Style and Atmosphere
The other vital thing is atmosphere. Just like Bioshock, Dishonored creates a distinctive world and peoples it with weird and often grotesque characters. The art style is painterly rather than photorealistic, with deliberately caricatured figures and an expressionistic use of light, texture and colour.
Artistic director Viktor Antonov once used his architectural skills to create the oppressive, soviet style of Half Life 2’s City 17. Here he’s created a city that merges 17th to 19th Century British design with elements of fascist architecture, neo-gothic and art nouveau. The world is packed with journals, letters, books and plays for you to read, not to mention posters and pamphlets. Put all together, it makes Dunwall a convincing and compelling place to visit.
For all these reasons Dishonored is a stunning game. If you want a game that leads you by the nose from encounter to encounter it’s not the one for you – in fact there’s so little shooting that you can’t even call it a first-person shooter. The more you put into it, however, the more immersive it becomes. Like Deus Ex and like Thief – and to a lesser extent Bioshock – it’s a game that says “here’s a world, now get lost in it.”
Breaking the Illusion
Of course, the illusion doesn’t always work. With so much exterior and interior detail Dunwall has had to be carved into chunks, and you’ll see loading screens as you enter certain buildings or move from one area into another. Despite hiring in some big Hollywood names, including Susan Sarandon, Michael Madsen and Carrie Fisher, stilted voicework and animation sometimes fails to bring the tale to life. In terms of visual design it’s Bioshock’s equal – and its superior in terms of gameplay – but it never quite hits the same level of narrative power.
The AI systems have their own odd moments of absurdity, as characters see you from a distance if you're on the same level, but seem oblivious to your antics if you're just above their direct line of sight. Meanwhile, objects and characters occasionally get stuck in jerking physics-engine glitches. It's also odd that, while choices at one point affect opportunities and outcomes later on, a character in one section will welcome you with open arms even though you’ve acted against them in the last mission, leaving witnesses behind.
Length and Value
Finally, we can’t review Dishonored without mentioning the issue of length. There are reports of players cracking the game within five hours, but we really don’t know how they did it. There are nine missions in all, and we’ve spent two to three hours in some of them alone. Throw in the obvious replay value, trying different approaches at harder difficulty levels, and any question of value seems moot. Rush through Dishonored and you won’t make the most of it, but then isn’t the same true of good food, good drink, travel and most of life’s other pleasures?
Cynically, it’s tempting to see Dishonored as the sum of its influences, and you will experience periods of Déjà vu as you recognise elements from Thief, its sequel, Deus Ex and Bioshock. And that’s without mentioning a close visual kinship with Half Life 2. Yet the strength of Dishonored’s setting and its gameplay allows it to transcend this. If it’s a game in thrall to other games, at least it’s a game in thrall to some of the very best games, and one that frequently reaches the same kind of level.
The problem with being hyped as the heir to Deus Ex, System Shock and Thief is that you have to live up to the billing, but Dishonored hits all the right spots. It’s a game full of choices where those choices seem to matter, packed with interesting tools, and set in a world the likes of which you’ve never seen before. It doesn’t equal its influences in every single respect, and a few minor flaws affect its impact, but when all is said and done this is – with certainty – one of the finest games you’ll play this year.