There is something in the air, I’m not quite sure what it is but it feels like a mixture of sickness and fear. It’s not immediately obvious and there’s no real game mechanic that makes it apparent but it’s here that I feel it. Every street tells a tale of a collapsing city, rotten from the inside out with rare glimpses of hope painted on the faces of the citizens who are holding on for better times but are resigned to their more likely mortal release. It’s a strange and unpleasant place where double-crossing is as common as breathing and survival is not for the fittest but the wealthiest. Welcome to Dunwall.
This is the world that frames the story of Dishonored, the story of Corvo; a royal bodyguard framed for regicide but who in his imprisonment has become a figurehead for the resistance against the new order who have gained power through nefarious means. Truth be told, this is not inspired storytelling by Arkane and Bethesda but it is serviceable to the wider experience. Under the wing of the newly formed rebellion and granted supernatural powers by the enigmatic Outsider you become a one man army brandishing sword and sorcery. On the face of it there is a real sense of Dishonored being merely a blending of the likes of Thief and to an extent Deus Ex, however it is very much its own beast.
Completeness of vision is something that unfortunately feels like it comes around only rarely in videogaming, the benefits on offer for those who achieve this are on show consistently in Dishonored. There are easy comparisons to be made with Bioshock when discussing the styling on show here but it is a fair comparison and when being compared you may as well be compared with the best. From each street, to each building, to each room there is a consistent level of quality in detail. You might find yourself at times wandering around trying to find a nook or cranny where the developers minds may have wandered but you will be left wanting as this artist’s brush never seemed to run dry. At a glance you will see the ruin that has fallen upon this once great city, you will see the disparity in living conditions and you can just sense the struggle. Be under no illusion, Dunwall is a living, breathing character in the world of Dishonored, as important as the characters themselves if not even more so.
As a silent protagonist Corvo serves the player well, however his motivations initially are remarkably hamfisted. His journey begins as one of simple and uninspired revenge, there is a bond with a young girl that you feel you have to protect as well. Dishonored really does begin with by the numbers storytelling, it is a rare low point for the game and thankfully it is early on enough that everything that follows it papers over those early cracks. The story of Corvo is not really about his motivations but his present actions and how they affect the future, this is a game that will let the player shape the hero.
Your progress through the game will rank you on ‘Chaos’ at the end of a mission, this is a ranking based on how much disturbance you cause such as people killed, bodies found or civilians harmed. How you approach the game will determine your ‘Chaos’ score and that score will determine how the inhabitants of Dunwall react to each other and to you. Should you choose to take casual attitude to murder and leave bodies strewn around the streets you will find civilians reacting suspiciously and even aggressively towards your movements. Some games will promise you freedom in how you progress through a game but at best these statements are usually just marketing hyperbole. With Dishonored the claims that have been made regarding its openness are closer to the truth, obviously there is a natural limit to the possibilities but the puppeteer’s strings are all but invisible. You can, if wanted, ghost through the game with Corvo seeming to barely influence events but you can also become a deliverer of bombastic justice. Loud, violent and glorious looking justice.
You will be able to pass through levels without killing a single person and again unlike similar claims in other games, here it actually possible and always available. There are various means by which to silently and passively complete your mission, teleporting across rooftops and window ledges, possessing a fish and swimming into a building past the patrols or even just using non-lethal takedowns and hiding the bodies. When a mission reaches the point of dealing with your intended target the alternatives to murder are often worse fates, leaving them to work in a mine as a slave for the rest of their life or to live in captivity with someone who loves them but who they do not love themselves. These outcomes are vague but at times more powerful than a gruesome execution, the horrors that await your marks in the future are often only hinted at but those shades of grey can feel more uncomfortable than a simple button press.
That is not to say that the decision to kill is not creative, you will find yourself presented with a myriad of ways to dispatch would be conspirators. These methods tend to reveal themselves through exploration, NPCs will reveal secrets to aid you or provide you with items that may let you into secret areas or activate various machinery. There is a real reason to return to Dishonored, and perhaps that is what sets it apart, you can genuinely approach any level in lots of different ways and while some approaches may be just riffing on a similar theme they are all well thought out and rewarding.
Most players will fall into an early rhythm of mixing stealth with violence, usually out of clumsiness, but as the game progresses and your abilities grow you find yourself able to refine each area. In this progression you will fall into your stride, personally I prefer the silent method, but neither is more effective than the other as long as you can deal with the consequences of alerting the Watch in an all out assault. The style of play you adopt will be based on the supernatural abilities you unlock, these are unlocked in a typical branching system with runes being the currency of choice. You will start off with abilities such as Dark Vision, allowing you to see through walls, or the basic Blink which will allow you to teleport short distances. There are also bone-charms that you can collect that will each possess a different attribute perk, you can initially only wear a few at a time but as you progress you can expand this. The bone-charms and runes are scattered throughout every level and you have a tool that will indicate their whereabouts while equipped, there is a fantastic built-in desire to seek these out and usually there will be a reward beyond the item. Physical weapons similarly upgrade and unlock in the same fashion and finding blueprints and materials will see your resident inventor Piero craft you some nifty hardware.
As you progress you will be able to upgrade these abilities or purchase new ones, it is these that really allow you to explore how to play the game. The Possession ability allows you to do just that, initially you can only inhabit small animals but as you upgrade you will be able to take control of human bodies. This sense of freedom begins to imbue an attitude of experimentation; what can I do? It is this that sets Dishonored above so many other similar games, it delivers what it promises. There is a real satisfaction when you start to instinctively navigate your environment with your powers; teleporting behind your victim before dealing a fatal strike is exciting but if you couple that with jumping out of a window and teleporting into a patrolling guard’s body before you hit the ground then you have something truly special.
It’s a wonderful experience when it all comes together but there is an early period of trial and error when approaching a new task and it also takes time to get properly comfortable with the controls. We have played this on both PC and Playstation and while the controls on console are not as immediate as the PC version, once you do master the controls you will be wielding weapons and supernatural powers as easy as breathing. You can switch out between abilities and weapons via a pop up wheel menu, it feels a bit touchy to begin with and as the game doesn’t pause when you access this menu it can all become a bit of a panicked mess but you will get used to it. And then all at once, when it all becomes fluid, you will feel liberated and empowered, the world is yours to explore and you have many methods to do it.
There is a problematic side to this idea of ability and freedom and it is that a majority of your early playtime will be trial and error and you will be saving your game a lot...and I do mean a lot. The PS3 version is not equipped with a quick-save button so there is a frustrating amount of time spent on loading/saving menus as you try, fail and refine your attempts to achieve your goal. It’s a minor gripe but it’s an obvious bump in the road while you are playing and with loading times being a little on the uncomfortable side you can struggle in a long playthrough not to get annoyed. And Dishonored is not an easy game, when you make a mistake you will most certainly know about it and very rarely will you survive an error of judgement so expect to get familiar with the loading screens. Dishonored also suffers from exactly the same problem as nearly every other game you will have played that involves stealth, that of painfully stupid AI. You will not see any characters walking nonsensically into walls, or at least I didn’t, but they will ignore quite serious incidents after a while if you are wise enough. It’s a shame that this problem exists here but perhaps more so in general in gaming, there is definitely a fair argument to say that AI is the thing that needs to improve in the next generation of consoles, not graphical quality.
There are rumours that despite commercial and critical success that we may not see another visit to Dunwall and this would be a real shame. The world that has been created is one of the most memorable in recent times and you will feel that you have only played a small act in a world full of stories. There are elements that do not hit the mark, the game ends in a manner that may feel sudden to some, the constant saving and loading may grate on others and most will feel robbed by not being able to replay earlier missions with your newly acquired powers. For the most part these are trifles, minor frays on an otherwise exquisitely crafted garment. We may not see this world again but I am certain that it will certainly live on in gamer’s minds long after the credits roll and perhaps, when all is said and done, that is the best accolade it can receive.