Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dishonored: No Clever Subtitle for This Review

Dishonored is a thing. To be more specific, Dishonored is a video game by Arkane Studios, the team responsible for Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and Arx Fatalis. Both of those games were known for allowing a lot of creative freedom in terms of how you wanted to play with the game mechanics, and Dishonored follows that same philosophy. In Dishonored you play as Corvo Attano, personal bodyguard to the empress of the quasi-steampunk region of Dunwall. After being framed for her murder, you set out for revenge, collaborating with a group of loyalists in assassinating key figures responsible for the coup on the empress.

Besides the other games by Arkane Studios, Dishonored reminds me a lot of the original Deus Ex and Thief games. Like Deus Ex and Thief, there are just so many different ways to play Dishonored, based on how you choose to invest skill points and resources, how you choose to explore levels, how you choose to complete objectives, and how you choose to eliminate hostile targets. In that regard alone, Dishonored is a mighty fine game that also boasts a very convincing setting with a satisfying mission structure. Unfortunately, the story leaves a little something to be desired, and the great quality of the gameplay still lets some crucial things slip through the cracks.

The very first thing I noticed about Dishonored is that its introduction bears a striking resemblance to that of The Witcher 2. This isn't really a big deal, but it was blatantly obvious to me, especially considering that I'd just recently played TW2. Both games start things off with you meeting a royal leader, having a mysterious assassin show up and murder the empress/king, who then disappears before you can apprehend them, leaving you alone with the corpse of the deceased leader. The next part of each game then has you facing an interrogation and then escaping from prison with the aide of those who believe in your innocence, and then you spend the rest of each game tracking down the real assassin and trying to set things straight. 

Using the heart to reveal some of the lore of Dunwall.

In Dishonored, this plot follows a vaguely Deus Ex-style approach; after escaping from prison, you arrive at the Houndpits Pub, which serves as your hub for the rest of the game. From there, you meet with allies who believe the empress's assassination was a coup, and get sent out on missions into different regions of Dunwall to eliminate high profile targets. The game employs an obvious mission-based structure, with each mission containing its own objectives and giving you a break-down of your accomplishments at the end. But with the exception of that score card, the narrative presentation does a good job of not calling attention to the mission structure -- it streams everything together nicely via transitional cutscenes that keep you in Corvo's perspective throughout the whole thing. 

The world of Dishonored is its own spectacle to marvel, being simultaneously beautiful yet full of grunge and with hints of steampunk. The general aesthetic (ranging from the architecture of buildings to the fashion of characters) seems like that of Victorian England, with the bulk of society supported by the whaling industry. But scattered throughout this world is sophisticated technology, like the walls of light which incinerate organic matter that passes through it, and the mechanical apparatuses of the tallboy guards. And yet there are also traces of magic and occult worship in this world. It creates a fairly unique feel for the game, which is also aided by small bits of lore that are presented in the forms of propaganda posters on the walls, idle conversations between NPCs, and books and audio logs. It's a very convincing world that really pulls you into the experience.

And with such an interesting setting, it's a little disappointing to note that the story never really gets itself going. After the set-up, you're basically just going around eliminating targets who were involved in or whom have benefited from the coup on the empress. Admiral Havelock and Lord Pendleton (the two men who assign you your missions at the Houndpits Pub) tell you why a certain person must be eliminated and you sometimes learn a little more about each target during the mission, but this stuff rarely contributes to the over-arching plot of recovering the empress's daughter or getting revenge, because it feels like you spend 75% of the game just working on arbitrary sub-goals. It's not until the final stretch that the plot really gets itself in gear, but by then it feels like there wasn't enough genuine build-up to do some of the more dramatic sequences proper justice.

Crashing a formal ball by disguising as a guest.

In terms of the gameplay, Dishonored proves to be rather satisfying. Much like Deus Ex, it's the type of game that can be played as an action game, or as a non-lethal stealth 'em up, or any combination of the two. The game presents you with various tools and drops you into small sandboxes, allowing you to explore all kinds of different avenues and implementing your skills and tools in whatever way you see fit. Each "level" is specifically designed to have multiple options at each step of the way, and there's always plenty of hidden loot and rewards to be found if you're the type of gamer who enjoys exploring every nook and cranny.

The thing that mires the gameplay, however, is the fact that not all of Dishonored's disparate elements really mesh together. While it's possible to play the game as a brutal action game or a non-lethal stealth 'em up, one type of playstyle will necessarily preclude a lot of the game's content. There aren't a lot of games like this that allow you to play through the entire game with the option not to kill anyone, and so in games like these I always like to try to play the pacifist, but doing so in Dishonored means completely skipping about half of the game's special powers and items. In a way, this means the game has a lot of replay value since you can go back and experience the game with tons of all-new items and abilities, but the two ends of the spectrum don't feel properly balanced.

Early in the game, a tutorial message pops up informing you of the way your actions affect the composition of the game world. In essence, it tells you that killing people contributes to the spread of the plague that's been afflicting Dunwall and that there will be consequences for excessive blood on your hands. Right away the game encourages a non-lethal approach, but the unfortunate truth of the matter is that a non-lethal playthrough will prevent you from experiencing the game's most unique and interesting content. And frankly, the non-lethal playstyle gets to be incredibly boring after a while, anyway, because throughout literally the entire game you're limited to the same two, basic options for eliminating targets: sneaking up behind them and choking them until they pass out, or shooting them from a distance with tranquilizer darts. That gets a little repetitive and tedious after a while.

Samuel, the boatman who takes you to each mission location. 

If instead you choose to play in "high chaos" (ie, by murdering everyone) then there's a whole world of creative possibilities for you that simply isn't there for "low chaos" runs. You can get into full-on sword duels with guards, blocking at the right moment and timing parries and counter-attacks. You can set up spring-razor traps that shred enemies to pieces. You can shoot enemies with explosive bullets and chuck grenades at people. You can airblast enemies into walls of light and off of cliffs. You can reprogram security devices to kill guards instead of you. You can summon a swarm of rats to devour enemies. You can build adrenaline and unleash powerful attacks. You can drop from a high ledge and assassinate your target in one fell swoop. You can stop time, possess a guard, and walk him into his own bullet. You can stop time, possess a guard, and walk him into his own bullet.

That's a lot of fun stuff you can do, but again, that stuff is only available if you intend to play with high chaos by murdering everyone in sight. And when playing in high chaos, you progressively unlock more and more options as you play, meaning the combat system evolves and changes from beginning to end. When playing as a pacifist with low chaos, you perform literally the exact same actions over and over again from beginning to end. After a while of trying to be completely non-lethal, I just got bored with it. You can only sneak up behind someone and choke them out of consciousness so many times before it gets tedious.

Furthermore, a lot of skills seem redundant and useless when you think about it. One of the skills, for example, lets you stop time so you can sneak past guards and security devices -- but why bother with that skill when you can use the teleport skill "Blink" to instantly pass by these obstacles? Another ability boosts your jump height, allowing you to reach higher areas -- but why bother with that skill when Blink already lets you reach high altitudes? Another ability boosts your maximum health -- but why bother with that when you're not going to be engaging in combat anyway? Three of the other skills are all ways to kill guards, which are completely useless to non-lethal players. So I frequently found myself relying mostly on Blink, the mandatory skill you have to learn in the tutorial because it was so versatile.

The flooded district.

One major complaint that permeated Dishonored's launch week were comments about the game's short length, with various people reporting a five-to-six hour campaign length. This number is absolutely preposterous to me, seeing as I easily clocked 30 hours within a single playthrough. I suppose it's possible to beat Dishonored in five-to-six hours if you leave the objective markers on and make a beeline for each critical target, but if you do that then you're robbing yourself of the full experience. The thing that made Dishonored such an enjoyable game was the thrill of exploration -- searching for hidden loot, finding all the alternate ways to accomplish my objectives, seeking out bits of lore, and so on. 

There are probably other things I could (or perhaps should) say about Dishonored, but nothing else comes to mind. This was such a high-profile launch at the time, and tons of mainstream sites have already covered it. If you haven't played it yet and have been wondering if it's worth it, I can say it's a very well-made game that treats its players with intelligence, and that's a rare thing to find these days. 


  1. I'm glad you reviewed this title. I almost picked up a copy a few days ago, but was discouraged at the Bethesda logo. Now I realize I should give it a fair chance. Thanks!

  2. This review summed up my feelings for Dishono(u)red. I really enjoyed it and it's probably one of my favourite stealth-action games (a genre I don't really tend to play). I see what you mean about people complaining about length - if you do all the side objectives and exploration, you get plenty of game time. I really should replay the game "high chaos" style - so many gadgets, abilities and combos I didn't get to use.

    And don't ignore a game based on a publisher logo. Yes I know Bethesda have been slammed for some of their games and are viewed by some people as an anathema to good games but they have published a some good games recently (and some in the past too). As they say, don't judge a book based on its cover.

  3. Great review as always.
    The thing I hate the most about Dishonored is actually unrelated to the game; it is the fact that many people I've talked to praise Bethesda as the one who has made the game. Anyway. The level design, gameplay and setting was fantastic. A shame, for me, the weak story.