Can Arkane’s stealth-action hybrid sneak its way to the top?
Watching the final cut-scene of Dishonored is a bittersweet experience. It has been a great ride; an enthralling tale filled with smart choices and fantastic moments.
But on the other hand, that ride feels distressingly short, and there’s a real feeling of ‘Is that it?’ when the credits roll. It’s probably a comment on both the quality of what’s there as well as the length, because for seven or so hours Dishonored is mostly brilliant, if a little flawed: BioShock via Half-Life 2, Hitman and posho British history.
Dishonored plays out against the background of a foreign world, but one that takes old-school British politics, class systems and style as its inspiration. Taking on the role of Corvo Attano, the Royal Protector of the Empress of Dunwall and her daughter, Emily, the start of the game sees you finally returning from a long voyage at sea.
The Empress’ castle and estate gleam in the sun, and you’ve even got time for a cheeky game of hide and seek with the next in line to the throne, but Dunwall is in trouble. There’s the tiny problem of plague-ridden rats turning the city into a 19th Century version of 28 Days Later.
Things get worse from there and soon the Empress is dead, with the overthrowing force conveniently blaming you. Broken out of prison, you soon find yourself in hiding with a bunch of other loyalists. Your mission is to strike at the heart of the conspirators and return Emily to the throne.
It’s not a particularly original scenario, but Dishonored’s combination of Victorian steampunk inspiration and political intrigue give the world and the story a great hook. It’s as far from the standard COD/Battlefield FPS staples as you can imagine. BioShock via Brink is probably more appropriate, and like with the former it’s very difficult not to get sucked into the world and conspiracy around you. Gameplay, narrative and style fit hand in glove to create a satisfying world that feels both authentic and fantastical.
The painterly art direction is perfect and style-wise it’s a fine-looking game, if not an open one, even if textures are disappointingly ugly in places. Instead, the Hound’s Pit pub and surrounding buildings will serve as your hub. Here you will receive mission briefings and upgrade your weapons and equipment. When ready, you’ll be escorted off to various missions around the city by boat.
Each of these assignments is broadly similar: get in, out, shake it all about, with ‘it’ being a massive blade and ‘all about’ being people’s skulls. Like Hitman, however, how you do that is up to you, and this is where Dishonored’s appeal lays. Corvo is visited early on by the Outsider, a supernatural being that gives men powers to combat the Oveerseers, Dishonored’s religious fanatics and chief enemies.
By collecting runes placed around the levels, you’ll be able to level up these various abilities, which are used like BioShock’s Plasmids. They are generally broken down into stealth/action categories, depending on your play style, with a couple overlapping. You won’t be able to upgrade them all in one playthrough, so fairly careful consideration is necessary when building ‘your’ Corvo.
Being let loose in the sizable levels in which your hits take place is a thrill, as is working out precisely how to get to your target. Stealth is encouraged, but it’s possible to literally go in all-guns-blazing, removing everyone in your path on your way to victory.
Well, we say ‘victory’, but exercise your trigger finger or sword skills too often and you’ll be punished for it with less-favourable NPCs and a downbeat ending. You’ll also have to face off against increased numbers of Dunwall’s plague-ridden civilians, as well as the Overseer army.
More importantly, rushing in like Rambo means you’ll see little of what the game has to offer. Hidden away in the many nooks and crannies of the levels are secret entry points, extra mission objectives and dozens of collectables, as well as the aforementioned runes to help you level up further.
The best example of Dishonored’s open-ended structure is the mission ‘Lady Boyle’s Last Party’. Tasked with infiltrating an upper-class masquerade ball on a grand estate, Corvo can steal an invitation to get in. Or possess a guest and waltz past security. Or do the same to a fish, and swim into the sewers and proceed up through the basement.
Once inside, you’ve got to positively ID which of the three attending Lady Boyles is your target. You do this by eavesdropping on parlour gossip, bribing NPCs with drinks, or just straight out creeping into their bedrooms and reading the respective diaries. You’ve even got time for a cheeky gentleman’s duel with a toff out in the garden.
Once you’ve acquired your target, you then have a choice as to how to proceed. Killing them is always the default option, but you can make your way through the game without eliminating anyone. In this instance, a fellow party guest will ask you to spare Lady Boyle’s life. In return for you incapacitating and bringing her to his small boat in the basement, he’ll take her away, never to be seen again.
It’s up to you, of course: you could just shank her and be done with it. But if you want the best post-mission rating, you’ll be eager to search out these alternate ways of neutralising your targets, especially as doing so usually requires you to use your abilities in a much more inventive and satisfying way.
That mission recalls the best that Hitman has to offer, and is one of Dishonored’s high points. It’s also, in some ways, atypical of the experience. Unlike other levels, the party is a neutral zone where you’re not going to be shot on sight unless you start acting suspicious. Other missions aren’t as forgiving, but can be just as enjoyable. It’s up to you how to circumvent the obstacles, both living and not, in your way, and being an industrialised city, Dunwall boasts some tech that would make Tesla proud. Walls of Light fry anyone not authorised to pass, and Arc Pylons fire beams of death at ne’er-do-wells.
Again, part of Dishonored’s appeal is interacting with this world. You can rewire the Walls of Light to frag your foes, or simply remove the power supply, which is unstable and can also be used as a weapon. You can possess foes and stroll through hostile areas. Or bend time to stop bullets in midair, Neo-style.
When you put these together, Dishonored sings. It’s a bit of a letdown, then, that you won’t need to do that as much as you’d think, because there’s one power that rules them all: Blink. The developers admit as much, as one of the Achievements is for using no powers other than Blink, suggesting the game is dependent on it.
It’s teleportation, essentially, and you’ll be using it far more than the other powers simply because it is so useful. In trouble with a guard? Blink out of sight. Need to get above a target? Blink. Need to infiltrate somewhere? Blink.
Essentially, on the first playthrough at least, it means that instead of looking for other routes into places, your first thought will invariably be to Blink onto a rooftop. It might seem like a small thing to complain about, especially as you have the other tools at your disposal. But it’s so all-encompassing that it becomes the go-to move at the expense of the others.
It’s a good job, then, that Dishonored is so broad, its levels so enjoyable to stalk and fight through, its rewards for playing well so obvious, that you’ll want to return to it almost as soon as you’ve finished. It’s here that the various options available to you start spooling out, and with prior knowledge of the levels you’ll start to look for different ways in and out, side quests to complete, alternate ways of disposing your prey, and there’s also the different endings to work for.
And so we’re back to the bittersweet feeling, because what is there is so compelling that the lack of additional stages can’t help but feel like a disappointment. The game’s strengths are a double-edged sword. Regardless, this is still one of the best games of this year. With a bit of work, a potential sequel could be one of the best games of any year.