Have you ever saved a game just before some important encounter just to see the different ways the developer has allowed you to play it out? Have you ever restarted at the “last checkpoint” numerous times just because things didn’t go exactly how you wanted? Have you ever just changed your mind about some random decision and reloaded a previous save just to net a different outcome?
Expect to do this often in Bethesda’s newest IP, Dishonored, from developer Arkane Studios.
In video games there are few things that are both incredibly liberating and equally daunting as the freedom of choice. Skyrim’s existence is a testament to that sentiment. While games like Skyrim and Borderlands 2 provide an autonomy that revolved mostly around an expansive world, deep customization, and the freedom to choose your next mission or destination, Dishonored takes a more intimate approach. Rather than give you a large variety of objectives to choose from, the game, instead, gives you one main objective (with a couple optional objectives), throws you into smaller sandboxes with numerous routes, exits and entryways and provides the player a variety of different abilities and powers to choose from. This allows a tailoring of individual approaches and strategies with a deeper level of nuance than titles like Deus Ex and Bioshock. Dishonored is a refreshing take on the first-person action-adventure and handles both stealthy and aggressive approaches in very different, yet equally compelling ways.
For gamers like me, that poses an incredible dilemma. With so many different ways to handle my objectives, navigate environments, and dispatch my enemies, where and how should I begin? The fruit of that discovery is Dishonored greatest triumph.
With influences from late nineteenth century Victorian England –as seen more recently in Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes – and steampunk-flavored technology evoking the essences of Jules Verne and Nikola Tesla, Dishonored presents an atmosphere and feel that lends well to its story. Set in the fictional city, Dunwall, you play as Corvo Attano, bodyguard for Empress Jessamine Kaldwin and her daughter Emily. Plague has afflicted the city; death impregnates the homes and streets throughout Dunwall and Corvo’s trip in search of aid has proved unsuccessful. He returns to the city with the bad news, but his reunion with the Empress and Emily is cut short by an assassin’s blade, leaving the Empress dead, Emily captured, and Corvo left to take the fall. Six months later, the Empress’s spymaster has taken control of the city and you are set to be executed for the assassination of the Empress. With the help of a group loyal to the Empress, you escape and begin your quest for vengeance and your search for Emily, the rightful heir to the throne.
An Impressionist’s Touch
Opting for a more artistic look than photorealism, Dishonored lacks the level of detail and texture we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the genre, but its unique style has a charm and beauty all its own. Though not all will appreciate the artistic approach, the environments have a distressed beauty to them, with impressionistic vanilla skies juxtaposed against the despair and decay of the city. Lighting is impressive throughout and becomes a factor when taking stealthy approaches, affecting your visibility to guards and watch towers. In addition, the dynamic sound design is impressive, with sounds behaving appropriately depending of the environment. Voicies echo in large halls and warehouses, while sounds out in open areas sound more muted. It works quite well, forcing discretion when attempting to traverse guard-infested areas. Yes, guards will respond to loud footsteps, broken glass, the clink of a crossbow bolt, etc. This, of course, can also work to your advantage, allowing you to manipulate guard patrol routes to your liking and bait victims to their untimely deaths.
Early in Dishonored, you meet The Outsider, who acts as an omniscient character in the universe. His presence is mostly that of an observer, providing his perspective and insight on the events surrounding Corvo’s exploit. More importantly, he imbues Corvo with the power to consume runes and use bone charms, giving Corvo access to a selection of various powers and abilities to choose from. Powers include but aren’t limited to the ability to teleport, slow and freeze time, see through walls, and possess animals and guards to do your bidding. Equipping bone charms gives Corvo more passive abilities, like the ability to climb objects faster, quicker mana (used for powers) or health regeneration, faster choking speed, quick swing speed for swords, etc. Combine these powers and bone charm abilities with Corvo’s basic skills, like jumping, vaulting and the ability to use cover, and you’ll be able to complete your mission objectives in a style and method that suits your tastes. Keeping in theme with Dishonored artistic style, think of each level as a “canvas,” each power a certain colored “paint” and you, the “paintbrush.”
There are a myriad of ways to go about completing objectives. And it distills down from general (e.g. choosing a lethal or non-lethal approach) to specific (e.g. choosing to use sword or sidearm). For example, one particular mission tasks with assassinating two men, but you can either do it yourself, or have some other character in the story complete it for you in a quid pro quo arrangement. If you decide to do it yourself, there are so many ways you can specifically do that. Barge in and go guns blazing? Sure. Sneak through an open balcony and silently take them out? Yes. Put them to sleep and throw them off a ledge? No problem. Place some ravenous rats in the room to do your dirty work? Yup. Set a razor trap on the balcony and draw them it. That works too. There are just so many different ways to go about completing objectives that part of the fun is reverting back to old saves and trying them all out.
While I spent most of my initial playthrough sneaking my way through levels, I’d find myself slipping up from time to time and engaging in combat with multiples enemies. Keep in mind that the AI, while manipulable, is quite perceptive, sufficiently skilled and will aggressively hunt and attempt to end you if caught sneaking around. While Corvo is well-equipped in these situations, the AI is clever, knowing when to use ranged versus close-range weapons and parrying and dodging when appropriate, so don’t take these encounters lightly. Whatever the approach you choose, whether stealth, direct, or a combination of both, you will always find a satisfying solution.
…Is Before You
Similar to my experience in games like Deus Ex, there were numerous moments where I’d successfully infiltrate an area and notice some other passageway or route, often thinking to myself “huh, I could have gone that way” or “that would have been much easier.” I love the fact that I could platform my way into a building but take comfort in knowing that it isn’t the only option. At the start of the game, I felt like a little kitten, learning the limits of my exploration through trial and error and understanding the restrictions placed on me by my owners, in this case, the developers. But once I learned the extent of Corvo’s capabilities, the freedom of movement was constantly whispering in my ear, compelling me to explore each environment to its absolute fullest. If you’ve an inquisitive mind, expect to spend much of your time just exploring each level or reloading saves just to discover other outcomes. I spent nearly two hours just gallivanting around the first level after my first meeting with the loyalists. It certainly helps that overall character movement feels great. Vaulting across objects feels just right, and the light platforming works consistent enough (made all the more easier with the help of the teleport ability) making other FPS games feel silly when you can’t cross an area because a passage is blocked by a waist-high crate.
A Morality, Tailored
The type of emergent gameplay that results from the freedom to design your moment to moment experience makes for an exhilarating experience. But it also provides a canvas on which to imprint moral inclinations based on the decisions you make throughout the game. While, there are two specific outcomes at the conclusion of each level based on your kill count – high chaos for higher kill counts and low chaos for lower kill counts, with corresponding game ending outcomes for both – it’s not entirely clear to the player as to the specifics of those thresholds. As a result, I began creating my own set of morals and ethics when it came to dispatching my enemies. Killing was reserved for those most deserving of it while mercy was given to those I viewed as more innocent or a victim of circumstance. Sure, not everyone will do this, but the ambiguity of consequence in these moment-to-moment decisions allows you to do so, and adds yet another layer of personalization and depth to the entire experience.
A Sense Of Place
There is a clear love and attention given to the creation of this world. A more in-depth look into each of the characters and society as a whole can be culled from letters, notes, audio recording, etc. The mechanical heart given to you by the outsider early in the game not only informs you of the location of runes and bone charms, but provides quite a bit of additional information on characters. It’s quite insightful, actually, and in fact provided a bit of foreshadowing into some of the events that would occur later in the game. In addition, similar to Batman Arkham City, you can gain useful, mission-specific information from the conversations you’ll overhear between other NPCs, guards and soldiers. While you rarely see the general populace, these little touches provide you a good sense of the current cultural and spiritual mores and folkways that pervade the Dishonored mythos. This gives great insight into the conditions of the city, the perceptions of its inhabitant, providing context for the impact of your actions throughout the game.
However, not all is perfect in Dishonored. Some issues, albeit small, can be slightly annoying. Sometimes bodies will be thrown when you wanted them dropped. Other times the prompt that initiates a choke when teleporting or sneaking up on guards can be finicky, leaving you vulnerable, ruining your timing and sometimes sullying a clandestine approach. In regards to the AI, progressively more curious reactions to consecutive distractions, such as throwing a glass bottle in the same area repeatedly, would be welcome. Unfortunately, all is forgotten if you stay hidden long enough. The ability to terrorize would also have been welcome, as seen recently in Mark of the Ninja, and would have given Corvo more gravitas, but that’s just wishful thinking, and one can simply assume that the soldiers and guards are incredibly hardened and well-trained.
Once in a while, a game comes along and changes the way you look at all other games in the genre. Dishonored is definitely one of those titles. Arkane Studios has done a wonderful job of invigorating the first-person genre with refreshing, open-ended gameplay and a compelling world rich with its own mythology. Minor issues aside, Dishonored has raised the bar set by games like Bioshock and Deus Ex by empowering the player with the freedom of choice and fostering a creative approach to gameplay not often seen in games these days. I’m excited to see more from Arkane Studios and look forward to revisiting the Dishonored universe once again.