There was a lot of anticipation leading up to the release of Dishonored that was especially built up after interviews with Viktor Antonov and trailers began surfacing. Antonov, the art director of Half-Life 2 left Valve for a position at Arkane specifically to work on The Crossing (cancelled) and Dishonored and has since moved up to become the design director at ZeniMax. If you sense the Half-Life influence in Dishonored he’s the reason and it was actually intentional; Arkane asked Antonov to create a world with some visual similarities. In addition to this there are some similarities to other games as well, but it comes off as something much more unique and in my opinion, one of the better PC games of the year.
In Dishonored you take on the role of Corvo Attano, personal bodyguard of Jessamine Kaldwin, the Empress of Gristol. Within minutes of starting the game roles and order disintegrate though, when a team of stealthy assassins make a surprise attack executing Jessamine and abducting Emily, her only child and heir to the throne. The entire strike lasts only seconds and the attackers vanish as quickly as they enter the scene, setting up the perfect frame. “Compatriots” arrive shortly after the ruckus as Jessamine dies in your arms. All blame for the incident is immediately placed on you and there isn’t any chance for explanation.
The setting of the game may seem a bit odd to those unfamiliar with the Steampunk genre, but it works quite well. The predominate theme stems from Anglo-Saxon England during 1666, in a city stricken with plague. However, it contains modern and even futuristic military technology. The majority of the technology is powered by whale oil and there’s an incredible scene at the beginning of the game where you witness a full-sized whale being carried in on a ship. Dishonored is a bit dark overall and the industrial buildings and defenses really play into the mood and atmosphere. It’s also very dystopian in nature with strict curfews, routine patrols and deadly consequences for any offenders.
Dishonored’s gameplay style is more or less left up to the player, but there is an obvious push towards stealth. After completing an objective you are given statistics where a reward for playing as a “ghost” can be earned and hostile kills, citizen kills, alarms rung, bodies found and overall chaos are displayed. There are also numerous physical paths that can be taken while advancing and they are often apparent. For example, I’d often be able to make out a path along the rooftops or above ground level, some kind of underground or sewer entryway, and would see rat holes all over the place that can be used along with the possession power. If you choose to go for a more aggressive approach and want to just run in and start killing enemies, you can do that but it gets difficult quickly and the alarms will go off, which triggers all the guards to come running. Another interesting point on the gameplay is that killing is completely optional. When sneaking up behind an enemy you have an option to either kill them or knock them out. In addition, in assassination missions an alternative can always be found where someone can make your target disappear without ever being seen or heard from again. The more you kill, the darker and more chaotic the game actually becomes with more rats, guards, etc. and it also influences the game ending.
“…it’s just refreshing to play a big triple-A game that is new intellectual property.”
The overall feel of the gameplay seems smooth and polished. You are able to climb up all kinds of buildings and objects, walk along rooftops, assassinate enemies by dropping down from huge heights, and so on. All the weapons felt right and the technology matched the setting well. In many ways Dishonored could be compared to games such as Assassin’s Creed, Thief, Bioshock, Deus Ex and the list goes on. There certainly seem to be plenty of influences in addition to some of the subtle Half-Life design aspects but the game seems new and unique, which is a huge plus in my book. There are so many sequels and clones these days that it’s just refreshing to play a big triple-A game that is new intellectual property.
Powers add an interesting dynamic and compliment the gameplay in a great way. Teleporting from ledge to ledge to rooftop with blink is fantastic, possessing a rat to scurry by enemy lines enhanced the stealthy appeal and bend time slows and stops time around you to highlight three of the ten total powers. These powers are granted to you after a meeting with “The Outsider” and are obtained by collecting runes, which are scattered throughout levels. Each power has multiple levels but there are not enough runes to upgrade each of them in one playthrough, so it’s important to choose what magic you want to specialize in.
Upon entering each new area it is easy to get caught up with the visuals. You shouldn’t go into the game expecting super realism. This isn’t a Skyrim or Battlefield 3 type of game when it comes to the looks. With that said though, I’d still say the graphics are great for the most part and would describe the overall look as more of a painting style than anything else. Characters take on a bit of a cel-shaded look while the environments and architecture look more realistic. The majority of the maps are large with stunning landscapes, tall buildings and structures, and large bodies of water.
When interacting with characters you may find yourself questioning where you’ve heard certain familiar voices. Dishonored’s voice acting cast includes several top notch Hollywood actors including John Slattery (Mad Men), Susan Sarandon, Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) and Brad Dourif among others. I couldn’t help but notice that some sounds and music seemed to be borrowed from Skyrim. For example, the noise made when using the blink power seemed like a distorted version of the Skyrim shout noise and it may just been my imagination, but I believe one background song is from Skyrim. Whether or not this is actually the case it’s not that big of a deal to me and I actually think it’s great if the ZeniMax studios are starting to work together. Other sounds and music seemed fitting to the maps and situations that arose.
“Objectives and purpose don’t seem as meaningful without a good story as the driver.”
My primary and really only gripe with Dishonored is its storyline, which really leaves a lot to be desired. Saving an abducted female against nearly impossible odds is so overused in the video game industry it’s almost laughable at this point. Even with the excellent star-studded voice acting cast, there just isn’t much depth to the plot or character development at all. With such great gameplay this can be overlooked to a point, but my overall score would have been higher if the game included a richer story. This seems to be a common weak point in many games but there are certainly exceptions such as Myst, Heavy Rain, The Elder Scrolls and The Walking Dead just to name a few. Objectives and purpose don’t seem as meaningful without a good story as the driver.
Overall, I’d say that Dishonored is definitely one of the best PC games of the year. It will win several awards and sell many copies. I think it’s unfortunate that more time wasn’t spent on the story and its presentation, and character development but the great gameplay makes up for a good portion of this shortcoming. Dishonored is a fun game, and I’d definitely recommend it to any PC gamer. It’s becoming clear that ZeniMax, which now owns Arkane, is going to be one of the major players in high quality PC games and its reach will extend far beyond The Elder Scrolls and Fallout; and that’s very encouraging to me.