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Dishonored: Great Stealth With A Handful of Flaws
“When I find you, it’s going to be bad,” a voice said gruffly.
With an otherworldly whisper, I turned to my Dark Vision ability, suddenly spotting the yellow silhouette of a guard moving directly under my feet. With careful timing, I stalked slowly to the edge, waited for him to walk past, then quickly activated my Blink ability to teleport behind him. Before he could spot me, I buried my blade in his neck, blood spraying on my hands and steel as I quickly pulled the blade out, leaving his body to collapse to the ground with a wet crunch. Returning the blade to its familiar underhand grip, I quickly moved on, jumping to another balcony. Other guards moved about the area, oblivious to my action.
And so goes a typical encounter in Arkane Studio’s stealth action title Dishonored, one of the few new IPs to appear on the market in 2012. But was a strong developer pedigree and unique world enough to make this game the stealth hit sought to be?
In Dishonored, players take control of Corvo Attano, a man sworn to protect the Empress of Dunwall as her personal bodyguard. When the Empress is murdered by assassins, Corvo is framed for her death and thrown into prison, where he learns of the plans of evil conspirators who sought to peg the crime on him in order to further their own ambitions.
After finding a note in prison delivering instructions for him to escape, Corvo is able to get away, meeting up with a group of loyalists who want to use his abilities to help them reclaim the throne for the Empress’ daughter and righful heir Emily from the evil Lord Regent. Armed with a variety of supernatural abilities given to him by the spiritual being the Outsider, Corvo sets off on a mission to assassinate all those close to the Lord Regent in order to weaken and bring him down, all while navigating a dark world infested with the infamous Rat Plague that leaves its victims insane and bleeding from the eyes.
It’s clear from the start that the world of Dishonored has been carefully crafted from a very specific vision. Dunwall has a very distinct feel to it, combining elements of steampunk and sci fi to blend a futuristic, alt-Victorian feel that felt reminiscent of both Half Life and BioShock.
But for all its unique feel and personality, the world and story of Dunwall velt oddly shallow and predictable, filled with cliches and a poor buildup of the world. For those willing to invest the time to stray from the main path, there are numerous volumes and accounts to read that give players insight into the world and people of Dishonored…the problem, however, is that the game didn’t make good on the potential it had to create a uniquely engaging and deep world from the main storyline and the player’s interaction with other characters. It would have made for a much more compelling experience had the story encompassed more opportunities to encounter the citizens of Dunwall through interaction and the story’s plot, not as footnotes to be found on random desks and tables throughout the world.
But despite the fact that the story felt somewhat lacking, Dishonored is a well-realized and cleverly designed stealth game in the same vein as Theif or Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
It follows the same conventions of the classic stealth games that have come before; see the enemies, study their patterns, devise a plan and execute it while doing your best to remain hidden from the others. But it’s Dishonored’s freedom of choice and unique abilities that really make it stand out among the rest.
When you’re approaching a target, you’ll be presented with several different options to navigate the area. Even with just once scenario, you’ll have the opportunity to approach from above using ledges or pipes, sneak in through windows, possess rats or fish to access secret paths, or even walk straight through and use cover or a direct approach. It’s completely up to you to tailor your play style to the game, accomplishing your tasks the way you see fit to do so, giving the game an open appeal that takes on a small puzzle vibe as you plot out your solution.
Combat in Dishonored stands out for its versatility as well. Staying true to its open approach to completing your missions, combat can be used to make stealth kills or even attack enemies head on. Unlike other stealth games, Dishonored will not punish you for being seen by giving you janky combat proving useless in a direct confrontation. Rather, through careful timing and smart implementation, combat is used to block, off-balance opponents, and open up opportunities for counterattacks. Pistols, crossbows, grenades, and mines also serve as useful when things get dangerous for Corvo in the field as well.
But while head-to-head combat is satisfying and powerful, the truly awe-inspiring moments lie in the stealth achievements, be they stealth kills or takedowns. Most of the time, you’ll have the option of either killing an enemy or rendering them unconscious. Killing foes invites the rats and impacts the world in a negative way, furthering the spread of plague and devastation. Leaving enemies unconscious leads to a lighter outcome, but increases the challenge by forcing Corvo to figure out where to hide bodies in order to keep from alerting the guards. It’s an interesting convention that leads to a high replay value, offering fans a chance to experience the game with multiple outcomes.
Stealth in Dishonored is implemented well with a few frustrating shortcomings. There’s plenty of cover provided for you within an area, but nothing in the UI or in the game itself allows the player to really know whether or not they’re hidden from the sight of enemies while they’re sneaking through an environment. This will eventually be figured out after rounds of trial and error and learning the patterns of the AI, but it can serve as frustrating at times when you think you’ve managed to slip by undetected and end up meeting your demise at the swords of alerted guards. First person platforming also proves to be tricky at times, not always giving you a good sense of where you stand or how close you are to an edge. This is particularly frustrating when moving through an environment above enemies.
The game makes up for its faults in a big way, however, through the use of Corvo’s supernatural abilities that feel powerful and well-balanced. Using powers like Dark Vision, Possession, and Blink served more than useful as I hunted down targets in Dunwall and really set the game apart in the stealth genre.
Powers are bought and upgraded through the use of Runes, the game’s version of “skill points” that allow you to build Corvo into whatever badass assassin you might want him to be. Runes are found scattered throughout the world and can be located using a working heart given to you by the Outsider. Using the heart also allows you to find Bone Charms, small charms that grant Corvo extra abilities, be it increased movement speed or agility. The necessity to find them made for an interesting incentive to explore Dunwall and experince it from a new perspctive, but it often came off as cumbersome and frustrating, like an unwelcome distraction from the main story mission.
Probably Dishonored’s biggest downfall was its presentation. While the world is highly stylized and interesting, the console version of the game lacks any high texture quality, pop in was frequently encountered throughout environments, and it was riddled with bugs, be it the odd convulsing of a dead enemy or even the game-breaking bug I encountered at the very end that left me stuck between real time and a cut scene that wouldn’t play out. Enemies spew the same repeated lines over and over, voice acting was iffy with some NPCs, and sound design wasn’t necessarily anything unique. While the seamless and fun gameplay more than made up for the presentation’s shortcomings, it still managed to disrupt the experience from time to time.
Dishonored is a fun, well-realized action stealth game with amazing new conventions and nuances that really served to re-invigorate the stealth genre in a great way. Despite the poor presentation and a disappointing story and one-dimensional world, the game more than accomplished what it set out to do by being one of the most interesting IPs of 2012. For those looking to play a smart and inventive stealth game, Dishonored is a title that shouldn’t be missed.
(Note: This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360. It is also available for the PC and PS3.)