Dishonored Review (Xbox360)

Many people these days don’t know the name “Looking Glass Studios”. Hell, even at their peak they weren’t that famous, hence why they went under. Maybe you’d do better with the names “Irrational Games”, “Thief”, “Warren Spector”, “System Shock”, “Ken Levine”, and the various series made in what’s dubbed ‘The Looking Glass Aesthetic’ such as Bioshock and Deus Ex. Wildly imaginative first-person games, with a staggering attention to detail and a feel unlike every other game out there. Dishonored, made by Arkane Studios with the assistance of the lead designer of Deus Ex and the lead artist behind Half-Life 2, is the first original IP made in the Aesthetic since Bioshock. It will either wildly succeed or massively disappoint.

Set in a fictional world in the middle of their Industrial Revolution, Dishonored takes place in the city of Dunwall, filled with bizarre machineries powered by Whale Oil and cursed by a rat-spread Plague that turns people into infectious zombies called Weepers. You play Corvo Attano, chief bodyguard and trusted friend to the Empress of Dunwall and her daughter Emily. Unfortunately the Empress is assassinated, Emily is abducted, you are blamed and the true culprits ascend to power. With some help from a group of rebels you are sent to infiltrate various parts of Dunwall and get your revenge on the power-grabbers.

The Tallboys are terrifying drugged stilt walkers who fire explosive rounds at you. Best stay out of their way

It’s a plot that sucks you in quickly, but sadly I have to report that this is pretty much the limits of the story’s complexity for much of the game. There are late-stage developments that I won’t spoil of course, but if you’re expecting a deep plot it’s best to look elsewhere. Fortunately though that’s pretty much the limits of my disappointment as the world of Dunwall itself will suck you in even more than the story. The characters and dialogue are both well-written, and there’s just so much here to see.

It really is crazy how much detail Arkane have packed into the levels of Dishonored. An example I’ve noted down (but of which there are many) involved three thugs I was eavesdropping on. One of them was being accused by the other two of keeping five gold coins for himself from a robbery they’d just committed, and they kill him over it. After dispatching the other two I searched the dead thug’s body, and what did I find? 5 gold coins. Beautiful. Readable books and letters are scattered about, stealable items are hidden in lockers or on odd desks, safes with cryptic combinations are there to be deciphered (note nearby: “gee, I fancy a whiskey right about now”, go to the whiskey cabinet, remove some bottles, the combination’s scribbled at the back of the shelf). And that’s all side stuff before we get to the stealth, combat, and magic powers!

If I had to pick one game Dishonored was most like, it’s Thief. First-person sneaking, items to steal at every turn (I went through one mission with a fine-tooth comb and still only found half the loot), permanent knock-outs, lethal or non-lethal takedowns, multiple objectives, large open levels with numerous options, old-timey steampunk (or in this case “whale oil-punk”) in a fantasy world, that’s Thief all right. At least that’s the way I played it. The brilliance of Dishonored, and this is where Deus Ex’s lead designer Harvey Smith comes in, is that while stealth is a decent option it’s by no means the only one. If you want you can fight off opponents with sword, pistol, crossbow and a swarm of killer rats. You can assassinate your targets crudely, sneakily, or find some more ingenious way of dispatching them that doesn’t involve killing them (although death may have been preferable in some cases).

Assisting both sides are the game’s range of spirit powers, granted to Corvo early on by a mysterious mythical individual called The Outsider. The only power you get by default is the supremely useful “Blink” teleport, handy for sneaking up on people and generally getting around. What’s to stop you from using it to climb up a building, smash the skylight, and drop in from the roof? Well, it’s only got a short range but otherwise… nothing. Other powers include Possession (possess a rat or fish!), Dark Vision (see enemies through walls!), Bend Time (slow or stop time!) and the soon-to-be-iconic Rat Swarm (spawn a load of killer rats that eat people alive and devour corpses!). All are upgradeable once using special Runes that are hidden throughout the levels, which can be detected using, um, a beating disembodied heart that whispers secrets to you. Yes.

All these powers have their advantages and disadvantages and it’s up to you to use them carefully. Posses a rat and you could scurry through a small broken grate and find a new unguarded entrance, but you could lose control right next to an armed guard. Dark Vision can show many important things through walls, but you’ll stop seeing the walls, crucial notes, and whether an enemy can see you too. Oh, and your little Rat Swarm can turn on you just as easily. The powers really add a great deal to the game and are well implemented, but hey, you want to ignore them and play the game as either Thief or Dark Messiah? Go ahead.

You think those masks are bad? Someone’s wearing an assassin mask and holding a beating heart and a knife!

The general structure of the game is you get an assassination target from the Hound Pits pub safehouse, you travel to an area of Dunwall by sea, you sneak or fight your way to your target, then return to the boat for a trip back to the Hound Pits for gear upgrades and your next mission/target. In this way the game feels a little rigid, but the pub allows you to get to know the characters more and have a bit of downtime, and so for that it’s very welcome. My personal favourite character is the resident gadget expert Piero, a pervy scientist played by the wonderful Brad Dourif. It’s the missions though where Dishonored’s full depth is revealed.

Areas aren’t so much levels as they are hubs, with multiple paths to take, areas to discover, and even extra missions to find and undertake. I was pleased to discover a character looking for my help sorting out the local thugs in the first mission, but was utterly astonished when that side-quest took me to a completely new map. Not “new part of the map”, a whole new section with its own loading screen. There are side stories to uncover, conversations to overhear (which sometimes offer clues to help you out), citizens to save, and loot to track down.

The main missions themselves are occasionally wildly imaginative, such as infiltrating a ball where everyone’s wearing a mask so you fit in perfectly – but so is your target. Chat with guests, look for notes, even sneak upstairs to track down some solid proof – but don’t get caught because security’s tight. Locations are all well designed, huge and packed with interesting points and challenges. At no point is this game boring.

Choice is at the heart of the Dishonored experience. Stealth is line-of-sight and at a distance shadows will hide you, but maybe you’d prefer the combat which feels straight out of Arkane’s last title Dark Messiah? Both are tuned perfectly (apart from Corvo occasionally blocking when I wanted to do a time-sensitive non-lethal takedown), but it has to be said that stealth and, likewise, the non-lethal options are always harder than just wading in and killing. At first. The game’s clever though, utilising what Arkane calls the “Chaos System”. If the body-count racks up guards become more vigilant, citizens become more scared, and the zombie-like Weepers (advanced Plague victims) start to overwhelm areas. The ending and final level are altered by your final Chaos rating, so you might want to make it a good one.

However, it must be said that the choice system sometimes falls down, particularly regarding non-lethal assassinations. Characters always react as if you’ve killed your target (although there are always text-based comments, perhaps indicating that non-lethal options were thought of after the voices were recorded), and the scene after you’ve dealt with the Lord Regent – no spoilers! – only makes sense if you killed him. Sometimes you get the consequences of leaving a character alive or not, other times nothing happens at all. It’s a minor blemish, but stands out when the rest of the game is so polished… well, okay, there are occasional glitches too, like bodies getting stuck in scenery and one time when a guard running to confront me fell through the floor.

Using Dark Vision you can watch the chaos you’ve unleashed in the safety of the room next door

I’m going to make this very clear: you should get Dishonored. No, no excuses, it’s a unique, interesting and mostly well-made new IP in a sea of sequels and reboots, where player choice is the main design philosophy and the idea that games should take place on a linear path is thrown in the bin. It’s packed with imagination, which is funny considering how much it takes from some of the best games ever made. But it mainly takes ideas, whereas the execution of those ideas is unique to Dishonored. After playing through to the end I feel like I did when I finished Bioshock or Thief for the first time. Exhilarated, desperate to tell every other gamer I know to play it at once, and sad that it’s over.

The plot may be straightforward but the level of detail in the world could inspire countless fan fiction stories. Some choices may not have the consequences you’d demand from Deus Ex or The Witcher but the vast majority do and they’ll blow your mind – you remember that side-quest I told you about earlier that sent me to another map entirely? I returned to it later in the game and my actions had left it overrun with Weepers. Get immersed in the world of Dunwall, of Tall-Boys, Weepers, Outsiders, Bone Charms and Granny Rags and you’ll be thinking about it long after the credits roll. Here’s what you’re going to do: buy Dishonored, put it on your system of choice, sit down, take your time, and play until Bioshock Infinite or Thief 4 comes out. But as far as I’m concerned, Irrational and Eidos Montreal really have to step up their game now Dishonored is here. Amazing.

Top Game Moment: Despite my non-lethal stance rewiring a Tesla Coil-alike Arc Pylon and watching it fry City Watch guards to ashes was incredibly satisfying. I’d reload afterwards of course and just pull the plug out instead.

Platform Played: Xbox 360

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By Kodaemon (I just got here) on Oct 08, 2012
"buy Dishonored, put it on your system of choice, sit down, take your time, and play until Bioshock Infinite or Thief 4 comes out" - This is insulting. Possibly unintentionally, but still. I refuse to treat Dishonored as a substitute for anything, I hope it can stand up on its own. Ken Levine's Infinite BS will likely be just that: more bs, and ThiFOURf doesn't actually exist.
By nocutius (SI Elite) on Oct 08, 2012
Very nice, great to hear that the game is actually good and didn't only seem like it.
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Oct 08, 2012
@Kodaemon I certainly didn't mean to be insulting, promise, I just wanted to compare the game to something people might be excited about. I'm worried that not enough people are aware of Dishonored and they really really should be.
By FoolWolf (SI Elite) on Oct 08, 2012
Tingler - will there be a PC review or have you guys been able to check out the PC version as well? The UI and controls are of course always a crucial point when a game is multiplatform...
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Oct 08, 2012
I don't know if there'll be a PC review and unfortunately I haven't had any time with the PC version myself, but the general consensus is that it's the one to get. I didn't really talk about the controls in the review, but a minor issue on the console version is that you only have four slots (on the D-pad) for all your stuff, including all powers, weapons, individual crossbow bolt types etc. The radial menu is quick and easy to use, but it's even easier to just press a button and get Dark Vision or Sleep Darts. Mouse and keyboard is a godsend in this case, and I'll definitely be getting Dishonored on PC when I feel like playing it again. Probably soon or in the next Steam sale...
By FoolWolf (SI Elite) on Oct 08, 2012
OK - thanks for the extra info! That sure sounds like a difficult way to get the right power/item if in a hurry on the consoles :S
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Oct 10, 2012
Arkane have done the best they can, but it's just so much easier and less immersion-breaking to hit a key and get the power or weapon you want.

Incidentally, the PC version has an FOV slider. If you're a PC gamer like myself that's a good indication that the developer/publisher cares about the PC version.
By FoolWolf (SI Elite) on Oct 11, 2012
FOV slider is the shit! :D
Yeah - now I got even glader to know that the game soon will be mine! ;)