|Platforms||Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3|
|MtAMinutes to Action||2|
|Buy from Amazon|
Dishonored, the new property published by Bethesda (The Elder Scrolls; Fallout) and developed by Arkane Studios (Dark Mesiah; Bioshock 2), is a brave and original story looking to enter into a decaying console cycle – the time when the sequel and spinoff reign supreme. It has to be said, the sights are firm and the course is true; Dishonored is looking to contend for Game of the Year status – and so it should. Arkane Studios has talent from across the globe, and a laundry list of prior experience. From Bioshock to Half-Life 2 to Deus Ex, and many more, Arkane’s capability holds great repute.
Dishonored sets off to be the spiritual successor to the very franchises that inspired it and you would be hard-pressed to find a reason why it does not fit the bill. At its core, Dishonored is a first-person stealth action game. You are able to sneak around quietly, hit confrontation head-on, or some other combination of the two. The level of freedom here is something that would make any long-time Deus Ex fan smile. It’s not just about the gameplay, though – the level of presentation on display is top notch.
Before getting into the review-proper, I want to touch on the design and visual presentation; its uniqueness begs prying eyes to observe. Dunwall, the city setting in Dishonored, is designed by the very same man who imagined City 17 in Half-Life 2. Visually, I get the sensation that Arkane started with something relatively gritty, and then moved the entire art-style in the direction of pastel and caricature. It’s just utterly dripping with style and brave design choices. The character design in particular is especially reminiscent of old political cartoon artwork, with all the exaggerated features necessary to convey a character without words.
Now, it’s not all sunshine and roses when it comes to the presentation. There are elements of the game that feel somewhat dated. While the character design is a pure joy of originality, the animations leave something to be desired. I’m never left with the sensation that these are alive, even for a moment. There’s also not much in the way of post-effects being leveraged. You have god-rays, dynamic shadows, and that’s about it. And while the artwork is incredibly balanced and fitting to itself, I found myself reaching for my video card’s anti-aliasing controls in short order just to get everything to sit better with the art style. Neither the MLAA or FXAA solutions quite cut it – the jaggies on display just detracted from the pastel effect.
So, full disclosure: this is not exactly a first-hour review. Instead, knowing myself and how methodically I play these types of games, I gave myself until the end of the first mission-proper (tutorial and exposition aside) before coming here to lend my impressions. The version I’m playing is the PC release, and so far as I can tell, the game itself was designed for a console with minimal adjustments to the UI made for the port. If you’re interested in evaluating console performance and playability, please refer to Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry Face-Off.
I was pleasantly surprised at just how quickly Dishonored loaded the first time (and every subsequent time)*, even on my modest PC (as referenced in my editorial including the PC version of Alan Wake). One thing that definitely took me off guard was learning that it was an Unreal Engine title. Based on the limited screenshots and gameplay footage I had seen, I was almost going to accuse the Source engine of being behind this; this is especially when you consider Arkane’s work on Dark Mesiah: Might and Magic, which is a Source game. Once in the menu, things get familiar – there’s a lovely 3D backdrop that swings around to reveal the main menu. I, as I normally do, took a moment to play with the in-game settings, which were blissfully simple and intuitive. Honestly, they could have just put a big slider for “Ugly <-> Pretty” and everything would have worked out just fine. Selecting “New Game” presents you with a difficulty selection, given in four, and then a brightness slider. That’s it, we’re loading. And we’re done. Whether it’s indicative of an aging design, or ruthless optimization, this game loads incredibly fast.
The first thing I see is two men in front of me on a small boat. Apparently we’re being dropped off of a larger ship in order to head into the city. The more talkative of the two addresses me as “Corvo, the Lord Protector.” Very quickly I gather that Corvo is something of a one-man security force working directly for the Empress. He’s been away for two months attempting to make contact with nearby cities. There’s a plague on, and nobody knows how to stop it. The small boat enters something of a warehouse on the water. It’s a water elevator – we’re being raised up to the royal court. I have to say, I’m loving the steampunk feel I’m getting off of Dishonored already.
Only two minutes in, and I’m given control of something other than the camera. A young girl comes to meet me – the daughter of the Empress. Apparently her and Corvo are quite close. At this point I get my first dialogue choice: play hide and seek, or go see mother. I choose to go see mother, and after a couple secondary character introductions, I find myself up at a gazebo overhearing the Empress tell an aid that she will do whatever she can to save each and every one of her citizens from the plague. Upon his departure, Corvo delivers a letter stating that the other cities aren’t helping, but rather are going to blockade Dunwall. Then it really hits the fan. Assassins appear, I fight them off, but the Empress ends up dead. Corvo is framed. Enter the title card.
It may be almost industry standard, but the presentation made for an effective cold open – about 12 minutes in total. This is the tone, you’re a respected man who gets framed for a murder he’d never commit, and spends 6-months between torture and his cell awaiting execution – until someone slips you a key. I have to admit to having the odd Escape from Butcher Bay flashback during the prison-break segment. Of course, this is where we start to see the mechanics in the game; see what it’s really made of. The best way I can describe it is: “jack of all trades.” Everything works, even if the individual parts aren’t taken to their natural conclusion. The shadow skulking isn’t at the apex of Sam Fisher slinking, and the action isn’t at the apex of Riddick badassery, but everything feels genuinely solid. Beyond solid – it feels intuitive. It’s very rare for a game with a heavy stealth mechanic to be able to slip into balls-out action with such deftness.
To add to the action, Dishonored sports a basic upgrade and power system to help bring some spunk into the replay value of what is essentially a linear game. Fans of Bioshock will feel right at home with this concept. Right off the top, I found Blink and Shadow Kill to be the most useful. The former allows you to teleport yourself over short distances, and the latter ensures that corpses clean themselves up if stealth killed. Of course, this is not the limit of the powers on display; other tasty entries include the ability possess living creatures (and later people), and what is essentially a force-push.
Though Dishonored is not an open world game, there is still plenty of side work that can be done during the various levels. The best comparison is probably the instance-based gameplay of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Unlike Human Revolution, though, the levels more akin to the slab design of something like Hitman: Blood Money. You’re given an insertion point and then kindly asked to carry out your objectives as you see fit. The brilliance of this is allowing free-flowing gameplay, but without the unnecessary bog that most open world games suffer from; it stays focused.
I did happen upon a few bugs during my play, but it was certainly not anything that broke the experience. Ragdolls seem to be the worst culprit at this time (hang tight for patches). Occasionally they’ll get caught on props, or even in the terrain. More than once I had corpses cull mere seconds after hitting the ground. Blink can be a bit touchy to land in a pinch, especially during vertical travel. And the AI – I’m not sure it’s a bug, but the enemy AI seems to be incredibly forgetful. They can be easily baffled by a quick emergency blink, or the shutting of a door. Counter-intuitively, shadows are far less likely to baffle them. At the end of the day, however, these are relatively minor gripes that rarely break the experience, and the disappearing corpses will likely be patched in short order.
With new intellectual properties, you’re never sure exactly to expect. Some of them turn out to be duds, and many are fantastic and original pieces of design. Unfortunately, it gets harder and harder to try out these new properties with the cost of games, and the steady stream of “guaranteed content.” With Dishonored, a game on I wasn’t aware of until E3 2012, the game lives up to the image it had created for itself in the media. I’m a ways off from finishing the game, and I feel like I’ve seen most of what the gameplay has to offer – I just don’t seem to care. What’s here is so wonderfully solid that I’m just looking forward to my next chance to play.
Dishonored doesn’t just succeed as a new IP, or as a straggler at the end of a generation. Dishonored is a momentous success full stop.
Minutes to Action: 2
Summary: Dishonored is a brave and beautifully imagined property that manages succeed even where the first installments of today's biggest franchises failed, both visually and functionally. It may pull its life-blood from the likes of Half-Life, Bioshock, Deus Ex and Hitman, but if ever there was a group of franchises you'd want to emulate, that would be the list; and even at that it manages to feel packed with originality and top-notch design.
Would You Keep Playing? Yes. If you have to ask, you didn’t read the review.
*I wanted to add that although the loading times are very fast, the game has an irritating “Press Any Key to Continue” interrupt. Most times I found I was failing to notice the button for longer than it took to actually load. There’s good news though, because PC players can make a very simple .ini tweak to correct this and allow loading to proceed automatically. DishonoredEngine.ini is located in: Documents/My Games/Dishonored/DishonoredGame/Config. Change the line (at the bottom) “bAlwaysAutoStart=” to true. Loading screens will now proceed automatically.