Not everyone plays games the same way.
Sounds like a daft statement, right? But think about it. Why else would there be classes and choices in games if we all played the same way. Difficulty levels would be unnecessary, playtesting would be easier. Glitches and exploits wouldn’t happen and no one would ever need a walk-through.
But we all play games differently.
DISHONORED REWARDS THIS
Meet Dishonored, a different type of game, a game that reminds me of a younger me. One with way more time. Bear with me here but back in the day, I used to play games until the discs wore away, until I knew I got every single ounce of play, every nuance and hidden chest. Dishonored is like this when it comes to level design. See that building over there? Did you know there are seven ways into it with these three skills? Oh wait, you bought that one too? Fine, there are 11 ways into that building, you overachiever. From sneaking around on rooftops to using grates near the sewer, to circumventing the security system or downright charging in head-first, there is a way in. Oh and the methods I mentioned are the less creative ways too.
Welcome to a brutal and unforgiving land, a city cut off from the rest of the world, dying from a deadly plague. The sickness spreads like lightning, resulting in dramatic measures to try and quarantine the effects. Add to this the horrible plague rats, large vermin that can strip a human of flesh in minutes. Brigands and looters roam the streets, ramblings of the mad can be heard on the wind and those too far gone, shambling people weeping blood, attack anything they see. Sounds peachy right?
BUT IT PUNISHES THIS TOO
I want to sit here and rave about this game. I wanted it to sweep me away and make me love it . While it tries really hard, it seems to fall short. With so much time spent on the many ways to complete levels and to fleshing out the lore and fluff of this amazing world, I was expecting the story to have received the same level of attention to detail. Sadly this was not the case. Your character, Mr Whatshisface (goes to look up his name. He is that forgettable…) Corvo is a cypher, an unresponsive, mute nobody. The waves of change roil around you, with you as the agent of change in a dying, rotting empire. But you are completely unphased, unmoved by those you have lost and those you condemn with impunity. While I understand the designers left Corvo moot so that players would ‘become’ the character, for me it felt like it failed and was a wasted opportunity to flesh out much more compelling dialogue and story development.
After becoming accustomed to being spoilt for choice, the binary nature of the game becomes apparent. You can either kill everything and become evil, or kill nothing at all for a more wholesome character (even though you are killing the unjust and corrupt, but hey). This black and white outlook comes as a stark slap in the face after the colourful blend of options you use to colour you path through the game’s missions. Corvo offers no explanations, no excuses or lies and somehow everyone knows exactly what you did before you get back to base. Not the sneakiest assassin, are you? The outcomes are also not as fluid and mutable as the game promises. One hint screen mentions there being less rats and weepers if you play a less chaotic character. However on my second playthrough, while being much less chaotic, the weepers and rats are still out in full force, making your choices feel less important in the grand scheme of things.
Things become even more convoluted with the introduction of the Outsider, a supernatural being who is both enigmatic and chaotic. This being grants you magic and a macabre, mysterious heart. The heart can tell you the secrets of those you point it at, or of the area you are in. The heart is also the best voice acting in the game and provides more insight into the story and events than any other character in the world. I formed a grisly fascination with the heart, learning the secrets of the poor souls I was about to decapitate, knowing full well if they were unjust or the sole provider for their family.
The reason for him granting you these powers? Who can tell. Maybe he gives you gifts so that you can sow chaos. He is, however, considered the prime evil and enemy of the overseers, the cardinals of a religious militant group that currently rules the empire.
Getting around in Dishonored is amazing because of one small detail: being able to hoist yourself up when a ledge is in arm’s reach. A mechanic normally reserved for platformers, Corvo gets around with ease, moving between elevations, sometimes completely negating the need for magic. Travelling in this way feels so natural that when returning to other FPS games, I feel frustrated by the limited range of movement and the restrictions this places on my exploration of the world. The blink spell, however, will change the way you see the world. Useful for exploration, sneaking, engaging in combat and for running away, it is probably the most useful and used skill, bar the heart, in Corvo’s arsenal. Up on the rooftops, or in the sewers, you will be given lots of time to listen in on the conversations of thugs, guards or zealots. Which is great, until you hear the same lines again. And again. And again somewhere else on a different map. Apparently guards hate the people they share shifts with. At all. The repetition is highly annoying and only gets worse if you are moving through the world slowly to avoid detection. On the flip-side however, you will always be listening for clues, secrets and optional objectives, meaning you want to listen to every word every NPC says, even if it means your ears may be assaulted by the same lines you have been hearing since the first level.
Thanks to the game’s imposed moral values, killing makes the situation worse. Not only will you face more enemies if you charge screaming into battle, you will find that combat is quite deadly, thanks to Corvo being super squishy. You will also get a ‘worse’ ending that those who can temper their blood-lust Personally I found this rather difficult to do, thanks to the lovely variety available to kill your enemies. From pistols to pushing enemies off a ledge with a strong gust of wind, you won’t get bored of killing. Sadly, non-lethal options are rather spartan, which can result in a monotonous pattern of blink – strangle – grab – blink – repeat. Several time in the game I wondered why I couldn’t get a club or something instead of that super lethal spring-loaded blade…
Between the messages of the heart and the various journal and book excerpts you will find, the world is full of lore. From the harvesting of whales for their oil, with its inexplicable ability to power technology, to the fanatical rituals of the overseers, there is so much to learn and experience in the world, pointing at much more than you experience in quarantined Dunwall. Hopefully we will see a return journey to this alternate reality-esque industrial London, with a deeper, more detailed sequel.
The restriction to first person sometimes had me wishing for views that other games provide for scouting surroundings. Rather dumb AI, coupled with rather erratic detection of your character can be infuriating, especially if you do the exact same thing after a reload and suddenly you are discovered in a place that you weren’t before. If anything, more levels done like Lady Boyle’s would have been highly appreciated. Punishing killing feels a bit cheap in a game that shouts freedom of choice.
Design and presentation: 8/10
Several design decisions, such as the lack of textures and the way shadow is treated during stealth, have me slightly perplexed, but are hardly game breaking. Best level design I have seen, what can I say, Arkane really knows how to make a map. The technology system, with its primitive Tesla style defence systems, is a refreshing breath of air after the glut of steampunk and high magic game designers normally throw around. Now if they would just get away from a cliché, predictable and lukewarm plot.
Taking between six and 20 hours for a playthrough, depending on what restrictions you place on yourself, Dishonored is a meaty game. Whether you want to kill nobody or everybody, never be seen or get through without any magical abilities other than blink, Dishonored contains enough content and challenges to tempt you to play through again to see something new, without making it a necessity.
This is the kind of game world I want to see the next open world adventure RPG set in. An amazing setting with brilliant lore and interesting technology, which sadly stops before reaching an engrossing story. With a little more effort, Dishonored could have been the new hallmark of gaming. As it stands now, it is more of a herald of what is to come. Highly recommended for completionists and accolade whores, though I urge everyone to try this game to see something original, if not as revolutionary as the hype machine made it out to be.
Yes, I know I am going to be shot down by those who were absolutely blown away by it.
Last Updated: November 2, 2012