Although it may be a little unusual, I need to start this review off with an apology to Bethesda. I’ve often said that, despite the time I’ve spent playing their games, that I wasn’t the biggest fan, that their combat & character interaction just didn’t work for me, whether it was in Elder Scrolls IV – Oblivion or Fallout 3 (I still haven’t played Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim because I know what a time-suck it would turn into). Dishonored, on the other hand, took all of my complaints, stuck them in a little box and shipped them to Abu Dhabi. To be accurate, Bethesda Softworks was the publisher; Arkane Studios developed Dishonored, but still. I hope Bethesda farms the crap out of the awesome resource they’ve got in Arkane (not leastwise because Arkane knows how to do swordplay.)
I got to play Dishonored during the best time of the year for gaming for me – Christmas. Although I hadn’t originally intended to take time off, I got almost an uninterrupted week-and-a-half of much needed relaxation. That said, my gaming schedule normally doesn’t change as radically as it did when I was playing Dishonored – whether I have time off or I’m playing during the week after work, the Xbox has normally turned from a gaming system to a media player by no later than 8pm – I’m just not a nighttime gamer. Dishonored took that schedule, choked it out and left it in a dumpster, as I found myself playing to the wee hours of the morning on several occasions. For perspective, the last game that caused that kind of shift was Mass Effect 2.
Dishonored, taking a page from some of my favorite movies (Sin City, Payback), puts you in the role of a man who’s been double-crossed and has very little left to lose…and a lot of revenge to dish out. The game evolves as you track down the parties responsible for your downfall and the assassination of the empress, rescue Princess Emily, gain mystical powers and upgrade your weapons and equipment. The storyline, which has moments of comic relief as well as some with dramatic weight, is enjoyable – the chattering between what struck me as stand ins for Tesla and Edison was a particularly funny late-game treat.
Your first and most used power comes courtesy of The Outsider, a shadowy character inhabiting a realm not unlike the darkness levels found in Shadows of the Damned or the inbetween world of Darksiders. Brad Dourif’s creepy-as-hell voicework gives you the hint that maybe not everything’s above board with The Outsider, but he’s got plenty of company in Dunwall. I was never really sure where The Outsider fell on the good/evil spectrum; it was more as if he were some alien entity giving me incredible powers with no instruction, just to see what would happen. Your powers expand greatly throughout the game – depending on how you spend the runes you collect, you might see through walls, slow and eventually stop time, summon swarms of rats or possess animals and even people. I played a pretty straightforward sneak-and-subdue route, but there’s one achievement in the game that I’m going to have to get: allow an enemy to fire at you, freeze time, possess them, walk them into the bullet’s path, and release them. Sick, twisted and hilarious.
Tracking down the runes more-or-less required the use of The Heart, a creepy biomechanical gadget that makes finding these artifacts almost too easy. I write that with the important caveat that not having the heart would have made the search feathers-and-penants-in-Assassin’s Creed II-obnoxious, but it was still kind of a bummer that if I cleared an area out, all I had to do was wander until the range-finder said zero.
The Rat King
It didn’t take me long to figure out that I wasn’t going to be able to unlock/upgrade all of the powers in one playthrough, but that’s fine – this is not a game that particularly rewards the “middle way;” using plagues of rats to devour corpses or attack enemies isn’t terribly useful when you’re trying to go the non-lethal route. I didn’t quite make it through without taking life, but I kept the chaos level pretty low; I’m tempted to go a little nuts just to see if Samuel, your steadfast companion, changes his opinion of me.
Mechanically, Dishonored is a first-person stealth-action-adventure game with some platforming and item hunting elements built in. The controls are solid but your movements have an organic feel; unless you’re using Blink, for the most part if a fairly normal person couldn’t do it (or survive it) Corvo won’t, either. Your projectile weapons (a crossbow with varied ammunition and a pistol) are solid, if secondary performers; I stuck with the crossbow’s tranquilizer darts a lot, although I will admit to getting out of more than one jam by unloading the fully-upgraded pistol into a swarm of enemies at close range. Also on that note: upgrade your mask’s optics ASAP.
In my first playthrough, I took a mostly non-lethal route (I played on “Hard” difficulty. I died or loaded save games a lot). I didn’t kill a single target, although I’m sure a couple of those whom I took my revenge upon wished that I had. I spent a lot of time sneaking and using the handy Dark Vision mode that let me see where my enemies were and what they were looking at, even through walls. Between my Dark Vision and the slick interface that shows you when your Blink would let you climb onto structures to hide, I found myself really enjoying the sneaking, which is not normally one of my favorite parts of a game. However, when I did decide to go lethal, it was a decision I made gleefully. The sword combat system is based on parrying and works well, particularly when you mix it up with your Bend Time power, circle around your opponent faster than he can react and cut his throat with your dagger, shoot them in the face with your upgraded pistol or drop from absurd heights to assassinate them, leaving only a pile of ash to blow away when your Shadow Kill power is active. (On that note: Tall Boys, enemy soldiers in heavy armor and walking on stilts like some clockwork version of Half-Life 2 Striders, are rotten bastards and are best avoided or killed from above).
So, I mentioned how I died a lot, which brings me to my second critical point: It’s strange how something as small as the save mechanism can make a huge difference in the play experience. As a game where your decisions make big impacts should, Dishonored lets you save wherever you want, which is great. I saved a lot. On the other hand, as a game where your decisions make big impacts shouldn’t, Dishonored’s save-and-load times were on the long side. They’d have been less objectionable, probably even perfectly acceptable in another game, but when you either die or get noticed and want to try ninja-ing it again as often as I did in Dishonored on the hard difficulty setting, you spend a lot of time staring at that save/load screen. The same save/load screen that gives you the ProTip! to save a lot. I don’t know what the fix for this is, but on an Xbox with the game installed, the save/load mechanism could have used some help (if that’s possible. If it’s not, I take it back.)
I’ve been leading up to this moment. Right here. Where I tell you how super. effing. cool. the art style is. It’s not just the stylized faces of Dunwall’s populace or the slightly off-kilter brick buildings crumbling with decay, like gravity has gone on a bender, it’s not even the light/shadow interplay that’s critical to staying hidden – it’s that it’s all packed into one game. Dishonored isn’t hyper-real like Far Cry 3, but it doesn’t need to be. The way the world is rendered, particularly when you run across the infected in a sewer tunnel, oozes a combination of Lovecraftian spookiness. Add in the odd whale-oil based economy, graffiti and overheard conversations (which both get repetitive after a while) and the storyline and gameplay action are mated perfectly with the environment. The voicework, which featured Lena Heady, the aforementioned Brad Dourif as well as Susan Sarandon and Michael Madsen, is solid, although Sarandon seemed wasted in her odd role as Granny Rags. Despite the big-name voices, what stood out to me was the ambient noise. I don’t know that you can actually hear clothes shifting, but the fade-in and out of movement around you is excellent…and critical for moving around the world undetected.
In addition to the great ambient noise and art style, my decision to play as mostly non-lethal wasn’t a conscious “This is how I’m going to play the game” decision – it was much more natural than that. Although I was peripherally aware of the chaos rating, Dishonored does a great job of getting you immersed into the world of Dunwall despite featuring a silent protagonist. I/Corvo had been Lord Protector of the realm; most of the guards wandering the city were normal guys doing their 9-5 and, I’m guessing, used to be under Corvo’s command. I can’t say whether it was the grumbling that you overhear, their day-to-day concerns that they discuss or their reactions when you kill one of their fellow officers, there was something about the way that the game played and the world presented itself that made me reluctant to go on a cop-killing spree. I’m guessing there are plenty of other routes to take Lord Corvo, but the initial interaction between Corvo and Princess Emily told me he wasn’t the kind of guy to smoke a bunch of loyal grunts just because they were chasing after him. It’s a rare game that gets that second level of emotional resonance – where you think about what your character would do if it were real, and that Arkane did it with a silent protagonist is something special.
Unfortunately, there was one serious stumble by Dishonored, which is serious because I really enjoyed the time I spent trying to right the wrongs in Dunwall: there’s no New Game+. This is a big ding for me – although I mentioned earlier that there’s no loss in not being able to upgrade all of your powers in one playthrough, it would have made a second playthrough much more enjoyable if you could go into it with your upgraded boots, weapons, Blink, etc. I’ve written about it before and my opinion hasn’t changed – if you don’t have a New Game+ mode in a game where there’s progression, you’re wrong. If you turn out a game as great as Dishonored and you don’t have New Game+, you’re wronger.
The lack of New Game+ aside, though, is just minor detractors from a game that is well put together, fun to play, provides different avenues to problem solving for different play styles and utilized a visual style that blew me away. Dishonored was a fantastic game that kept me up well past my bedtime, hiding in the shadows, plotting my revenge.
In addition to the review score, Horrible Night also provides a value score based upon price and content of the game at the time of publishing the review:
Value Score: 3.5/5 – Dishonored was a huge amount of fun to play and gave me (a moderate-paced player) a solid 20+ hours of (semi-OCD) gaming. Add in the lethal/non-lethal approaches and their effect on the world around you and it’s got some decent, but not great, replayability. In addition, at the time of publishing, DLC was available including several new missions; the promise of DLC boosts a game’s value score. However, the lack of a New Game+ mode at the full-retail purchase price of ~$60 is a moderate-sized bummer, which drug its score down. Still, don’t let the moderate value score detract from a truly great gaming experience.