Sometimes, a game comes along that just blows your socks off. Dishonored is one such game.
I guess you probably know the background by now, as there’s been plenty of publicity. You play Corvo, the discredited bodyguard and newly-appointed assassin who is trying to fix the ills of the surreal town of Dunwall by getting rid of a series of political villains. It’s a first-person stealth action game that feels like Bioshock, Half-Life 2, Assassins Creed and Hitman all rolled into one.
And that’s a very, very good thing.
It doesn’t take long to realise that things are different in Dunwall than in your standard fantasy action game. Sure, there are swords, but there are also pistols, grenades, factories and, well, a thriving whaling industry. Characters look like they’ve been plucked from Gangs of New York and then Steampunked up a bit. The setting defies logic, and has a certain dreamlike quality that sets it apart (although as I mentioned it leaves a lingering taste of Bioshock). Yes, you’re an assassin and yes, you wear a scary mask, but you’re given plenty of opportunity to explore your own morality. Environments are set up in such a way that there are tons of fascinating, entertaining and ingenious ways for you to kill pretty much anyone, from turning their own lightning turrets against them to summoning a plague of rats to devour them, and billions of amazing combinations of powers and environmental factors to achieve unique results. But wait! Picture the scene. You’re lurking in the shadows of an old house and you overhear a guard chatting with the housemaid. They drop a few tidbits of interesting information, and you’re just deciding whether to use the pistol or grenades on the guard when he says to the maid “I hope it’s not going to be like this when we’re married”. Can you really kill him now? He has big plans, and he’s just a guard!
Your usual enemies might turn out to be less evil than you’d think, and the good guys might turn out to have human failings. It’s how you process it all that stays with you after you finish playing. The city of Dunwall, with its futuristic architecture unashamedly juxtaposed with crumbling grotesque, has a life of its own. There are always more than one way to reach any given target, but this isn’t just a game mechanic – it’s a metaphor. Climb across the rooftops and you may find your way into the plush drawing rooms of wealthy whale oil barons. Scurry through the lower levels of the city in the body of a possessed rat, however, and you’ll see a very different city – the Weepers, those retching, bleeding victims of the plague that grips the city, slowly dying in filth-strewn alleys beneath the disinterested feet of the guardsmen in the city above. Despite this multiplicity of pathways, the city fits together in a mostly-believable way, jarring contrasts only appearing intentionally.
So you’re basically a killer Batman. But you’re lucky enough to have caught the attention of a god, who kindly gifts you with a choice of upgradeable powers. How you select these powers largely dictates the style of game you’re looking to play. The first power you’re given, Blink, is certainly one of the most useful, allowing you to make short-range teleports around the game area. This, coupled with your considerable natural agility (which is in itself upgradeable), allows for very fluid mantling and three-dimensional movement through the game. Other than a slightly simplistic hand-to-hand system, the Dishonored controls feel intuitive and responsive.
You don’t actually have to kill everyone. In fact, you don’t actually have to kill anyone. There is always an alternative to killing even your assassination targets, although in most cases they’ll wish you had killed them – the alternatives are invariably horrible. Keeping the body count to a minimum means less chaos in the city, which will mean fewer guards, rats and infected later on. So you’re rewarded for playing in a non-murderous way. So, this is the way to play the game, right? Well, the thing is, there are so many amazing ways to actually go down the bloody path that you’re rewarded just as much for that as well, if not more so by the variety of weapons, traps, staged ‘accidents’ and weird combos that can be used to take out your foes.
The story is weird but strong, and everything seems to have been placed for a reason. There’s an air of desperation that goes as deep as individual rooms – another game might just have a little treasure stash for you to find: Dishonored might have you clearing coins off a table and ammo from the bodies of two gamblers who have killed each other over accusations of cheating. We’ve all seen games where everyone seems to write the combinations for their safes down for you to find, but in Dishonored you may just learn from someone’s diary the date that they hold the most dear – it’s up to you to work out that this might be the combination to the safe. There is a level of freedom given to the player that is linked with an expectation that this freedom will breed inspiration, and it does.
Graphically, Dishonored is unlike anything else. Stylised yet hyper-real, with a comic book feel that is balanced with a grim seriousness and a pervading feeling of oppression, the whole thing is delivered in a strange kind of brushed art style that makes every scene look hand-drawn. Get too close up to the walls and this magic fades a little and blockiness occurs, but it’s a novel and beautiful approach that makes the most of a somewhat ageing engine.
There is a lot of game here. It’s impossible you’ll find everything on your first playthrough, so it’s a game that rewards exploration and replay. The modest minimum system requirements open this game up to most, but you’ll need a fairly good machine to run this on high or ultra settings. Fortunately, the year old Chillaxe was easily man enough for the job, so if you’ve kept your gaming rig up to date, there’s a lot of eye-candy to enjoy.
Sequels? Definitely. Dishonored feels like the introduction of a whole world, with more stories to tell. I for one will be there to enjoy all this new world has to offer.