Combining the first-person stealth of Deus Ex, the assassination-oriented approach of Assassin’s Creed, and the environmental storytelling of Bioshock would seem like a dream come true. Indeed, Dishonored does borrow from each of these, but it still manages to feel unique. Unfortunately, developer Arkane Studios seems to have been startled awake just before fully realizing that dream. The game is still a definite success, but falls prey to some repetitive mission structures and a second act that seems lackluster compared with its grand beginnings.
Dishonored takes place in the fictional city of Dunwall. The city itself is incredibly immersive, though technically, the graphics are fairly average. Running on Unreal Engine 3, the frame rate is smooth. The textures are occasionally bland, although this may have been more of a stylistic choice to make Dunwall feel more cold and uncaring. Characters’ faces are nicely detailed and show adequate expression. The true heart of Dunwall lies below the surface. Like Bioshock’s Rapture, a great deal of effort was placed into creating a believable place complete with its own lore — an environment so rich it can tell its own story. Other than just looking around, the story is pieced together from dialogue, audio recordings and text. It’s a minor issue, but reading the pale text on black backgrounds imprinted the images briefly into my retina. Like staring at a light too long and then seeing after images, exiting text and returning to gameplay often resulted in seeing lines across the screen for a short while.
As a port city, Dunwall has easy access to whale oil. This resource, coupled with the scientific genius of its inhabitants, led the city to prosperity. Though primitive compared to today’s standards, there is still some advanced technology to be found. This gives the city an almost steampunk feel. It would seem, however, Dunwall is a city past its prime. The gloomy concrete walls and flooded sewer systems are strewn with rats and plague victims. Many have already succomb to the deadly pox, but there are still many who cling to life. Casually referred to as “weepers,” these poor souls bleed from the eyes and have gone completely feral. In addition to these tangible troubles, magic and witchcraft exist within Dunwall. An ageless deity known as “The Outsider” has been sighted throughout Dunwall’s history. His followers carry whale bone runes and charms and are said to possess unearthly powers.
To cope with the plague, the royal bodyguard Corvo Attano traveled abroad to seek aid from other cities. Having learned Dunwall’s neighbors plan to blockade and quarantine the city, Corvo returns a few days early to inform his empress. The lord regent had been planning on making a grab for the throne in Corvo’s absence. The lord regent makes the most of the situation, framing him for the empresses’ murder and kidnapping her daughter Emily. Months of imprisonment pass. After the lord regent repeatedly fails to make him confess, Corvo receives aid from some loyalists. They believe his innocence and help him escape. To restore the throne, Corvo will ultimately have to rescue the empresses’ young daughter and rightful heir and remove the lord regent from power.
Though a great deal of planning obviously went into the story, it is a shame that the initial exposure to the plot is so stereotypical. At its heart, the game opens with a woman helplessly murdered, then another woman kidnapped and a male lead setting out to rescue her. The gameplay and storytelling techniques employed quickly make up for this. The general structure of Dishonored borrow heavily from the Deus Ex series in the sense that there are multiple solutions to each problem. Players can opt for a stealthy approach and try to avoid confrontation altogether. They can incapacitate the guards who roam the city and try to keep the body count low. Stealth can still prove lethal, as undetected attacks will assassinate the target. There are also many technologies that can be rewired to harm guards and other enemies (similar in concept to hacking turrets and bots in the Deus Ex games). Alternatively, Corvo can hold his own in combat.
Right bumper blocks enemy attacks and — when timed correctly — can send them off-balance and make them vulnerable for an instant kill. Assassinations and sword strikes are executed with right trigger. Holding the left bumper allows players to choose between gadgets and abilities, and left trigger uses the selected gadget or ability. The controls can be tweaked between a few configurations, but not fully customized. The developers balance this out by offering players a number of ways to change how information is displayed. The HUD can be switched on or off or made contextual, and tooltips and objective markers can be toggled. It would have been nice to see an explanation in the menus for what each setting corresponds too, but it’s still a great feature.
Early on, Corvo has access to a pistol and a handheld crossbow. These and other gadgets can easily provide the edge in combat, but it comes at a small cost. Dishonored keeps track of all the fatalities in the game. Kill too many people and Dunwall’s “chaos level” can rise. Higher chaos can lead to more weepers, more rats (which actually become lethal in large groups), and a slightly darker outcome. It’s a mechanic that’s neatly woven into the story. Perhaps it’s grotesque, but one can imagine piles of corpses in the streets providing the plague-bearing rats with more food and the means to populate.
The game is divided into several missions with a moment of respite in between most of them. There is a clear division between the missions and the rest of the game, but it feels very organic in the sense that many characters simply ask Corvo if he’s ready to head out. Many of the missions in Dishonored have Corvo dispatching key supporters of the lord regent in order to weaken his foundation. There are a few sidequests that can be picked up before or during missions. The thought of discovering new things to do while on a mission makes Dishonored appear limitless at first. There are even a few events where players can save an innocent life if they react quickly enough. Unfortunately, these events become scarce as the game plays out and the sidequests are doled out in a predictable manner. Generally, there are one or two optional objectives for each mission. They carry little impact in the story, but may offer additional rewards to the player. Ultimately, there is not as much to discover in Dunwall as it would initially seem. Dishonored boils down to finding the target character, killing or otherwise dealing with him or her, completing an optional sidequest if desired, and then escaping.
On the plus side, Arkane Studios deserves serious commendation for the level design in Dishonored. Missions have multiple routes and players are encouraged to explore both horizontally and vertically. There is great height and depth to the world of Dunwall. Climbing is a far cry from Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted. In those games, players simply have to rotate the control stick and find the correct path to scale the side of a cliff or building. This could have translated poorly to a first-person system. Some minor gaps and obstacles can be scaled by jumping and pressing “A.” Before long, however, Corvo is visited by The Outsider. This mysterious being grants Corvo the ability to “Blink.” This is one of those powers which can be assigned to left trigger, and it’s one of the most useful. Holding the left trigger makes a teleportation marker appear. It has a disc of light that shows the precise location Corvo will appear and a line of light stemming from below that shows where he will fall to. The only time this changes is when aimed at the ledge of something scalable. The disc will change into a series of arrows pointing upward. Even if the ledge is thin, so long as these arrows appear Corvo will land safely. Blinking is remarkably consistent. Even though the distance is relatively short, it can still make climbing fairly effortless. So while the levels may be tall, it’s never too complicated to trek around. Blinking can be used for more than just climbing too, shortening the time it takes approach enemies for the kill/knockout or teleporting through their line of sight to get behind them.
Other powers also exist and can be purchased and upgraded by discovering whale bone runes. As mentioned before, these collectibles are actually part of the story, which is another nice touch by Arkane Studios. The Outsider grants Corvo a heart he can actually wield to reveal the location of these runes. The heart also shows the location of bone charms. These charms can be equipped to alter Corvo’s stats and provide bonuses. Further upgrades for Corvo can be unlocked by discovering blueprints and finding materials to sell. Armed with cash, Corvo can purchase and enhance equipment by speaking to the inventor, Pierro Joplin.
All of the aforementioned traits point to an excellent upgrade system. The potential is there, but at times the system feels like it’s in place simply because the game’s contemporaries have similar ones. Dishonored’s system can’t compare to the depth of plasmids and tonics available in Bioshock or even the augmentations in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. There are 10 upgradeable powers. Most need to be activated, though there are a few passive ones. Each power only has two levels, which still seems like a deep experience, but many carry little impact or will be useless to players depending on their play style. The same goes for the upgrades available in Pierro’s shop and the bone charms. It got to the point where I was purchasing upgrades and equipping bone charms simply because I could, not because I really wanted them. There’s very little that’s lust-worthy in the powers and upgrades section, especially since Blink is just too good.
The finale of the game is possibly the most disappointing aspect. At least Arkane Studios didn’t shoehorn in a shaky last boss fight like the final fight in Bioshock or every boss fight in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Still, after traversing another treacherous environment, the final confrontation was over in seconds. The end sequence is similar to Bioshock’s: a kind of “This is your life, Corvo Attano” moment where the player’s actions are supposed to dramatically reflect in the outcome but hardly show at all except in a few pre-defined ways. It’s less cookie-cutter than the endings to Deus Ex: Human Revolution and more seamless than the original ending to Fallout 3, but less personalized as well.
The Outsider provides a healthy dose of commentary on Corvo’s actions and actor Billy Lush handles the role well enough. Most of the voice acting in the game is flat, though. John Slattery is particularly dull in voicing the loyalist Admiral Havelock. As a result, Havelock sounds bored, like he never wants to be part of the game. For a character with a fairly major role, this is problematic. Susan Sarandon provides the most interesting performance in her role as Granny Rags. Though a fairly minor character who only offers sidequests, Granny Rags is immediately fascinating. It’s a shame her character gets brushed aside.
There’s a good bit of content in Dishonored. Playing through at a stealthy, leisurely pace and completing most of the sidequests took me about 16 hours. Diehards may want to scour for collectibles, play through with more or less chaos, and/or attempt non-lethal runs without being sighted for additional achievements. For the more casual crowd, one play through will certainly be enough.
At the game’s conclusion, there are still a few loose ends surrounding the plague and The Outsider. A sequel or some DLC would certainly be welcome as the game is immensely enjoyable, and Dunwall is captivating. Dishonored never quite lives up to its own lofty ambitions, but it’s still superior to most of the current titles.