Reviewed by Mitchell McCausland.
“Save us, oh beloved Harvey Smith, save us!” chant the crowd of disenchanted gamers as the flood of sequels push their way to their chambers. Tinkering away somewhere near Lyon, France, creative directors Smith and Raphael Colantonio and the merry band of devs at Arkane Studios have conjured up a game to save the hardcore from the evils of the big bad publisher’s sequel-pushing, multiplayer-tacking, DLC-whoring ways: DISHONORED! A little bit of Thief here, a little bit of Half-Life 2 there, add a dash of BioShock and Deus Ex – POW! You have a game to please these jaded old-timers. But does this diamond in the rough change the gaming lexicon just like those it draws inspiration from? Will the crowd be saved, or will they perish under the boot of the Call of Dutys and Assassin’s Creeds of this world?
Dishonored has been touted by Arkane and Bethesda that it lives and breathes about giving the player choice. “There is choice in a post-Modern Warfare world? Surely you jest!” At first, doubt about whether that choice was mere marketing hoopla to con the jaded into forking out $80 for this baby arose. The initial stages of Dishonored do not help that notion; however, given its purpose to resurrect the Thief playstyle in the HD era, not everyone are equipped to be thrown right into the deep end. Instead these first 30 minutes lay the foundation of Corvo Attano’s (the very person players inject themselves into) role in the world, his motivations as to why he is sneaking around a plague-ridden city and instructing the player of the core tools they need to succeed. While overall the, dare I say, “tutorial” section of Dishonored is not so far removed from BioShock or HL2, there is a moment where Arkane have managed to blend teaching the player how to play with why you play. Mixing stealth training and giving players a moment of emotional investment in a pivotal character via a simple game of hide and seek was a genius move.
If only the rest of the game had moments like this.
Hide and seek ends. The “shit hits the fan” moment has arrived, throwing Corvo in prison. See, he is wrongfully accused of killing the Empress of Dunwall, the aforementioned “shit hits the fan” moment. Thankfully there are others who feel the same and it is through them Corvo is given a chance to break free from his shackles and begin his quest to exact revenge on those who wronged him. Eventually Corvo finds himself in the grounds of the High Overseer, his first target, giving the player the first true opportunity to exploit this “choice” of play.
“I want to be good; I want to play this game as non-lethally as I can.”
Given the tools to slice, shoot or choke his way to the High Overseer, through Corvo the player can approach the target in any way that an assassin can take on his prey. Magic has a role too, as Corvo is given powers by the “Satan” of Dunwall known as The Outsider. Corvo can teleport, see through walls or even possess rats and fish – all useful tools of the stealth trade. As the game gives the subtle hint that it wants the player to take the non-lethal, stealthy path in various ways in its prompts and mission breakdown screens this reviewer decided that this was the play style this Corvo will embody.
Old habits, however, have a way of coming out when you least expect them.
Corvo ducks behind a box, waiting for a guard to make his way past. The Man with the Grotesque Mask sneaks up behind the unsuspecting guard without haste or hesitation. “Hey, what are you doing here?” Another guard, who was missed in the rush for a quick takedown of his peer, spots Corvo. Swords are drawn. A moment of stealth has transformed itself into a Ninja Gaiden-esque sense of mania. Mash, mash, mash at the right trigger. Whether it is the first person perspective or the lack of experience with the rhythm of Dunwall that created this panic, it does not matter; I am failing miserably at being an efficient assassin.
This setback will not cause a domino effect and send Dunwall to the crapper. The thing is Dishonored has a way of measuring the “morality” of Corvo’s takedowns via the Chaos system, which is the key hint of Arkane’s not-so-subtle philosophy that the player should play it with some reservation. Kill heaps of people, the Chaos level gets high and the game populates the world with more rats, “weepers” (residents of Dunwall who are on the verge of dying from the plague) and the possibility of getting a bad ending. With that in mind, this reviewer’s Corvo eventually became at ease with his tool set and began to be as stealthy and non-lethal as he can (ignoring a few slip ups here and there).
Assassinating targets allocated by the Loyalists to the deceased Empress may be the key goal in each mission, however the open-ended design of the levels can make one get lost in the decaying walls of Dunwall, which may lead to stumbling across various side missions that add a bit of spice to the mix. These missions, whilst being a bit of a diversion from the main task at hand, do fleshes out the world of Dunwall and in some instances provide a way to take out targets non-lethally. Yes, they take more time to overcome than just going straight to current target but they are worth the wait. Once this reviewer realised this, Corvo would go out of his way to ensure all side missions were taken care of to ensure that the best possible outcome would prevail.
Not once does the Chaos level leave the “low” rating.
The rhythm of Dunwall set into Corvo’s bones. Piles of unconscious bodies build up as Corvo secures his path to his next target. More and more allies of the Lord Regent disappear without a trace. Satisfaction beams from one’s grin. Yet it becomes somewhat automated, almost stale. Where is the paradigm shift? Where is the moment where everything turns on its head, making Corvo rethink the way he handles his missions?
That moment does arrive eventually, however the impact and aftermath of that moment is all but lost due to the poor execution. At every moment in the game there is a feeling that a M. Night Shyamalan-twist is bound to come, but when it happens you do not really care. The characters involved in the twist one does not have a connection with because the game fails to emotionally bond the player to them. The missions afterwards too seem somewhat appended to extend the game’s lifespan. Why though? It stems down to how the player receives stimuli in the world; 85% of the time you are waiting in the shadows, alone, knife in hand. No Atlas to ask “Will you kindly?” No Sully to shoot the shit with as you are hiding behind cover. The only people the player is emotionally invested in for extended periods of time are the targets they have to take out, just because you are so driven to exact revenge for what they have done to you.
Dishonored is a great game, but this reviewer fears that it will soon be forgotten. It does what it set itself out to do very well, being able to ease new players into the Thief-like tool set it blesses them with. However Arkane’s reliance on looking back into the past for inspiration is also a curse. Dishonored’s narrative lacks the hooks to engage the player with the characters and the world of Dunwall, despite the sheer detail in the architecture, lore and social mores. Receiving the best ending possible could not quell the cries in one’s mind that this may not be the saviour we were looking for. At least we can all take comfort in knowing that Dishonored can practise what it preaches in its game design philosophy.