Review: Dishonored (PS3/X360/PC)

[Editor’s Note: We don’t normally cover “triple-A” mainstream games here at Games Are Evil — see our manifesto for why — but Tristan had some interesting thoughts to share on Dishonored now that the initial hype flurry has died down a little.]

I hadn’t originally planned to pick up Dishonored; well, not on launch day, at least. I’d locked myself in a hype-proof chamber – disregarding trailers, preview articles, all but the odd screenshot really. Then the reviews hit: laden with praise and the kind of lofty language that nullifies any chance of second thoughts. My wallet equipped, my credit card drawn: the purchase was all but assured.

First impressions weren’t positive.

Don’t get me wrong; at all times, the visuals amaze with their technical proficiency and hiccups are few and far between (seriously, a handful of instances of screen tearing – that’s it!). It’s just that Dishonored’s art style – which blends Wellian, Orwellian, Art Deco and Victorian influences – takes a while to go from dreary to spiritual successor to BioShock. The first two missions may be wrought with the same brand of tension and grim violence that characterised my experience throughout, but I was dying for some semblance of hope. Dunwall seems doomed before the hero Corvo’s quest even begins; and it’s hard to want to fight for a lost cause.

All I can urge you to do, however, is stick with it. Once you’ve eliminated your first target, the setting comes alive with warmth, colour and extravagance.  The dread is still there, but the palette is expanded once you enter a whorehouse – no pun intended.

The Power is Yours!

Combat is a wee bit shallow, and in my opinion, best avoided; but for those of you who have the need to clash steel and bring death, Dishonored has you covered. Shoulder buttons are used to control the action with the sword always equipped in the right hand (and thus, controlled with right shoulder buttons), and a limited, though upgradeable arsenal of a pistol, crossbow and an assortment of thrown weapons assigned to the left.  Blocking your opponents’ sword strikes often leaves them open to vicious counters; though any turtles will be compelled to action when your foes reach for their projectile weapons. It works just fine, with Corvo’s unlockable abilities having obvious strategic implications as you progress, but I found that I had much more fun when nobody knew I was there.

The Outsider gifts you with a clutch of powers that can be applied to combat, stealth and exploration. My favourite, Blink, is the backbone of stealth and exploration, allowing players to dash and climb across the Dunwall cityscape. Even starting my second playthrough, I couldn’t ignore the urge to upgrade the default power before accessing anything else. In terms of physics, Blink doesn’t allow you to teleport, it’s more of a charge – as you can’t push through solid matter (that includes enemies). Practically speaking, however, Blink helps you to duck between sources of cover, reach collectable items, and approach enemies for a quick kill. The ability complements the intuitive climbing controls, and makes movement in Dishonored a real joy.

Other powers and passive abilities may not be as practical as Blink, but they’re still well worth employing. Bend Time can slow and eventually stop proceedings, and proves to be a near-necessary companion to Blink for those wanting to stay undetected – particularly in the later stages. Nothing beats the giddy thrill of possessing a rat to sneak into a drain and evade pursuers, while Dark Vision allows for a nod to Metal Gear Solid that reveals your enemies’ line of sight and item locations. Wind Blast allows you to throw enemies forward – perhaps off a ledge or into hazards – with a powerful gust. Devouring Swarm (power) and Shadow Kill (passive) help with the disposal of enemy bodies, although the former does so in far more gruesome and dramatic fashion. Other passive abilities give buffs to health, movement and improve the likelihood of triggering brutal melee kills. What struck me is that after one playthrough, I’d barely scratched the surface. A quick YouTube search will show you that I’m not being nearly creative enough with the talents Corvo can learn throughout the adventure.

The Mechanics of Murder (or Mercy)

There’s a startling amount of freedom in Dishonored’s level design. There may be choke points that force you to engage with enemies and sentries, but know that not one man or woman need die by your hand – although in some cases, you’d think death the more merciful option.

Exploration is encouraged and is honestly where most of the enjoyment is found. Overhearing conversations can open up different approaches to your target, experimenting with Blink can lead to routes that allow for enemies to be avoided, saving the citizenry from corrupt police can offer access to untold riches; the possibilities are bountiful for those prepared to stop and listen to Dunwall’s heartbeat (hint).  If you want to collect all the Runes and Bone Charms on offer, then more often than not you’re going to have to indulge in some danger; but know that it’s possible to navigate almost any situation with liberal use of Blink and a bit of luck.

Approaching some scenarios for a second time has brought some extra gold and, in some cases, revealed some shortcuts that would’ve not only cut down the length of some missions, but also allowed for me to encounter less resistance. Even as the government forces make use of more fearsome weaponry, upgrades to your Mask Optics can expose paths and methods to nullify the apparent threat. You may have heard of some ploughing through the game’s nine missions in less than six hours, but those poor sods are missing out on an intoxicating mix of stealth, violence, art and discovery.

What are you?

The protagonist is the most obvious weakness in Arkane Studio’s finely crafted suit of video game armor.  Not to say he’s unlikeable, he’s just not really there. You don’t really get a sense of how Corvo feels about anything. Compared to a lead like Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution – someone who happily and candidly explored his feelings about his situation and methods he’s utilized across the narrative — Corvo seems like a hollow, complicit doll. He never protests, never expresses anger or remorse: he just does what he’s told.

I feel as though Corvo has a lot to comment on, and his silence is deafening. How can we interpret the hero’s decision between either bribing or torturing an informant when he offers no clarification after the fact? Was he merely feeling merciful on the day? What of a decision to kill with poison or damn to exile? Did he choose to kill because the latter involved too much effort? We’ll never know. We can, however, once again draw a parallel to BioShock: choice here is essentially limited to how many lives a player wants to take. In the case of Dishonored though, there’s no allusion to mind control or behaviour-triggering phrases being uttered by an omnipotent few: ask the man to take someone out and he’ll comply, no questions asked. Corvo’s suggestible nature reduces the supporting casts to functional roles with few exceptions. You have quest givers, expository babblers and enemies – that’s about it.

So… tell me what to do!

Buy this game. The writing may be weak, but the world is full of beauty and thematic potential. More than that, it’s great fun to play. I could go on about the audio cues and the sparingly-used, though powerful score or the breadth of depravity unleashed in my high chaos playthough, but I want you to have some surprises in your time with this game.

Dishonored is available in brick-and-mortar stores the world over on the following platforms: PlayStation 3 (tested), Xbox 360 and PC. Those of you from the Master Race may be interested in picking the game up via Green Man Gaming, as they currently have a 20% off voucher promotion running until Friday 26 October which can be applied to this relatively new release.

Undoubtedly a “Game of the Year” contender, Dishonored will dazzle you with its extravagant visual direction and mission design. There have been more moving stories conveyed in video games this year, but few can claim to offer the level of freedom and wonder you’ll find in this effort. Highly recommended.

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