The lights are on
Too many games today are content with the idea of funneling you down a corridor giving you a series of opposing heads to dispose of or blatantly point out that there is only one way to get from point A to point B. Try any other option and the results you will most likely get is complete and utter failure which in turn can lead to frustration with nothing to show for your troubles. While these design principles aren't inherently bad, they have certainly been used more frequently then they should be and these common elements tend to get stale after playing many games that use them as a crutch over the course of 12-25 hour sessions (less if you count many military shooters). Dishonored is nothing like those games at all. It draws inspiration from classic titles such as Thief and Deus Ex, games that allowed the player to figure out their own solutions about how to solve the problems that were presented and provided many different outcomes for their own contrived solutions. Like those games, Dishonored gives the player enough tools to come up with multiple creative ways that allows them to decide how the different scenarios play out. Do you murder everyone in sight or only your target? What about finding ways to bypass your enemies without taking lethal action, even to the point of eliminating your targets through non-lethal means? Dishonored offers you those similar options and more and you'll be hard pressed to find anything else like it in the contemporary game space.
Welcome to Dunwall. Come and stay awhile, why don't you?
The game takes place in the city of Dunwall, a Victorian-inspired setting that relies on whale oil to power most of its inventions and is going through a time of severe plague, civil unrest and corruption. It is brilliantly conveyed throughout the game that this is a place of gloom and despair and yet it pulls you in with looming, ominous buildings and mood setting weather effects. Each level provides a visual treat as no two levels look the same (even the one level you have to revisit at the beginning of the game) as the environments range from cloudy to sunny and most everything in between. This isn't the most graphically impressive game, but what it lacks in graphical fidelity, it more than makes up for it in its aesthetic appeal. A beautiful contrast in colors within the scenery and architectural designs that are reminiscent of 19th century London, yet create their own fascinating and dark allure that distills a foreboding uneasiness while oddly enough, instilling a vague sense of hope that permeates throughout the experience. The use of exaggerated character models that, surprisingly enough, fit into this sadistic and cruel world help bring it to life despite their cartoonish appearances.
The Boyle's dinner party is one of the most exciting parts of the game.
The level design is also top notch. Exploring the world of Dishonored not only reveals more about it, much like the Bioshock games, but it also clearly shows the options available to you as you play.Many guards and citizens will impart clues about places and things that can be used to help you in your quest for vengeance such as a conversation that reveals that there are old underground passages or a note detailing the whereabouts of a prisoner that can aid you should you choose to free him. The game also shows many details that help illustrate any number of possible solutions without being overtly obvious (no glowing breadcrumb trails here). More often than not, if you can think of a solution it should be able to work with the right execution. Even on my first playthrough, I was already finding new ways to get to my goals and constantly taking note of my surroundings in the hope of trying them out on a different playthrough. Most importantly, there is no wrong way to play Dishonored. It's flexibility to allow the player to do whatever they want to take out their targets and progress through the game is downright genius. Stealth is generally advised and is never a bad strategy, but it isn't instantaneous death to go in guns blazing and slashing wildly at your foes like in other stealth based games (though you may want to save that for an easy run through).
Getting the high ground always has its advantages for stealth and action players.
But it wouldn't be that much fun to wander the streets of Dunwall without any story or context and Dishonored certainly keeps you engaged. By finding notes and books around the environments, you can find out more about its twisted world. It is fascinating to find out more about what lies at the heart of Dunwall's culture and pulls you into the experience by peeling back the layers of this troubled city.
Less can be said of the main plot and characters. A revenge story laden with conspiracy is not a bad premise, but Dishonored doesn't do enough with its characters (aside of what you have to dig up in the games reading materials) to garner any hatred or affection for anyone in particular. Everything that happens is more to help move the story along, instead of getting you invested in the characters or their plight. It also doesn't help itself in that most of the voice actors, besides Susan Sarandon (of Thelma and Louise fame), Chloe Grace Moretz (of Kick-Ass fame) and John Slattery (of Mad Men fame), create a rather dull and unenthusiastic performance that doesn't do enough to flesh out the characters or the circumstances surrounding them and fails to make anyone very appealing. Even your main character, Corvo Attano, has little interaction with the characters outside of a few rudimentary dialogue choices that have no impact on the experience, despite the fact that Corvo is integral to the main plot. He is a walking contradiction as he acts as the avatar for the player's actions without providing any meaningful interaction (unlike Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series) and yet is an acknowledged character with a supposed identity and personality that is never explored or given a life of its own. It's almost like the developers couldn't decide between making a completely silent protagonist or create a main character for the player to identify with and drive the story forward to keep them intrigued (I really wish they had gone with the latter). The only exception to these flat and practically one dimensional characters is the Outsider as he adds a layer of mystery and magic to a world that is (for the most part) grounded and more focused on its political schemes. By the end of the game, you'll be wondering more about his role in the narrative and the nature of his existence. It is the most fascinating part of the game and something I hope is explored in greater depth if Arkane Studios decides to make a sequel. Despite the fascinating ways the Outsider interacts with the narrative, the other mentioned flaws with the story and the way it's told keep it from reaching the same heights of something along the lines of Uncharted or Half-Life in its storytelling yet it is still satisfying and interesting enough to keep you through till the end.
The Outsider is as cryptic as he is creepy.
Luckily, where Dishonored really shines is in its gameplay. I previously mentioned that there are many different options in how to tackle your objectives, but it is the tools that the game gives you that make it so exciting to explore the different options. By unlocking a set of magical powers that allow you to do things like teleport at the speed of light or see enemies locations through walls and acquiring unique weapons that range from the deadly (a mine that launches razor sharp strings in every direction) to the merciful (a crossbow that can launch sleeping darts) you are never hurting for options as you take down anyone who gets in your way. Choking guards from behind, stabbing them in the back, sneaking around them or facing them head on, your choices are varied and how you approach any situation is what makes it so engaging. However the game will keep track of you actions and will give you a high or low chaos rating at the end of every level. Chaos is measured by how much attention you attract from your enemies and how many people you kill (or don't kill). At the end of the game, you are given one of two possible endings based on your level of chaos. This system is fairly forgiving as you can easily get low chaos so long as you choose the non-lethal ways to take out your main targets, remain as stealthy as possible and keep the killing of enemy characters to a minimum. My only complaint with the gameplay is that there are more options for lethal or high chaos play than the alternative. Many powers and weapons don't really have any non-lethal uses and makes the decision to do a non-lethal playthrough all the more difficult. In addition, it doesn't communicate to the player very well what decisions count as affecting your chaos score to make it higher or lower. Many times I got a higher chaos rating because a knocked out guard's body I hid had somehow managed to find its way into shallow water where he eventually drowned.
Combining your powers, weapons and things in the environment is the gameplay crux of Dishonored's appeal.
Despite these minor grievances, Dishonored is a game that puts choice back into the hands of the gamer and not in a way that is strictly good or evil. It gives a sense of freedom and wonderment to not only explore this fascinating and disturbing world, but to do so in any way the player chooses. One time through the game is relatively short, but I can practically guarantee that you will be back a second, if not a third time just to see how any given level can play out with a new decision. It is a refreshing take on an underused genre in a market saturated with games that point you down a corridor and say shoot. It feels good to be back in control of the game.