Arkane Studios’ new first-person sneaker is snapping the necks of players and critics alike. Is it worthy of such honor, or does it deserve to be devoured by rats? (Because that would be awful. Seriously. Ew.)
TL;DR Version: Read the words in bold
Art Design: 5/5
People still talk about Half-Life. It (and its even more amazing sequel) are to this day regarded as setting the bar for FPS games. We’ve seen better graphics since then; we’ve seen gameplay innovations that make that 1998 title seem clumsy and archaic. But every time a new shooter comes out, it’s inevitably held up to Valve’s original.
It’s all due to something I’ll call ‘The Freeman Effect’. Gordon Freeman is one of the most easily recognizable, compelling characters of modern gaming, despite the fact that he is neither seen nor heard anywhere in the actual course of the game. Many games (especially FPSs) put you in the shoes of a mute cipher, who basically acts as a moving gun platform trundling you from set-piece to set-piece Any attempts at “character development" are usually handled with hamfisted, angst-filled cutscenes or bluetooth-chewing shouting matches with their ubiquitous handlers. What the Half-Life games got right is that by the end of each chapter, you (the player) had a definitive sense of Freeman’s internal thoughts as he battled his way through Black Mesa and City 17. His muteness has been lampooned, but only because his mutability is so open to interpretation.
Games are a form of narrative. Some people resent this, but it’s unavoidable. Not only is gaming here to stay, but I would argue that it is the form of media that offers the most potential in terms of storytelling: while the written word’s structure requires an imagination to work, only a videogame can react to that imagination by actually changing the narrative on the fly to answer it. If you create a world rich enough, the player will be compelled to truly play a part in the narrative, to fill the shoes of their character and really to play the game from behind their (the character’s) eyes.
That’s the Freeman Effect. And that is what Dishonored does better than anything I’ve seen since the original Half-Life. The more you commit to the character, the more you allow yourself to be a part of the narrative, the more amazing the game is.
Taken at face value, the story of Dishonored is by the numbers, if charmingly so. The city of Dunwall is a plague-ridden industrial nightmare, a sort of Melvillian Ravenholm whose whale-oil-soaked hubris has come back to bite it on the ass in a big way. You are Corvo Attano, just returned from a disastrous attempt to stop Dunwall from being sealed up and left for dead by the rest of the Empire. Things go from bad to worse as soon as you return, as a you are framed for an assassination and kidnapping and thrown into prison. When the game finally hands full control over to you after six months of torture, the game’s tagline “Revenge is the Only Answer" feels justly apt.
Corvo joins up with a group of resistance fighters, working through a series of missions of espionage and assassination to destabilize the corrupt government choking the life out of Dunwall for its own twisted needs. Beyond all this, Corvo’s sights never stray from the protection of Lady Emily, heir to the throne and the keystone in the Loyalists’ plan.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story: the joy of Dishonored is experiencing it for yourself. Again, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before in myriad forms; what’s key here is how the story is told, and how engaging and perfectly-paced it is. Every overheard conversation, every peeling poster, every exploration of a new area adds to an incredibly rich narrative: leafing through a watch-log to find the combination to a safe will reveal a heartbreaking insight into a guard’s daily life, for instance. Nothing is wasted, and the game never bashes you over the head with exposition.
Even the game’s actual mechanics speaks to my point. Suffice it to say that the gameplay simply is close to perfect: fluid, varied and brutal. Corvo comes out of the gate a bad-ass: as ‘Royal Protector’, he is exactly as deadly as you want him to be. Whether you stick to the shadows or charge in with pistol and blade, every encounter is visceral and unique.
Within the first few missions, you are approached by a mysterious Outsider who adds to your arsenal a number of supernatural tools, the first of which is a short-range teleport called ’Blink’. This move seems weak at first, but you’ll start mixing it into your repertoire in ever more inventive ways until it becomes the single most effective (and fun) power you’ll utilize in the course in the game.
Each new ability can be activated and powered up with whalebone Runes tucked away in the sewers and alleys of Dunwall. Players used to the ridiculous number of powers in other titles such as Skyrim might find Dishonored's move-set lacking. It's only when you start experimenting with different ways to combine them with each other and with your standard abilities that you find that you're only limited by your own imagination. You’re perfectly welcome to “blink-backstab-blink-backstab” your way through the game, but you’ll be missing out on the core thing this game offers, which is that everything you experience is up to you.
That’s why Dishonored is so engaging, and why it will be seen in future as such an important game. It will be wasted on the type of player who cuts dialogue short and dashes past side missions in search of the next thing to kill. Every single component of the game is fine-tuned to add to the story, to the extent that speed-run enthusiasts won’t particularly enjoy it. The best way to play is to truly put yourself in Corvo’s shoes, to become an actor on the game’s stage. The best memories from my two play-throughs were not of finding a choice bit of loot or of particularly satisfying kills, but more anecdotal: glancing in passing at a wanted poster to suddenly know what Corvo looked like, and how eerily similar the portrait was to how I had imagined him, for instance. The pacing of the story is such that you will come to really care for its characters, and find yourself performing actions that have zero gameplay reward but are “true” to your character, such as stopping by to say goodnight to someone before the next big chapter break.
Based on your actions, the story itself changes in multiple ways, both large and small. The Outsider shows up from time to time, to act as a sort of aloof moral barometer in regards to how you’ve been handling your encounters. The game tracks the amount of “Chaos” you create, and the amount of carnage you leave in your wake has consequence. Most levels revolve around the elimination of a key character, and almost every one has a non-lethal option. Some players will go for the kill every time, but they’ll miss out on the sometimes chillingly cold-blooded “alternative” ways to disappear your targets. Even your choice in handling chance encounters with guards holds weight, the most basic symptom of which is returning to an area you left piled high with corpses to find it overrun with swarms of rats and zombie-like plague victims, horribly nicknamed “Weepers”.
But even this is open to interpretation, depending on your commitment to a certain moral compass. One of your tools is The Heart, a pulsating wad of meat and clockwork which points out mission goals and treasure, but also lets you peer into the innermost thoughts of anyone you target. There is an incredible amount of story hidden within, and one I personally used regularly in my tactics. I found myself sparing certain guards, and dispatching others as brutally as possible, based on how much of an innocent or a monster The Heart revealed them to be. Again, this choice to spare some and murder others has no direct gameplay result, but it’s another example of how story-driven the game is. It’s one thing to arbitrarily kill (or refrain from killing) every soul in a level, but another to know each kill and each act of mercy was deliberate.
The constantly mutating story is supported by a gorgeous and unique art direction, which is just as open to organic change. The whole environment has a painterly look, literally resembling an oil-painting come to life. This is equal at highlighting either the squalid desperation of the areas lost to plague, where you can practically smell the moldering corpses stacked everywhere like cord-wood or the opulent decadence of the city’s elite. The term “steampunk" gets thrown around too often to mean much anymore, but Dishonored takes the concept and makes it its own. It’s a world of iron and magic, with whale-oil-powered Tallboys clanking along lamplit streets like something out of War of the Worlds.The city of Dunwall and its environs are just as visibly suffering from the plague as its inhabitants, with skittering swarms of vermin running in and out of haphazard barricades of rusting iron. The city itself is a character, and there is a certain sadness in seeing what was once a beautiful place drowning under a layer of corruption. If your play-style is more of the berserker school, you’ll see that reflected in a hundred different ways, from the amount of hastily-scrawled “For Sale” signs in abandoned apartment windows to the actual weather, torrents of rain attempting to wash the filth-clogged streets clean. The sound is just as well done: every character is distinctly voiced and charmingly acted, some by surprisingly big names. Corvo spends much of his time of shadows, so it’s handy that the clatter of clay shingles is distinct from the dull thunk of a rusty piece of corrugated iron under his feet. It’s obvious that each element of the game had care and love given to it, and the sound design is no exception.
I’ll admit, there are gamers out there who won’t “get” Dishonored. If you’re the type who is just out for the achievements and the loot, there are games more suited to you out there. Games (and movies, and books, etc.) are like food: sometimes you just want to eat a whole bag of Cheetos and move on. But if you’re in the mood for a sumptuous steak dinner of a game, the kind that you spent hours to prepare and that your created out of love of the experience, the kind that you will remember for years, then this is the meal for you. Dishonored gives you exactly what you put into it, and if you’re willing to play the part, will provide one of the most memorable gaming experiences you’ll ever have.