One of the frustrating aspects to many story-driven games is just how linear they are in gameplay terms. From FPS titles like Call of Duty to more open-world affairs like Dead Island, the player is given a set of instructions and controls and told to approach the game world in a specific way to succeed.
How refreshing then to see a game that not only leaves the method of achieving objectives completely up to the player, but promises different consequences for each of their decisions. Dishonored is a sandbox RPG from Arkane Studios and though it incorporates magic, stealth and combat, there is no set formula to completing the game.
Set in the industrial city of Dunwall, Dishonored follows the story of Corvo, protector to the city’s former Empress. Framed for the Empress’s murder by the regicidal Lord Regent and left to be executed, Corvo is broken free from prison and turned into an assassin by a small resistance group who plan to overthrow the Lord Regent and put the Empress’ daughter at the helm.
The best thing about Dishonored is that there is no defined way to play and complete the game. Arkane Studios have crafted an engrossing experience that allows you to play the way you choose to, whether you prefer to duel your enemies or sneak right past them. Dishonored simply provides you with the tools to advance; how you use them is down to you.
Then there is the Rat Plague to contend with. Having failed to receive aid from neighbouring cities, Corvo is now forced to infiltrate a city ravaged by a plague that turns anyone bitten by infected vermin into a “weeper”, an infected waste of a human being. Weepers and rats aren’t your only enemies to contend with, however, as city guards and infantrymen patrol every street and alleyway.
Weapons come in the form of 19th-century swords and pistols, as well as a crossbow which fires both arrows and tranquilisers (these will be invaluable to anyone looking to complete a non-lethal playthrough). Corvo can also be equipped with powers to help him in his quest. “Blinking” allows Corvo to teleport a short distance while “Dark Vision” grants him the ability to see through walls and even the enemy’s line of vision. He can possess animals and summon swarms of infected rats to help, but using each of these powers comes at a heavy cost to your mana reserves. Each power can be purchased using runes, which are scattered across the city and can be found with the help of a heart gifted early on by a strange omnipresent guardian known only as The Outsider.
The game values stealth and non-lethal kills over balls-out combat and rewards you to this effect. At the end of each area you are awarded a “chaos” rating depending on your in-game actions: a high rating means you’ll encounter more guards, rats and weepers in the next level whilst a low rating results in minimum distractions. Being discovered will add to your chaos rating, as will killing enemies lethally and leaving behind bodies to be discovered. Your overall chaos rating also impacts on the story, making your choice of approach to the game an important and personal one.
Choice is also given to the player in how they carry out the key objective in each mission. You may be required to kill a specific individual but the manner of execution (if indeed killing them is the only option) is always left down to you. Should you poison this powerful man’s drink and leave quietly or wait until he arrives and surprise him with your pistol? Should you simply burst into a brothel to kill this man, or risk making a deal with a criminal organisation and have them take care of it? Your choices will have consequences on how the story unfolds, no matter what they are.
Combat is a relatively straightforward affair. Corvo can attack with his sword and activate secondary powers or weapons for support. In defence, blocking an enemy attack and launching a well-timed parry with your sword allows you to finish your opponent with a fatal blow. Stealth however is a much more difficult and intriguing concept.
With no radar to rely on it’s up to the player to infiltrate the map and leave the area without being spotted, making best use of Corvo’s powers and moves. In “stealth mode”, Corvo is slower but quieter thus making it easier to sneak up on enemies. There are no set patterns to the guard’s patrols and this makes sneaking up on an enemy an extremely difficult task; it’s not uncommon to approach a guard from behind and have him turn around and spot you within seconds of you cutting off his air supply.
The task of sneaking your way around the map is a challenge even on the easier difficulties, but it’s not as frustrating as it may sound. Utilising Corvo’s many powers and correctly using stealth mode when necessary is key to advancing through the game with a low chaos level, though early on you will find combat with guards and weepers almost inevitable.
The game doesn’t immediately stand out visually with a few low-res textures spotted through the city, but Dunwall itself is a beautifully-crafted setting. Fusing the sights and sounds of Industrial Revolution London with a somewhat cyberpunk attitude helps put the player firmly within the narrative of a plague-ridden metropolis where everyone has a secret. Leaving the luxury confinements of an aristocratic brothel where the seats are made of leather and gold and walking straight into a grotty backstreet frequented only by an infected woman coughing up the last of her lungs is an unnerving and unsettling experience and is perhaps one of the most effective statements on class and values I’ve seen in a videogame.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into that; after all the story is not the focus of Dishonored. The key theme to this superb offering from Arkane and Bethesda is the conundrum of choice and how each action has a subsequent reaction. Whilst the narrative does play a role in presenting these dilemmas it’s the varied gameplay which drives this message home beyond all else, not just providing an entertaining experience but a deluge of dilemmas throughout.
Dishonored may not contain the depth of Skyrim or the unrivalled beauty of Uncharted, but it does present something new, innovative and engaging. It makes the player think about the effect their choices, both in terms of narrative and gameplay, may potentially have on the world around them. Every decision you make has the potential to alter the paradigm of the story and the almost apocalyptic feel of the city of Dunwall compliments the (admittedly rather short) narrative perfectly.
Corvo may not speak throughout the game but he is probably one of the most engaging videogame characters in recent years, because his decisions and burdens are effectively yours.
Nine out of ten
- Enthralling gameplay
- Encourages the player to think about their choices and methods
- Beautifully crafted in-game world
- Challenging but not frustrating difficulty
- Occasional low-res textures