One of my fondest gaming memories is playing Deus Ex for the first time. It was an absolute revelation to leave UNATCO HQ and be thrown into Hell's Kitchen in New York. There was so much to do, so much to find, and so many details that made it feel like I was exploring the actual city. I could approach a fight how I wanted, where I wanted, and when I wanted, and for that, I will love the game forever. The era of Thief and Deus Ex has passed, and while many newer games are great to play, few stand up to my nostalgic vision of that first trip into New York.
Dishonored takes place in the pseudo-Victorian steampunk city of Dunwall, which isn't a very nice place to live. A terrible plague is ravaging the city, turning the once-thriving metropolis into a slowly decaying hellhole of rats and corpses. Players control Corvo, the bodyguard to the empress who rules the city. He returns from a mission just in time to be caught in the middle of an assassination. The Empress is killed, her daughter is kidnapped, and Corvo is blamed for the murder and scheduled to be executed. A group of loyalists breaks Corvo out of the prison because it wants his help in assassinating the new rulers of the city and returning the kidnapped princess to the throne.
Dishonored's plot is solid, but the devil really is in the details. Much of the story is hidden in out-of-the way places. Audio tapes, books, conversations that you can eavesdrop on, and psychic mind-reading will reveal information that adds depth to the experience. You don't need to do any of that to understand the basic plot, but the underlying politics require some digging. It's possible to end up confused if you don't delve, as some characters' actions and motivations are not immediately clear.
Dishonored is a first-person stealth/action game. At no point are you pulled out of Corvo's shoes, even during cut scenes, and all of the gameplay takes place from his perspective. Combat is based on parrying and countering attacks; it isn't your first resort, but you're quite good at it. The R1 button swings your sword, and the R2 button blocks an enemy attack. If you manage to counter, the foe will be off-balance and susceptible to an instant-kill move. You can also play more aggressively, hacking at them and overwhelming their defenses. The L1 button uses your secondary weapons, which include crossbow (with tranquilizer and regular bolts), grenades and a pistol. Enemies have access to all of these same weapons, and since one or two bullets can kill you, you need to think about how you'll fight.
Corvo is a sneaky guy, so stealth is the name of the game. You can choose to "ghost" the game by never interacting with enemies or play more aggressively and remove everyone in your path. You hit the Circle button to enter a sneaking stance, and you have to be careful so as not to be seen by enemies. If you sneak up behind an enemy, you can pickpocket him, kill him or knock him out. Killing enemies is faster, but leaving behind a body can alert enemies to your presence.
Early in the game, you're visited by a mysterious figure known as The Outsider. For unknown reasons, he finds Corvo "interesting" and gifts him with supernatural powers. The first spell you get, Blink, is effectively teleportation, and it's one of the most enjoyable abilities in any video game. You can teleport a short distance and can go upward to reach higher points in the environment. This allows you to climb walls, cross gates, or teleport behind a foe and defeat him before he knows you're there. The coolest part is that it's almost "free." You have a mana bar, but it is pretty forgiving. Blink is one of the spells that have a very low mana cost, and as long as you don't cast another spell for a few seconds, it regenerates. You can take it slow and teleport from spot to spot or pull off a few quick teleports in succession.
You have a healthy dose of both passive and active spells in Dishonored. Dark Vision allows you to see enemies through walls in addition to their "cone of vision," so you'll know where an enemy is looking. Possession allows you to inhabit the bodies of dogs fish, rats and eventually people. You can only possess beings for a short period of time, but this allows you to pass through otherwise inaccessible areas. There's an ability that allows you to summon a swarm of rats to devour your foes (or their corpses), one that lets you slow or stop time, one that lets you double-jump in mid-air — the list goes on, and each has a distinctive purpose.
You can upgrade your magic by finding runes on which The Outsider has engraved his symbol. The runes can be spent to buy new magic or upgrade existing magic, but they're rare and magic is expensive, so you have to make careful decisions. Every spell and ability has two levels, but the difference between the two is dramatic. Time Stop at Level 1 allows you to slow time, but at Level 2, you can stop it entirely. You'll still be noticed by guards at Level 1, but you can breeze through at Level 2. However, it costs eight runes to upgrade from Level 1 to Level 2 — and that's enough to buy many other spells.
In addition to runes, you can also find a variety of bone charms, which are equippable items that offer passive boosts ranging from the simple (increased sword speed) to the more complex (drinking water regenerates mana, certain kinds of items spawn more regularly). You can equip and unequip bone charms at will, but you can only have a certain amount equipped at a time. It's possible to game the system somewhat, such as omitting the regenerate-mana-with-water rune until you're in front of a sink.
The most amazing thing about Dishonored is the amount of freedom you have. Almost every situation has multiple paths that are dictated by the player. This may sound like marketing hype, but it's true. There isn't a single "correct path" through a situation. Depending on your powers, equipment and play style, you'll find countless ways through the game. When attempting to break into a building, you can use Blink to get up to the rooftops and break a skylight. You can break a weak wooden door with a grenade or a spell. You can possess a fish in a nearby lake and sneak into the kitchen via a drainpipe. You can pickpocket a guard and use his key to sneak inside. You can climb in through an open window. You can bust open the front door and slaughter everything in your path. You can wait until a guard opens a door, stop time, and rush in before time restarts.
These are actual examples of how I handled one situation, and these possibilities were just the ones I'd discovered and were available given my leveled-up abilities. Almost every time you have to do something, there are countless options available to you. Most importantly, they all feel natural and well implemented.
Aside from a brief linear tutorial area at the start of the game, you're never forced down one path or shoehorned into one solution. You don't have to fight. The game avoids the oh-so-common trap of devolving into a corridor shooter near the end. You can end the game with a dramatic swordfight and a violent execution or by peacefully sneaking away.
It's even possible to finish the game without killing a single person. You hear that a lot from games, but unlike Metal Gear, where a nonlethal kill means "use a tranquillizer dart instead of a regular gun," Dishonored approaches things differently. You can use sleeping darts on regular enemies, but if you want to permanently neutralize your assassination targets without killing them, you must dishonor them or find a way to get them permanently removed from the city. This takes a lot more effort than shooting them in the face, but it's a trade-off, as killing people has an impact. Rats and infected "weepers" become more common as you murder more, and the ending depends on how cruel or kind you've been. You can rush through the game in a few hours by ignoring side-quests and murdering everyone, but be prepared for consequences later.
You don't want to rush through the game, either, as there is a mind-boggling amount of stuff to see. If you poke around enough, every room, building and person has secrets. The small details make it feel like a living, breathing world. You can enter an apartment and find a testament to the lives of the people who live (or lived) there. Going off the beaten path can yield hidden vaults of treasure or readable books that flesh out the history and culture of Dunwall. A huge amount of this is optional. You can spend hours searching sections of the world and still have new things to find. Sometimes, there's no reward at all, but even this adds some personality.
A very nice feature of Dishonored is that the difficulty is customizable, and the game allows you to play however you want. For example, every objective is marked on the map, including hidden runes and special secrets. You can disable the HUD markers if you wish, and if you do, you can use the heart as a hot-or-cold beacon, since it pulses and twitches as you get closer to a secret.
Likewise, you can pick a combination of abilities and succeed, including picking no abilities at all. There are trophies for finishing the title without using supernatural powers, and the game is designed to be just as fun to play as a regular person as it is as a superpowered whirling dervish of death. The title can be extremely easy or surprisingly challenging, depending on how you choose to play. Unlike many games, this isn't a handicap but a legitimately different style of gameplay.
There's not a lot of negative to say about Dishonored. I had a few glitches that required me to reload from a previous save, but they were few and far between. Perhaps most importantly, they occurred when I was doing something crazy. As long as you keep a few saves, it should not be an issue. I wish the game had more reactions to your lethal or nonlethal antics. There are a number of in-game quotes that are clearly written to work for either path, and that's disappointing. On the other hand, it's extremely cool when the game recognizes that you've been dishonoring people instead of killing them.
The visuals in Dishonored are stylized but a bit weak in places. The character models look odd, and some of the animations are pretty lackluster. There's a lot of similarity to BioShock in the visual style, and just as in BioShock, the absolutely phenomenal art design overshadows the awkwardness. The city of Dunwall is a breathtaking place to explore. There is so much detail, effort and work in making it feel like a location instead of a video game level. They are a number of little touches that help things stand out. The characters in Dishonored clearly have their own sense of fashion. It takes some time to notice, but there's effort expended on making sure that the clothing makes sense for the characters. Everything from posters on the wall to the decaying state of the city makes it easy to immerse yourself in Dunwall. The voice acting is a little weak in places, but it's quite good and does a good job of bringing you into the world. The protagonist is mute, but this doesn't feel out of place. The game does a good job of not drawing attention to it, and it feels natural and well implemented.
Dishonored is an easy contender for the best game of the year. It does so much right that it's easy to overlook its few flaws and weaknesses. The level of freedom and detail is absolutely staggering. There are few games that just point you at a target and tell you to get 'em. The world may be smaller than your Skyrims and Fallouts, but it's in no way less free. The gameplay is top-notch, offering fun combat and even more enjoyable stealth. Dishonored is a must-play game. It doesn't matter if you enjoy violent combat, tense stealth or superpowered magic-slinging. You'll find something to enjoy here.
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