These days it’s tough for video game developers to try new things, as we’re living through an age of sequels and prequels. Why? Because they’re almost guaranteed to be profitable. If something sells well, then it makes sense to put out another branded entry, creating a potential long-running franchise. However, not all of the games released today are follow-ups or origin stories, which is a good thing. For one, the industry wouldn’t be able to evolve without new ideas. Secondly, tying into that statement is the fact that, without those who are willing to take chances, we wouldn’t have Arkane Studios’ fantastic first-person assassin experience, Dishonored.
In Dishonored, players assume the role of Corvo. A bodyguard by trade, he’s seemingly been in charge of protecting Dunwall’s empress and her daughter for quite a while. However, that all changes at the onset of the game’s campaign, because the female leader is murdered by a band of supernatural assassins. Although Corvo tries to save his boss, there ends up being nothing he can do, due to the amount of teleporting opponents who end up arriving and departing out of thin air.
Emily, the empress’ rather young daughter, ends up surviving, but she’s quickly taken away after the murder occurs. Left alone, and without proof of innocence, is Corvo. He’s quickly taken away himself, but to a jail cell, where he’s expected to live out the rest of his days in seclusion. That is until some mysterious friends help him escape into the sewers, then out into one of Dunwall’s desolate regions.
Before we continue with what is a very immersive and well told plot line, a sidebar needs to be taken. That’s because it’s important to point out that the steampunk city of Dunwall, with its clashing old world architecture and new world technology, is in a troubled state. Many of its unfortunate citizens are ill with what is referred to as the Rat Plague, and there’s seemingly no cure. In actuality, Corvo was on a trip to find a cure just before the murder, and he ended up returning a couple of days early without any helpful news to report.
As a result of the widespread and incurable infection, the city is under a strict curfew. Security has been increased by a great margin, and certain areas have been deemed unsafe. The island that the mysterious allies take our escaped protagonist to is one of those very regions, though it looks to be safe. Of course, the idea is that those responsible for the high profile murder and the related frame job won’t look for their target in an area deemed unfit for human survival, which gives the group the perfect place to plan how they’ll save the empress’ captured daughter and put her into power. By the end of that mission, it’s also expected that Corvo will be redeemed in the eyes of the general public.
Hidden inside of a forgotten pub, the group gives the skilled assassin refuge, but at a cost. He must complete the aforementioned task and all that it entails. That means taking out high profile targets in different areas of the city, through whatever means necessary. Murder is allowed, but it’d look better if things were done stealthily and casualties were kept to a minimum. However, that’s easier said than done, considering how many guards patrol almost all of the local nooks and crannies.
In order to access important locations, players must utilize well designed first-person platforming mechanics, as well as some rather interesting supernatural abilities. You see, along with his swordplay skills, the digitally crafted hero has also been given the option to use mana to teleport from one place to another. It’s a helpful maneuver that makes sticking to the shadows a bit easier, though some guards have great eyes, meaning that getting spotted won’t be a rare occurrence for a lot of people. However, with that being said, it must be noted that unlockable supernatural abilities – including the power of possession, as well as a gift that summons flesh eating rats – can help make things easier, not to mention more interesting.
Although the game’s achievement list focuses more on the stealthy approach than the chaotic action plan, either play style can be utilized. As great as Corvo is at gaining access to his targets through rooftops, open windows and the like, he’s also gifted at using weapons. Those who are familiar with Dishonored, thanks to its hefty amount of pre-release media, will note that its hero’s favourite weapon is a short sword. While that happens to be true, he’s also able to take out foes through the use of bullets, crossbow bolts, traps and grenades.
The great thing about this experience is how fine tuned it is. Simply put, the amount of offered freedom is staggering. Although most of the city is unavailable outside of missions, each main quest provides an impressive amount of space to peruse. That design plays into the two gameplay styles mentioned above, creating a sandbox of sorts, complete with the odd side mission. If you see an open rooftop and a broken window nearby then they may combine to create a way in. Conversely, other routes are always available, including storming through a main door with bullets flying, though that approach is always challenging.
Those who would prefer to go through Dishonored without killing a single enemy will be in for quite a challenge, though it’s possible to do. Although main targets need to be dispatched of, they don’t necessarily need to die. Other options are available, presenting a great amount of player choice. Morality plays a big role, as killing a lot of people will result in a much darker city, while putting foes to sleep and removing targets without lethal force will create a much more optimistic version of Dunwall. It’s a neat mechanic, which adds a ton of replay value to what is an incredibly memorable and very entertaining campaign.
Thankfully, the development team at Arkane Studios decided not to include any form of multiplayer. I applaud them for making that decision, because this isn’t the type of game that would benefit from a competitive mode. One of the things that scares me most about today’s video game industry is how much emphasis is placed on multiplayer. It’s great in some instances, but simply doesn’t work in others, and there’s no need for thrown together options. I don’t see how an online component could have improved this experience in any way, because it’s a story driven adventure. Furthermore, it happens to be one that is incredibly replayable despite its lack of competitive play.
When it comes to presentation, Dishonored is a bona fide winner. Its art design is stellar, employing a creative style that mixes exaggerated character designs with environments that look as if they’ve been taken out of a beautiful painting. You will come across some texture pop in, but the issue isn’t major by any means, and is easy to overlook as a result. Frankly, it’s tough to complain about this facet of the game, as its sound design is just as great as its art design is. Realistic echoes complement first-rate voice acting and great sound effects, creating a believable yet creepy world. To explain, the second descriptor was included because of some of the citizens who are stricken with the aforementioned disease. Those who are near to death actually bleed from their eyes, and do attack Corvo.
With Dishonored, Arkane Studios’ team members have hit one out of the proverbial park. Although its teleportation aiming system could have been tighter, the game is simply fantastic, and helps to show what interesting ideas can lead to. If you’re looking for a new experience this fall, this is one to put on your shopping list.
This article is based on a copy of the game that we received for review purposes.
Simply put, Dishonored is a fantastic experience, which will contend for awards at the end of 2012.