Dishonored Review

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.


The game looks pretty, thanks to a good use of UE3


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.


This was actu­ally stealthy and they’re all sleep­ing. That’s just rasp­berry jam everywhere.


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.


They can’t see me…


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.


…And they have no idea what that loud ‘bang’ is or why Georgie had an explo­sive heart attack.


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.


I was car­ry­ing her to safety along the rooftops and… You think she’s okay?


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.

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