James Bacon's ++Review: Dishonored

Up until about two weeks ago, I had no desire to play Dishonored. It didn’t seem bad, just futile. I mean, Assassin’s Creed 3 would be releasing three weeks after, and provided what I’ve seen and played during the majority of 2012, I didn’t think Dishonored really deserved my effort. It’s Game of the Year season, baby, and I need to gear up! I simply didn’t think Dishonored had the chops. I knew it was developed by Arkane Studios, and I also knew it was being published by Bethesda – our industry’s own King Midas – but from the time I saw it debut in Game Informer, all the way up until two-ish weeks ago, there wasn’t anything appealing about it.

Honestly, I think it was how they communicated their setting. It’s possible that the setting was a sort of nebulous thing even to the beautiful people at Arkane, and so they, themselves, found it difficult to accurately describe; and provided early looks at Dishonored could have easily been cyberpunk, as well as steampunk (neither of which it actually is); retro-futuristic, or even future dystopian, this seems to have been the case. All it would have required for any of these to be the actual setting was some minor tweaking. I’m not only getting tired of all of the aforementioned tropes, but I find it difficult to feel anything (love or hate) regarding games that don’t have a concrete identity. So I wrote it off, flippantly suggesting that it looked like Bioshock meets Thief, and since I’d already played both of those to death, I didn’t see the need for Dishonored to occupy any space on my shelf.

Several weeks before it dropped, however, the web mini-series “Tales from Dunwall” was released, and by golly if it didn’t completely change my mind. I preordered soon thereafter.

If the pistol blast doesn’t kill him, the fall will do him in for good…

I knew, going in, that the game was crafted using the Unreal 3 engine; however, Dishonored looks like it was made in Source. There’s a tell-tale “dustiness” to the colors and textures, and a simple elegance fueling the stylized fire that falls solidly within the purview of Valve’s eight-year-old darling. It adds to the character of Dunwall and its denizens, just as much as the body dimorphism does. Drawn, gaunt faces are severely drawn and gaunt; angular chins and noses look fashioned out of steel-work; and round noses are comically bulbous – but still there’s an underlying realism that sells the visuals. Dishonored doesn’t try to compete on detail, instead relying on the intelligent use of creamy colors, highly stylized character art, and brilliant lighting. The game looks as if Tim Burton commissioned, and then oversaw a Norman Rockwell oil painting. It’s enchanting, and it’s used to tell us all sorts of things about the world… but more on that, later.

The diversity in mission locations is excellent, as well. From falling down industrial districts and whiskey distilleries, to sewers, to towers and palaces, to fortresses and brothels  you’ll never grow tired of creeping through the nine chapters. All the while, the soft touch of the graphics applies appropriate amounts of grime and polish where needed, unifying these disparate locations into a single, believable cityscape. This diversity is reflected in your enemies, as well. One minute you’ll be aiming for the High Overseer, battling his masked religious zealots, and the next you’ll be taking out the Town Guard to get to aristocratic twins. Back alley gangs and a clandestine cadre of assassins will also give you plenty of trouble. Provided how unfortunately short the game is, you’d never be able to tell based on this clean, deep presentation.

Good old Samuel. Don’t ever count him out. He’s as close a friend as you could hope to have in the corrupt city of Dunwall.

The gameplay is just as poetic. For my first play-through, I went non-lethal/stealth. I was determined to make sure no one saw me, and everyone was left alive, if a little worse for wear. I wasn’t afraid of confrontation, I just made sure it was on my terms, often intentionally seeking villains out to subdue, so I could have my run of the place without worrying about anyone spotting me, because they were all unconscious  Had I wanted to, I could have avoided everyone, stuck to the rooftops, and not touched a single soul but the high value targets each mission is based around. Or I could have carved a bloody swath through Dunwall in just as many ways…

If you favor gadgets, you’ll find a array of tinkered items that would make any engineer jealous – grenades, pistols, shrapnel traps, explosive bullets, incendiary crossbow darts, sticky bombs – and they’re all upgradable. Some you’ll need to search out blueprints for, but even on my stealth play-through, where I was far more concerned with staying out of view, I encountered several as a matter of course. If you prefer a more supernatural approach, you have nine distinct “spells,” gifts from the Outsider, from which to choose – some offensive, such as Devouring Swarm, which summons a pack of ravenous rats to consume enemies; and Bloodlust, which allow you to store up power and then unleash it in a storm of steel, blood, and guts. Or, you can use others that aid you in more subtle ways, like Possession, which does exactly what it says; or Dark Vision, which gives you the power to see through walls.

There are side quests for you to complete or ignore at your leisure, and danger literally lurks around every corner. It’s your choice to meet it how you like – stealthily outsmarting it, or charging in, guns blazing. Whatever you choose, no doubt you’ll be retrying scenario after scenario to explore all of your options.

At the Boyle’s gala, each guest outdoes the other with the bizarre absurdity of their masks.

Regarding plot and narration, Dishonored delivers on video gaming’s most precious hierarchical axiom: Do, don’t show; show, don’t tell. You are given the tools and information to progress the plot as you see fit, and all of your actions have an impact. Yes, it’s true that certain missions must be dealt with according to specific targets, but the setting – the single most important contributing factor to Dishonored’s narrative – changes according to your whim. Look around you. Are there teeming swarms of rats, and hordes of weepers; or are rat sightings limited to one here, two there? You did that, simply by exerting your will. This is something most development houses struggle with. People would rather tell you their stories, instead of giving you the tools and a light push in a vague direction with the object of telling your own. You will be dropped into the same set of circumstances as I was, but could have a significantly differently Dunwall develop under the stress of your actions. And the pieces of this story that you can’t do yourself are shown to you, not told. An excellent example of this takes place not two minutes into the prologue, just after the Empress is shown the business end of a particularly pointy knife. The Spy Master, Hiram Burrows, looks around in an effort to ensure the assassins, his assassins, are no where in sight, cluing you in to his treachery, instantly. The game doesn’t tell you he’s a traitor, it shows you through subtle action, and character disposition. An other wonderful example would be the Boyle masquerade party. You know nothing about the Boyle’s going in to this mission except that there are three sisters, and they are filthy rich; however, the whale motif used to decorate their opulent palace lets you know that the reason they’re rich is because they’re involved in whaling in some way – the most important industry in Dunwall, and likely the world, as whale oil runs every power source in the city. It’s this sort of direction that makes films great, and so too, it’s what makes games great… if only more game directors could understand this, and show more, rather than tell. Even the things you’re told (and not shown) are revealed in clever journal entries, NPC conversations that you can eavesdrop on, and children’s rhymes you find in books scattered all over the city. Simplicity itself, and all of it adds to the lore and character of Dunwall.

The plot is actually fairly pedestrian – an honorable man is used as a scapegoat, imprisoned  and then escapes seeking revenge – but the emotional attachment you form with both Corvo and the Princess Emily is what drives your interest, and you form these attachments due the wonderful scenario writing, and exquisite visual story telling.

Weepers… the plague has progressed so far in these unfortunates, they assume zombie like characteristics, and weep blood.

Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be a Bethesda game without it’s fair share of bugs (this King Midas turns everything it touches into “very nearly 24 karat gold, but not quite,” apparently), though thankfully the ones I’ve encountered are more a minor annoyance than game-breaking show-stoppers. I can’t describe the specifics of the bug without revealing minor side-quest spoilers, so I’ll exorcise restraint; however, what I will say is that if you’re going for a Clean Hands, Ghost, or Shadow play-through, STAY AWAY FROM GRANNY RAGS ALTOGETHER. Do not complete her missions. It ends up making it virtually impossible to get these achievements. Retrying or selecting chapters from the Missions menu will also nullify your attempt at these achievements, so save often, and always reload a saved file if you screw up. Again, DO NOT retry from the main menu Mission select, or the “retry” option at the end of each chapter. After beating the game with what I thought was a non-lethal play-through, this bug completely took the chuff out of my train, but since it didn’t actually affect my gaming experience, I’m quite fine with simply mentioning this, while avoiding allowing it to influence my final judgement.

Verdict: ++Good (9.5 out of 10) – Though not a sandbox title at it’s core, Dishonored successfully introduces sandbox elements to the FPS genre (much like its spiritual predecessors Thief and Deus Ex) while maintaining a focused purpose and plot. You really only have two outcomes to choose from (lethal, or non-lethal) for any given mission, but the way in which you get there is entirely in your hands. The powers, weapons, and gadgets are fun and diverse, and the city of Dunwall is exquisitely rendered and realized. Though the plot is predictable and rather short, the visual narration and player influence come together to make Dishonored a lesson the industry can learn from.