There was one major comparison heard when Dishonored was first announced, “Oh hey, it’s Assassin’s Creed in City 17!”. After spending a good twenty hours traversing Dunwall Tower and the surrounding areas I can say that past the obvious assassin comparison my personal view is that the title owes more to the Thief and Deus Ex games (perhaps not Invisible War) than the more contemporary Assassin’s Creed titles.
The story of Dishonored can pretty much be summed up like this; you’re a good guy who’s around when something bad happens, so everyone thinks you’re a bad guy but you’re not a bad guy so you need to do bad things (or good things!) to prove you’re a halfway decent person, the morality aspect of most modern games is thrust on you straight from the beginning. At the start of the game you meet up with the Empress of Dunwall, you (Corvo), her little guard fail to protect her from a group of assassins and find yourself being framed for her murder. After a big kerfuffle you side with a group of loyalists who look to overthrow the new status quo following the death of the Empress and crown the Empress’ daughter as the new ruler of Dunwall.
The game provides the player with a pseudo-sandbox environment, what I mean by this is that Dishonored comprises primarily of freely explorable hub areas that you travel to and from in missions. The friendly hub consists of areas to discuss missions, interact with storyline characters, upgrade items and buy new equipment. When playing through the game this is one of the aspects I felt was the weakest and really draws out your immersion. Whilst I understand that an open world game may have been potentially impractical for Dishonored, my immersion was slightly disturbed by this. Yet this area acts as a good resting place between missions where you can figure out what you can do with your skills and how to spend your money and runes.
Missions hubs normally consist of several sub-areas, each area is to an extent, fully explorable. Normally there are 3-5 pathways to your goal, each one you can take has a synergistic benefit from attempting to follow it if you have diversified your choice of skills, this skilling system is one of Dishonored’s biggest strengths. As well as an array of interesting gadgets, a personal favourite of mine being the Springrazor – a mine that detonates into a flurry of razor wire cutting up the target into several pieces, it also offers spells adding a sense of mysticism to the world giving the player a feel that more is happening in this world than political corruption, as well as social and economic decay brought about by the plague that shadows over Dunwall affecting their day to day lives.
In my playthrough I decided to focus primarily on the spells in the game, since the gadgets were so openly available I felt that there is no need to really specalise in them, most upgrades for non spell items consist of the usual standard effects, increased capacity / range. Upgrades for items are created by finding blueprints hidden around the world, when players find these it gives them the ability to hand them over to Pietro the “natural philosopher” (read: weapons engineer) who will then create items or provide upgrades from these, this includes items such as Incindeary bolts for the crossbow or even simple things like “your boots make less sound whilst walking”.
The spells are upgraded by finding “Runes” throughout the world, the runes in the games lore are carved and inscribed whale bones. Why whales? Because somebody at Arkane has a real thing against Whales, murdering them and cutting them into pieces and using their natural oils to power every piece of machinery in the game. That aside, these runes are used to purchase the ability to use spells, the player has a choice of six major spells, each with a second tier of usage. Choosing between the initial Blink spell (which is given to players for free after the prologue), Time Bending (delay time and with upgrades, stop it), Possession (possess an animal, or human), Dark Vision (see in the dark, through walls), Wind Blast (break doors, knock back enemies) and Devouring Swarm (summon a horde of carnivorous rats).
There are also a series of “buff” powers the player can acquire with runes as well, which work well with each main spell. Each power has an individual effect and really helps create a feeling of power for the player, by far my favourite skill combination is Possession and the Shadow Kill buff (Level 1: Surprised enemies are reduced to dust, Level 2: ALL killed enemies are reduced to dust). Possessing a soldier, taking him aside and then killing him immediately with no trace gave me an immense feeling of power, at times I would clear entire rooms this way and never trigger a single alarm.
The fact that it costs a lot of mana as well does not make it feel like a light task, once in the field elixirs that restore your mana and health can be hard to find and later in the game there is nowhere to purchase them mid mission, so picking and choosing when to use skills is imperative.
The world of Dishonored was designed Viktor Antonov, best known for his work on Half Life 2 being credited with creating most of the aesthetics for the Combine and City 17’s architecture, when exploring Dunwall you can truly see his influence teeming from the walls, literally and figuratively. The blockades and vehicles employed throughout could be deemed anachronistic when compared to the rustic decor of the city, which Antonov claims takes its influence from London and Edinburgh in the last years of the plague, however due to the use of technology sparingly it feels natural when combined with the architecture, only select few have access to these toys giving the imperialist enemies some threatening tools. The world is designed in a way that you can feel the effects of the plague as you prowl through evacuated buildings, as you dodge groups of rats as they nip at your feet and charge up the streets towards you. As you delve into the lower streets and see how people survive, the scrawls and graffiti that are painted on the wall of the citizens tell little snippets of what is happening and what the people fear.
At this point I feel that I have spoken too highly of the game, so I am going to get some criticism in here. Whilst I believe that Antonov has done a good job at designing a cohesive and interesting world, there are times when I felt drawn out of it by invisible walls limiting my progress or obvious gating mechanisms (hole in the wall? Possess a rat). The soundtrack also has a tendency to overpower some events, making it hard to hear characters talking at times. I found some of the ambient sounds employed to be rather irritating as well, stopping me being able to concentrate on what I was doing or sounding too similar to other sounds (rats – electrical sparks).
Other issues with immersion breaking I have found is that the guards in the game have a tendency to repeat the same sentences over and over, throughout the game I have heard a guard say to another several times “I will write to her, she will surely see sense!”. I am still not sure what that guard is actually referring to at this point, I believe the full story is related to the plague. Guards themselves are not hard to dispose of beasts, nor is their field of vision particularly great. There were times I found myself standing literally in front of guards without being detected, as I found also when I lean around corners and I’m staring the square chinned bastard straight in the crotch, like some kind of bad sitcom. Escaping them at times is as simple as possessing a guard when you are attacked, walking him away then disposing of him – all guards seem to have a Scooby Doo pattern of going off individually, if an Assassin who has been taking you out one by one has been spotted. Is it really a smart idea to go off alone or reset your positions?
The major problem with this game is the use of a silent protagonist, constantly characters are addressing the player and what he does but this just becomes befuddling since you just stand there like a dumb mute and accept everything that is told to you. Infact I’m pretty sure the start of the game could be solved if Corvo didn’t have massive social anxiety issues that allowed to helplessly slaughter crowds of guards but wouldn’t let him say “they went that way”. This is one of the biggest things that drew me out of the game, but as it goes along you do start to notice it less since cutscenes are shorter and conversation is mostly directed towards you rather than “You’re special!” and telling you the diatribes of your successes.
I ran the game on my desktop machine, I do not own a behemoth of a machine and yet the game was not some herculean task for it. It ran at a solid frame rate with minimal glitches (one of the optional bosses near the end I did find in the floor… but you know, easy kill) and it had been ported well to handle with a keyboard and a mouse.
What Dishonored aims to do is provide the player with is a set of defined boundaries, then when the player is handed their tools they are merely told “explore them”. It does this well and is definitely a great new IP, with an array of fun “tools”, an interesting world and a fairly diverse cast but is by no means a perfect game. What it is, is fun and at the end of the day, that’s why we play video games isn’t it? Whilst it does not necessarily do anything new, or add anything to the games that it is almost paying homage to it is well built and well handled, Arkane Studios have done well with this one.