skipped and the development time put into it spent on refinements elsewhere.
The story the game tries to weave is better told through the actual story elements themselves instead of gameplay, though it’s overall an underwhelming affair. The targets and your supporters are largely forgettable, and the only two characters that had any real solid connection to you were the empress’ daughter and and occult relic you’re given that talks to you. As far as the conspirators you aid or kill, they’re fairly flat and uninteresting, serving to drive the plot forward with their assassination or pointing you towards your next one. There are a few unique characters in the missions who give out side-missions, but they’re only memorable since they aren’t the same generic enemies you wade through. The game’s plot is “get revenge,” and serves only as a vehicle to move you from one killing to another. Honestly, in a game about killing targets, a story is extraneous as the Hitman titles function incredibly well with minimum overarching story. Dishonored does attempt a few twists in its story but they’re neither interesting, nor engaging, they’re simply annoying. However dull the story may be, it does effectively shuttle you from level to level to kill your targets, which is really all that can be asked from it. And, to its credit, the places it takes you are fantastic playgrounds.
One of the true gleaming treasures Dishonored offers up is its level design. Levels themselves are fairly sizable, but feel sprawling due to the amount of detail packed in to nearly every corner. Working hand in hand with this is the fact that levels aren’t linear corridors like other games have become, but simply large environments you’re dropped in to and free to explore, many including sub-areas you can further investigate. These areas hide incredibly useful items, some of which are actually of no use until a few missions later. The levels are also loaded with alternate paths, though they rarely feel like planned options, instead feeling much more like a natural path of movement you’re allowed to take. Constantly throughout my playthrough I would utilize an obvious route such as possessing a rat to get under a nearly closed gate, only to find that with a slight amount of exploration I would have found at least one other route to where I had gone. Through the first initial assassinations, the game uses this to incredibly effect, but towards the later portions of the game it suddenly narrows in scope and gives you fairly straightforward levels that lack most of the creative freedom found in the first half of the game. The second half really lacks any part of what makes the game so much fun to begin with, feeling overall unpolished and out of place.
One level in particular struck me as the highlight of the game. While a lot of the early game is a fantastic affair of zipping around levels nimbly and taking out opposition quickly and quietly before making it to your target and eliminating them, the game offers up a unique level in which you’re tasked to infiltrate a masquerade party, and because Corvo conveniently wears a mask all the time, guards and guests pay him no mind. This lends the level a Hitman-esque feel of walking around in plain sight and checking out surroundings and characters before actually going through with your master plan for the assassination. It’s a welcome break from previous levels where there’s a curfew in effect and your face is on every wanted poster and guards attack on sight.
In terms of presentation, the game fairs well. The visuals have a slight oil painting effect to their design, especially the characters, who are just slightly misshapen enough to be artistically noticeable. Dishonored also manages to bring a sizable amount of color to the infamously monochrome Unreal Engine 3. Audio serves its purpose though there are several sound clips that are repeated maddeningly often. After whatever happened last night, every single guard in the game will have their own squad and they’ll be gathering for whiskey and cigars this evening. A pleasant surprise, guards will occasionally say, “Huh?” or “What’s that?” without actually spotting the player, keeping you alert and on your toes.
Dishonored’s a game that takes fundamental concepts laid down over a decade ago and attempts its own interpretation of the rules to mixed success. It mostly does things well, and most of its faults are that of level or story constraints, not the underlying gameplay. This paves the way for well planned DLC and potentially a full sequel if the mechanics were utilized as-is and mostly left unchanged. It’s an entertaining journey for the first half that faithfully apes its inspirations while trying to add more, but the last act is painfully un-fun by comparison, keeping Dishonored from being more than half a title.