It’s almost impossible to come to Dishonored without huge expectations. It’s a game you can’t disentangle from the history of its makers, or the heritage of the games that inspired it. Its creative team includes alumni from System Shock, Deus Ex, Half-Life 2 and Arx Fatalis. Its developer Arkane’s last job was providing creative services on BioShock 2, and before that it worked on a cancelled spin-off of the Half-Life series.
All these games, along with Bioshock, Thief and Thief 2, are in Dishonored’s bloodline, and in a way its seen as the next natural heir to the System Shock/Deus Ex/Thief legacy, fitting in with Bioshock and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. In fact, it ticks all the same boxes: freedom of action, open level design, tools you can experiment with, a player-centric approach to gameplay and story.
The danger with all these expectations is that they can be a burden. Either you get a game that ends up disappointing, or one that ends up in thrall to its influences, and fails to transcend them. Dishonored doesn’t always escape the latter trap, but it’s more than a sop for Deus Ex/Thief nostalgia. It’s a game that’s not afraid to demand that you think, and one that actually rewards you when you do so.
Vengeance is thine!
The premise is a variation on the classic revenge drama, kicking off with Corvo, bodyguard to the Empress of a steampunk fantasy empire, framed for her murder, imprisoned and sentenced to death. Luckily, Corvo is helped to escape by a rebel faction, so that he can become an assassin, striking out against the targets who made him for a patsy, rescuing the Empress’s daughter and helping put the realm back to rights.
It all takes place in the Imperial capital of Dunwall – an ingenious vision of a fictionalised London, where Victorian ironwork mixes with 18th Century style, and where an explosion of Whale oil based technology has accelerated a social and industrial revolution. To add further spice, Dunwall is in the grip of a mysterious plague, spread by unusually vicious rats and leaving its victims in a zombie-like state. What’s more, there’s further conflict between the establishment and the enigmatic ‘Outsider’ – a being with supernatural abilities who can grant magic powers to his human followers.
Beyond this, Dishonored is a series of missions, each taking place in an area of Dunwall, and each with a specific objective or target. The clever thing is that how you achieve your goal is pretty much up to you, and that there’s always more to a mission area than the portion where the decisive action must take place.
For instance, to get into a high-class brothel where two dissolute parliamentarians are loitering, you could simply find your own way through, or do a favour for a local gangster and let him open up a route for you. To infiltrate, you could attempt a frontal assault, use stealth to sneak in through a window, or creep in through a vent in the form of a rat. Even assassinations have their own optional methods: a knife to the throat, a crossbow bolt through the temple, or how about a nicely staged accident? The choice is always yours.
Weapons and Powers
Meanwhile, Dishonored takes a leaf from the System Shock and Bioshock rulebook by mixing vaguely recognisable weapons with magical powers. Crossbows, pistols, traps and blades are your mainstays, but Corvo starts off with a nifty short-range teleport power, and before long can earn other arcane talents. Dunwall, it turns out, is full of runes – whalebone objects imbued with magic power – and by collecting and spending these Corvo can unlock new magic powers. Want to slow time? Possess animals? See through walls? Knock over foes with gusts of wind? Get the runes and you can make it happen.
What’s more, all these abilities can be upgraded, allowing you to hop further distances, posess people as well as creatures, and pause time altogether for a moment. Throw in weapon upgrades, sight upgrades and damage upgrades, plus a collection of whalebone charms that deliver bonus offensive and defensive perks, and you can’t really fault Dishonored for a lack of toys.
The great thing is how it all comes together. If you want you can try the most direct line, though, you’ll have a shorter and less satisfying game. The real pleasure in Dishonored is exploring each locale, accepting and completing side-missions, tracking down the runes and finding new ways in and out of government buildings and luxurious mansions.
However you play you will die occasionally, but here death doesn’t seem so much like the end as an opportunity to try again with a different, smarter approach. For every situation there seem to be three, four or more solutions, some bloody, some stealthy and some smart. And the more effort and imagination you put in, the more runes and charms you find, the more puzzle pieces you can put together, and the more powerful Corvo becomes.