Bethesda’s publishing record, outside of The Elder Scrolls, has been less than stellar. Being shown a new game featuring The Elder Scrolls VI title, up until now, not unfairly been met with hesitation – after all, this is the publishing wing that put out hits like WET, Brink, Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, and Rogue Warrior. These are all games of a quality varying between alright and dire, which isn’t exactly a great spectrum to be stuck in. However, as iffy as that handful of games is, it should be noted that each of them has a fairly interesting core idea. Brink‘s attempt at meshing competitive shooter gameplay with Mirror’s Edge-esque parkour is a sound idea. Hunted was fairly generic in execution, but mashing up co-op shooter tropes with hack-n-slash gameplay is a notion that I’d at least give the time of day. Rogue Warrior at least became a hit in a vaudevillian sense thanks to its hilarious voice work, but it was a game based on an autobiography – that’s certainly novel (hee hee). And yeah, WET could have been really cool. New female protagonists are always welcome.
But I digress. These are all games that I imagine were a gamble on Bethesda‘s part. All of them were interesting ideas for action games. Arkane Studios, the people behind cult classics Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, are the king of interesting action ideas – look no further than the latter title, a game that still has some of the best first person melee combat in video games. Keep in mind, this studio was lined up to work on a Half-Life game. That sort of project doesn’t get tossed to just any studio, and even though that project was canceled it still serves as proof that people see potential in the team. Dishonored continues Arkane’s tradition of unique, compelling ideas – it just executes far better than anything they’ve worked on before. Bethesda’s publishing studio finally has their hit.
The game places players in the role of Corvo, an elite royal bodyguard assigned to the Empress of Dunwall. Dunwall is a strange Victorian Gothic mega-city, filled with both regal classic architecture and imposing sci-fi technology. Almost immediately, Corvo is framed for the Empress’s murder, and her daughter – next in line to the throne – is kidnapped. Once Corvo escapes prison, he is tasked with aiding a small group of loyalists, loyal to the former Empress. “Aiding” meaning stabbing people they don’t like. Revenge is the order of the day.
How you go about getting revenge, though, is very open-ended. Dishonored is essentially a clever evolution of the Deus Ex formula – not that it tops the original, mind you, although it’s certainly peers with 2011’s excellent Human Revolution – that condenses the formula into smaller but richer maps. Whereas Deus Ex typically takes place in a few large hub levels, Dishonored‘s missions are set in several small but densely detailed locations, filled with side missions and opportunities for manipulating the environment with your special abilities.
Essentially, these tighter levels give Dishonored an incredibly detailed feel, to the point where Dunwall feels less like a video game level and more like a city presented in small slices. If you’re sneaking into a big building, it’ll invariably have a sewer system to sneak through, or a roof to climb onto, or hell, a big front door for you to fight your way through. Many games that offer “multiple choices” really just mean there’s a big obvious vent somewhere that you can crawl through or some relatively dumb guards to shoot; granted, Dishonored can be reduced to that as well, but the level design feels far more satisfying than that. When you possess a rat, scurry through a small hole, and pop out the other side as big brooding Corvo, it all logically makes sense on the game’s own terms. Yes, that sentence is ridiculous, but Dishonored gives all of its video game silliness context. Corvo can possess animals because he has magic. Small animals are everywhere because there is a plague. There are cracks everywhere because the city is old. It all clicks.
The density of options available is immediately apparent during a stealthy approach. In one early mission, I was tasked with killing one target with the option of rescuing another. Doing this without being noticed seemed impossible, considering both of the characters were meeting in the same room. The fact that the man Corvo needed to assassinate wanted to murder Corvo’s rescue target complicated the situation further. What to do?
I could poison their wine, killing both of them, or poison one of their glasses – probably a simpler solution, but even though they were labeled I feared Princess Bride chicanery would ruin everything – or simply smash both of them. I chose the latter. I hid, and both characters entered the room. After some chitchat, the assassination target noticed the wine was missing, and began to lead the man I wanted alive down to a hidden cellar. I’d already discovered this secret area, and looted a painting from the wall (a painting which is also visible in its early stages in the tutorial). My target ushered his target into the room under the pretense of showing him the artwork, only to discover it had gone missing. Confused, he asked the man I needed to save to turn around and look for the painting in a pile of crates. At this point, I leaned Corvo out from the shadows and tranquilized my charge, swooping in to stab the mission target before he had time to turn around and see me. Everything in Dishonored‘s levels can snowball into a climax.
It also helps that fighting your way through the game is a lot of fun. Many RPGs feature wonky combat strung along the backbone of engaging writing and choices, but Dishonored‘s action could stand on its own if removed from the game. It’s fast, it’s simple, but it’s easy to mess up and get hit – and death comes swiftly, especially on higher difficulties. Corvo also has loads of combat tools at his disposal, although the core combination of pistol and sword are the coolest of the bunch. The swordplay is similar to Arkane’s own Dark Messiah, albeit a bit flashier (and sadly lacking a kick button). Blocking at the right instant triggers a slow motion parry, which leaves foes open to be finished off. It’s fast, slick, and exciting – especially if you decide to use the flintlock pistol, which knocks guards off their feet with one of the loudest, coolest sound effects in recent memory.
That being said, the slow and stealthy approach is still probably Dishonored‘s greatest strength. Many of the magic powers granted to Corvo – the Blink teleport, animal and human posession, seeing enemy movement through walls – are geared towards a slower approach, and there are some great sidequests and interesting books and notes to be found by nosy players. Blink, in particular, plays a huge part in Dishonored‘s design – without any need to cater to Corvo’s limited walking and jumping moves, the world is refreshingly absent of conspicuously stacked boxes, obvious makeshift bridges, etc. Corvo can sneak his way through any map without killing or alerting anyone, including the main targets – thorough exploration will reveal nonlethal ways to dispose of each planned victim, some of which are arguably crueler than just offing them. Dishonored can be incredibly dark.
Dishonored‘s atmosphere and overall presentation is one of its greatest strengths; however, it can sometimes give way to annoying quirks. The overall tone is grim, in a slightly playful Gothic sense. The bizarro-London of Dunwall is the perfect setting for corrupt watchmen, ravenous plague rats, and eerie masquerade balls. The art director who helped Valve design City 17 in Half-Life 2 worked on Dishonored, and it shows – it almost lends an auteur touch to the look of the game. It’s a recognizable art style, but it doesn’t feel like a ripoff or, even overly familiar. The game carves out an excellent aesthetic for itself between its slightly cartoony character models and its stylized pseudo-English environments.
When it’s at its best, there’s a certain sense of poetry to a lot of the key dialogue and writing scattered around the world. That being said, there are a few moments that can be eye-roll inducing. There’s one item in particular that serves as both a tool for finding hidden items (runes and bone charms, used to level up Corvo’s powers and provide extra bonuses) and as a sort of running commentary. It’s supposed to reveal sad truths and whatnot, but a lot of it just feels maudlin and overwrought. It doesn’t help that all of its dialogue is read in the most pained voice possible. Imagine carrying around an iPod that only contained dramatic readings of 11th-grader poetry and you’ll get the idea. Little issues like this pop up elsewhere, too – some characters are painted with such ludicrously broad strokes that it’s hard to take them seriously, fantasy title or not. Dishonored walks a thin tightrope between deliciously dark and overly melodramatic. It succeeds for the most part, but the script (and maybe acting) could have done with some slight tweaking.
There are also some odd quirks in the presentation that almost feel like last minute decisions. It’s slightly annoying that one of the frequent loading screen tips is “a higher body count will result in a darker outcome”, a strange way to reveal all the cards the game has in its deck, even if the idea isn’t particularly surprising. It’s almost as if the game doesn’t want you to use its excellent combat system, which is kind of a shame – although I supposed I could see the argument that it’s intentionally trying to coax the playing into breaking whatever non-violent oaths they made at the outset. Regardless, the game does a great job of subtly changing the levels depending on how much chaos Corvo has caused – more bodies, for example, means more plague rats, which will eat you (or other characters) alive without hesitation. The game also insists on popping up reminders that you can take multiple paths and “play your way” well past the tutorial mission, to the point where I actually felt like someone had spoiled a good joke in a movie I wanted to see. The push and pull between stealth and action is great – it’s just weird that the game tries to draw as much attention to it as possible, rather than being more subtle about it.
These are minor complaints at most, though. Dishonored is a fantastic game, a richly detailed world that provides a unique atmosphere are engaging gameplay no matter your preference – be it blazing action or shadowy stealth, or any mix of the two. It’s heartening to see this relatively small subgenre of first-person action get such a high-profile release. It’s an intelligent game, but also one that acknowledges that action needs to feel satisfying and brutal, just as much as stealth needs to feel tense and crafty. Make sure to explore all of what the game has to offer – there’s too much to see and try in this adventure to only play it once.