What do you get when you combine the gameplay freedom of an open-world RPG with a more linear adventure complete with a decent story, gripping atmosphere, and fantastic character performances? Answer— One of my favorite games of the generation thus far. Developer Arkane Studios has successfully tapped into my psyche, extracted the majority of elements I typically want to see in a game, and created Dishonored. It isn’t perfect but it’s damn close. I want a bit more focus on the narrative and the AI isn’t perfect but besides that…
It’s odd to say about such a great-looking game, but given the nearly unparalleled excellence found in the rest of this production, it’s accurate to say the graphics are actually the “weakest” part of the game. They’ve got that flat sheerness I so often associate with a PC-oriented environment, which means less vibrant color and bright hues. Still, the atmosphere is just so amazing, so beautifully depicted, and so immersive, and every aspect of the presentation, from the animations to the effects, is superbly done. The city of Dunwall is ripe for exploration and more visual variety and quality waits around every corner.
Led by some of the best voice acting you’ve ever heard and a fitting, sometimes haunting, soundtrack, the audio brings your quest for revenge to another level. The balance can be off at times, but the top-notch performances and ambient sounds – which continually add to the immersion factor – override any minor technical misgiving. You’ll hear snippets of conversation as you wander about, and everything from the most trivial discussion to the shocked cry of a guard upon discovering your presence is phenomenal. It’s the combination of every sound, voice, and effect that encapsulates you and transports to you to another world.
Dishonored’s tagline is, “Revenge solves everything.” That should give you an idea of what to expect; essentially, there are a whole lot of people who deserve their comeuppance. And considering that the city of Dunwall isn’t exactly the friendliest (or healthiest) place in the world, you have ample reason to embark on a quest of retribution. The town itself is large but it’s nowhere near as large as Bethesda’s open-world RPGs like The Elder Scrolls or Fallout. This admittedly cuts down on that majestic, epic scale we’re so used to seeing, but I appreciate the nod to a pretty solid storyline and quite a few interesting characters.
The citizens of Dunwall suffer from a deadly plague while the privileged few sit in the lap of luxury. Unsurprisingly, many of your targets fall into the latter category, and the best part is that you get to figure out exactly how you want to accomplish your vengeful tasks. Ways to eliminate targets range from the brutally straightforward to borderline impish methods of stealthy assault. Using rats is always fun, for example. The bottom line is that it’s always up to you; the choices are many and you’re almost never limited or restricted in any way. And through it all runs that aforementioned narrative, which adds flavor and personality.
You will step into the “dishonored” shoes of Corvo Attano, a former royal bodyguard who starts the game sitting on death row. When you learn more about your situation, you’re likely to respond with, “Okay, that’s it…these fu***** are gonna die hardcore.” But maybe you want to rise above; maybe you opt to take a higher road. And if you don’t wish to become just like the rest of the animals who seem to have control over the city, you can adopt nonlethal methods of completing your goal. That sorta runs counter to the whole prospect of “revenge” but hey, it’s a challenge and one well worth attempting if you’ve got the requisite patience.
You will come across a few helpful allies in your quest, and you should always listen to what they have to say. In fact, you should listen to what many people have to say, and that includes strangers on the street. Doing so could clue you into secrets of the city of which you were formally unaware, or might give you insight as to the patterns and behavior of the guards. You might also stumble across information pertaining to some mysterious items or equipment, so it’s typically in your best interests to eavesdrop. On top of which, just because the game isn’t the size of Skyrim doesn’t mean exploration has disappeared. Oh, quite the contrary. You just can’t go as far, that's all.
Personally, I really love getting super powerful in my games and having a totally unfair advantage over my hapless adversaries. Therefore, I will not harp on the erratic AI found in the game, which sometimes results in some awfully funny takedowns due to a guard who was inexplicably missing part of his brain. Besides, for the most part, guards and other authority figures are pretty sharp and when alerted to your presence, you better watch out ‘cuz they’re not all pushovers. That being said, having supernatural powers still makes me feel like a complete bad-ass, even if I can’t totally max myself out. Yep, more decisions to be made…
On the surface, it might annoy some people to learn that they can’t fully maximize each of their sweet powers and skills. But I say this, coupled with the myriad of ways you can approach each mission and objective, greatly enhances the replay potential of the game. So if you first succumb to the red haze of revenge and rip through a bloody spree, you might want your second play-through to focus almost exclusively on evasive powers and sleeping darts. The latter is possible, but I’d recommend trying it on your second adventure. Yes, I’m implying you’ll play it more than once. You may not be able to help yourself.
One of the reasons I compared this to Bioshock in the past is simply that you have a first-person perspective, magic-like abilities in your left hand, and the freedom to customize the progression of your character. Add in the great story and characters, and one could make further – and somewhat accurate – comparisons to Irrational’s top titles. However, I must make one thing plain— Dishonored is very much its own game. The atmosphere is compelling and unique, the style is singular, and the combined allure of freedom and emotion generated by a linear narrative is intoxicating. In short, it’s not wholly innovative but it’s still a singular experience.
The control is fluid and reliable, your skills are super cool and almost always crazy effective. I’ve always said that the only way you truly have freedom is if all your mechanical options are useful; even if I have a hundred ways of trying to kill an enemy, if ninety of them suck, the game isn’t quite so open, now is it? The more great options, the better the game gets. I love the fact that this game encourages inventiveness and ingenuity at every turn and in this fashion, it reminds me of the first time I played Grand Theft Auto III. I remember the sensation well: "Oh, there are just so many ways to nail that target…what to do?" ‘malicious giggle’
Your surroundings also play a key role in how you progress, and with different enemy types, you’re constantly assessing and reevaluating. It’s true that when I’m so intent on the task at hand, I usually forget about the story, but maybe that’s inevitable. It’s also a fact that the AI can be a little erratic, which stops this game from reaching into the extremely rare upper-9 echelon. But like I said, these are minor drawbacks and when one examines the entire package as a whole, it’s difficult to find much in the way of fault. As for a comparison between the PS3 and 360 versions, I’m sorry, but I didn’t have time for that. Let’s just say the PS3 version has given me no problems. So I'm crossing my fingers.
Dishonored is almost exactly what you want it to be. It’s almost exactly what I wanted it to be, at any rate. The solid story, the fantastic voice performances, the unbelievably well designed city, the attention paid to every small detail, the sheer amount of ridiculously fun skills, and the focus on player creativity is all amazing. I’ve never been one to nitpick; if the game envelops me and I can’t stop playing, I tend to be positive and overlook the shortcomings. But in this case, I never have to overlook much. And why? Because as I said at the start, it’s just that good.
The Good: Beautifully designed and highly detailed environment. Some of the best voice performances of the generation. Tons of unique and highly effective abilities encourage ingenuity. General freedom (character progression and exploration) is a huge plus. Decent story with intriguing characters. Great control.
The Bad: AI can be a little erratic. Story importance tends to wane.
The Ugly: “…I love the game but I’m almost waiting for the other shoe to drop…the PS3 version better be as reliable as I think.”
10/9/2012 Ben Dutka