Once in a while, you come across a game that gets the right amount of hype and delivers on almost all of its promises. This often happens with sequels, where one expects it to be better than the original due to reviews and feedback for the original title. It doesn't happen too often with new games, however, which tend to be good but have some rough edges that need to be ironed out. When you do come across a game that leaves a profound impression on a player the first time out, you know you've come across something special. To that end, Dishonored fits that description perfectly.
You play the role of Corvo Attano, a bodyguard to the Empress of Dunwall, a port city that is suffering from a debilitating plague. You are sent to other kingdoms to find a cure for the disease, but after months of searching, you find neither a cure nor any help. Facing the certainty that your will be quarantined from the rest of the world, you return to the kingdom with the dire news. Soon after you return, you are ambushed by assassins, witness the Empress' murder and see her daughter get kidnapped. You're framed for her murder and sentenced to death, but a rebellious force frees you from prison the night before your execution. With revenge in your heart and a cache of tools and powers, you set out to put things right again.
The story of revenge and redemption isn't bad, but gamers who appreciate a well-thought-out game world will marvel at Dishonored. Part of this fascination comes from the random items lying around the city. Like BioShock, there are plenty of audio logs, books and letters to flesh out the culture of Dunwall. Some are excerpts of plays while others deal with the religion and politics of the region. A few even deal with personal problems, giving you the sense of a lived-in world in spite of the dearth of citizens wandering the streets.
Set in an alternate world, Dunwall and its people are a mix of Victorian design with the traits of the Industrial Revolution. There are a few tall buildings that are mostly made of brick, and even though they don't bellowing anything, smokestacks and other indications of factories are present. Whale oil is the main source of energy in this world, and the signs of a fishing town that too quickly transformed into an industrial one are all around, with classic posters of bathhouses and hound fights mixed in with advertisements for whale oil taxes and elixirs for the plague. Signs of oppression sit alongside graffiti that serves as warnings and cries for help. Steel fortifications block quarantined areas, and strong slogans adorn public passageways and portable forts. Despite the presence of grime and filth, you'll hear normal conversations, such as guards planning a meet-up at the bar after the shift ends and people talking about the plague and spouting conspiracies about who's hoarding the elixir.
On paper, Dishonored is supposed to be a stealth title, though you'll quickly discover that stealth is just an option. The first thing you find after your escape are a sword and a loud but fairly accurate pistol. Should you choose to be loud, you can fight off the guards rather aptly. The pistol works as expected, and while you'll never have to learn sword combos, you can slash and block with your blade as well as engage in sword locks, where you can push them away for a free hit. Despite the mob mentality of the guards, it never becomes overwhelming. Thankfully, the game doesn't fall into the same trap as other stealth titles, where a limitless number of enemies start to pour out, so it's plausible to fight your way out of a situation.
Sneaking is pretty basic, with a lowered stance giving you a better chance of reaching someone undetected, though you'll have to rely on plain sight since there's no radar system. The shadows help, but common sense is required. Going under a low table, for example, won't help you if your target is far away enough to see you under there, especially if the surroundings aren't very dark. Sneaking up from behind, you can do the usual things like put someone to sleep or stab him for a quick kill before hiding the body. If you want to be even more of a pacifist, you can simply pickpocket those with money and keys without even touching them. Kills can also be initiated if you're on a perch above the target and you can distract enemies with thrown objects.
Things really open up once you reach the Hounds Pit pub, headquarters of the resistance, and meet The Outsider, a supernatural being who has taken an interest in you. You'll receive the Blink power, which lets you run faster than light to anything you see for a short distance. After that, runes allow you to purchase other supernatural abilities. Dark Vision lets you see through objects to view enemies and their vision cones, and it also visualizes how far sounds go. Windblast produces a wind strong enough to knock down enemies and break fragile objects. Bend Time slows down time so you can sneak around enemies or position yourself for a counter-attack. Devouring Swarm summons the plague rats to devour anyone standing in their way. Possession lets you inhabit the body of an animal for a short amount of time. There are also passive abilities, such as increased health and the ability to turn victims of a kill into ash. The abilities can be acquired at any time as long as you have the runes to pay for it, and they can be upgraded to another level, so you can do things like increase Blink range or possess humans to open doors and pass through electrified gates.
Your cache of weaponry also increases once you reach the pub. There's a crossbow that can be outfitted with a few different bolt types. Regular bolts can be used lethally or as a way to distract guards. Sleep bolts can knock out anyone while explosive bolts provide a decent area of damage when it hits. Grenades also do the same while the spring razor acts like a proximity mine, sending out shrapnel in every direction when it explodes. Not every item is a weapon, though. The Heart acts as a detector of relics and bone shards, which are good luck charms that equip a passive ability. Meanwhile, rewire tools are used to sabotage your enemies' electrical weaponry so that they're harmless against you and harmful to them instead.
With such a vast arsenal of gadgets and abilities at your command, you can tackle any section in any mission however you want, and the game ensures that you have multiple ways to handle every encounter. Going for a full-frontal assault on your way to the target, you can wreak havoc with your pistol and sword or use a crossbow when you run out of ammo. You can lure mobs into springjacks or toss explosive barrels of whale oil at them and watch them burn. You can push them into hordes of rats or send a group of your own rats to devour them. If you go for stealth, you can use Blink to go from ledge to ledge or sneak around to turn off electrified gates or rewire them to your advantage. You can possess a fish or rat to get into buildings through passages such as a shower or into an alleyway. You can dispose of bodies using the stray rat groups that wander the streets or you can lure your victims into other groups and watch them fight each other. There are numerous ways to handle each situation and no real way to fail aside from dying, allowing you the chance to mix things however you wish and have the gameplay adjust to your style instead of the other way around.
Each mission also comes with plenty of side missions that appear as optional tasks. Like the main missions, there are multiple approaches to them, and they make things easier in the current mission or beyond. Doing a favor for a crazy old lady, for example, gives you an opportunity to work for her rival. Doing a favor for that rival gives you a chance to have him take care of your target for you, letting you complete your objective and keep yourself from shedding blood. These benefits work in lieu of any XP, and while they artificially extend the campaign time, they're enjoyable so you'd feel cheated if you don't partake in most of them. They are essential if you want to get the best possible ending.
To ensure that the illusion of a living, breathing world is upheld, your approach to missions has consequences beyond the ending. Disabling the guards instead of killing them is a clean approach, but it means being more due to heightened patrols and fewer opportunities for body disposal. On the other hand, shedding more blood means the increased presence of vicious rat packs on the streets and weepers (zombies) blocking your path, making it difficult for you to walk around without getting bitten. These consequences are far better than outright failure for not adhering to one play style over another, and it gives an immediate sense of how your actions affect the world.
No game is flawless, and as good Dishonored is, there are a few questionable design decisions. While there are multiple ways to kill and knock out someone, you don't have many options when it comes to being discovered. You can use sleeping bolts, but once you've run out, there's nothing left for you to do but run away or kill. Without a knockout move at your disposal once discovered, your freedom is limited. Also, while you can have several tools at your disposal, your sword is always with you. This ensures that you have a means of defending yourself and attacking, but it also means not being able to equip a crossbow and a pistol simultaneously or replacing the sword with the grenade so you can use your Blink ability, forcing you to constantly juggle weapons and abilities.
It isn't that cumbersome to switch abilities, but the lack of arsenal customization, like the lack of a knockout melee attack, robs the player of some freedom. Then you have the various documents and texts. The tomes are interesting, and there are lots to peruse, but you'll start to see the same text appear throughout your missions, making each discovery of a book or letter less exciting. Finally, while the game offers you the chance to replay missions, it doesn't let you do so with abilities you've gained in later gameplay, and you can't start a new game with your newfound powers intact. Starting a new game with a new character is the only way to explore the levels with different abilities, and while it isn't terrible, it is annoying for those who want to see what a maxed-out Corvo can do in the beginning.
Graphically, the game has good art direction. As mentioned earlier, the mix of the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution make the setting unique. The plague-infested fishing town has a good excuse for the constantly dreary and gray atmosphere. The paintings in noble houses and the hodgepodge of posters and graffiti adorning walls merge well with the wanted posters and missing persons posters, which appear after a successful job and help the player feel like he's making progress. The design of the people, both living and dead, really plays into the art style vibe since they don't look too realistic. Some hands are rather large, some faces are longer than usual, and some eyes look small in their sockets, but style is emphasized above all else. Frame rate holds steady at 30 fps, and even though this is an Unreal Engine 3 game, the texture pop isn't as severe as it is in other titles — provided you do a disc installation. Even with a disc install, the game suffers from a few pauses here and there and some very low-resolution textures for posts and walls. With a majority of the textures being clean and legible, players will be satisfied with the visual aspects of the title.
The sound is held back by a few technical issues, namely the repetition of dialogue and the pops that occur during some spiritual sound effects. Other than that, this is a very solid audio experience. Every effect, from the clash of steel swords to the loud bang of the pistol, comes through clearly while the otherworldly effects give off just the right amount of mystical eeriness to make them fascinating no matter how many times you've heard it. The voice acting is great and there is some excellent dialogue. Interestingly, some famous celebrities lend their voices to the game, such as Susan Sarandon and Chloë Grace Moretz. The music is sparse, so it's quite impactful when it does play, really underscoring the atmosphere of a city in despair.
Even though some heavy-hitting games, both originals and sequels, are still coming out this year, Dishonored is a lead contender for Game of the Year. The atmosphere and story are enticing and intriguing, respectively, in a sea of games that sport the same environments over and over again. The near-limitless freedom that you have in the small environments makes the game compelling. Your approach to power-ups, the missions, and all of the associated sub-choices never leads the game to punish you. Only those who want a perfect stealth run without kills will want or need to reset the mission. With so many games bent on guiding you to play the way they want you to, having one that adheres to the same philosophy set forth by classics like Thief and Deus Ex is refreshing. Adventure and stealth fans should definitely have this title in their video game libraries.
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