Review Price £39.99
For most right-minded gamers, Arkane Studios’s Dishonored was the discovery of last year’s Gamescom, and E3 2012 gave us our long-awaited chance to go hands-on with the game.
In case you don’t know much about Dishonored, it’s the kind of stealth-action-adventure game you might expect from some of the talent behind Deus Ex, Thief 3 and Arx Fatalis, set in a stunning fantasy city that blends Steampunk with the styles of 17th Century London. Your hero is Corvo, once bodyguard to a murdered queen, and now her iron-masked avenger. If he has to slaughter his way through every crooked politician, general, aristocrat and dandy involved in the conspiracy, then so be it. Corvo is equipped for the job.
You see, Corvo is more than just a master swordsman and trained killer. With the aid of the mysterious Outsider, Corvo has developed powers to freeze time, teleport short distances, knock back foes with mighty blasts of wind and possess most living creatures. He also has a knife, a crossbow and a pistol. Together, these weapons and abilities make up a formidable toolbox, and Dishonored is all about using those tools to complete your current mission in whatever method works for you.
A Dishonored Demo
To prepare us, lead designer Harvey Smith (of Thief 3 and Deus Ex fame) talked us through a level where Corvo has to infiltrate a seedy bath house bordello and eliminate two corrupt politician brothers. Smith told us that there were eight different ways to get in, before possessing a fish in the river outside and swimming through a drainage tunnel into the house. From there he used a combination of possession, teleportation and sneaking to find the whereabouts of both brothers, steal a set of master keys and eliminate them both, giving one a hot and steamy end in a bath-house steam chamber, and the other a vicious stabbing followed by a trip into the river.
Smith explained that this was just one way things could pan out, and a subsequent demonstration showed a more violent, head-on assault, using slow-down powers and firearms to bust up the guards, slay the witnesses and tackle the brothers. Guards in steampunk armored stilts were taken down with fiendish combinations of powers, and others butchered in a high-speed flurry of attacks. However, the full-in assault method isn’t just harder to pull off, it also affects the ending, as you’ll get a different climax if you end up killing too many innocent souls.
Hands-on with the game
Having witnessed this, it was our turn to have a crack at a different level, attempting to abduct a royal physician from his heavily guarded house. Surprisingly, what looks like a complex control system is relatively easy to pull off, with the left bumper bringing up a quick radial menu of weapons and supernatural capabilities, all activated or fired with the left-trigger, while the right trigger lashes out with your current weapon.
Teleporting at short range is quick and easy, and even the more advanced tricks, like summoning a horde of man-eating rats or possessing a target aren’t hard to pull off. Stealth also works well, with the game using noise and a cone of sight to alert your enemies, and allowing you to sneak up from behind and either choke or kill them as the situation and your ethic demands.
As with Deus Ex or Thief, the freedom is intoxicating. You can plan all you want, but unless you can adapt those plans rapidly you’ll die. On our first approach we used teleport to work our way onto the rooftops and towards the target’s house, but then a botched teleport left us standing in the street mere feet away from the guards and everything went to hell. Despite use of the freeze time power and the crossbow, it wasn’t long before we were toast. A second attempt proved more successful, sneaking through the back alleys, hopping onto an ironwork guard post, taking out the guard by stealth then using teleport to sneak inside the building. Now that's progress.
Stealth works brilliantly; you’re not impossible to spot, but the vision cones and hearing aren’t so sensitive that one foot put wrong results in instant discovery, and we were able to make our way through a chunk of the building, choking the occasional maid and slitting the throat of the occasional guard.
At one point the need to get past an electric light gate gave us two options, either possessing a maid in the same room as the switch and flicking it, or teleporting behind her to choke her unconscious. In Dishonored, there’s always more than one way to kill a cat.
Combat, when it happens, is fast-paced and demanding of equally-quick thinking. While we’re assured that you can take a head-on assault approach, large numbers of guards make a formidable opposition, and you’ll need all your skills with knife, crossbow, pistol and the windblast power to survive.
In this respect, Dishonored feels a lot like Bioshock. It’s not just about spamming your enemies with one weapon or power, but about using them in combination; employing the freeze time spell to make quick attacks on one guard, then windblast to knock another off a catwalk, then teleporting quickly out of trouble. Use of Corvo’s supernatural powers is not unlimited, so you also need to avoid running out of steam when things get rough.
A Mighty Prospect
The game’s visual style is every bit as stunning as we might have hoped. Unlike many of the shooters at the show, Dishonored doesn’t focus on natural lighting or intense textural detail. Characters have deliberately exaggerated features, and the architecture and lighting works together to produce a creepy vision of an otherworldly London, part Victorian and part Restoration in style. Designed by Viktor Antonov, who created the look of Half Life 2’s City 17, Dishonored has that game’s sense of altered reality and grounded location. Dunwall is both a city you want to explore, and a sandbox you want to wreak havoc in.
There are lots of things we don’t know at this point. We’ve yet to see the game’s Chaos system, where your actions stir up mayhem in the local area, in action, and we’ll be interested to see how things play out in more open environments. All the same, this is unquestionably one of the year’s most exciting prospects. Are we looking at another Deus Ex or Bioshock? Our short time in Dunwall has us thinking “yes”.
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