Review: Dishonored

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Dishonored is the end result of a tremendous marriage of talent between Viktor Antonov, Harvey Smith, and the hardly tapped potential teeming at Arkane Studios. Arkane, until now, have had a limited capacity to prove themselves, releasing Arx Fatalis nearly 10 years ago and the excellent Dark Messiah of Might and Magic four years after that. Up until now they’ve mostly been involved in assisting in the design of other studios’ games. Nonetheless Dishonored is proof positive of the talent working at the studio. Meanwhile, Smith brings his experience from the original Deus Ex and System Shock, while Antonov brings a visually arresting art style to the table.

Developer: Arkane
Publisher: Bethesda
ESRB Rating: M
Released: October 9th, 2012
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360

The game follows Corvo, a royal bodyguard, on his quest for revenge and redemption after playing patsy in the wake of Empress Kaldwin’s assassination and the abduction of her heiress, Emily.

But Corvo is not the star of the show. He is merely the vehicle you steer through the marvelous levels, the mirror through which you drink in the splendid details.

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Where modern stealth games suffer from a dearth of meaningful decisions, Dishonored’s coffers are overflowing with a wealth of them. I’m not referring to plot-related choices either, though the game does supply these as well. Rather, Dishonored allows the player to approach every problem from a dizzying number of angles, and there are two key factors that make this possible.

Dishonored forces the player to discard all of the habits conventional level design have caused us to internalize. Careful examination of the levels  reveals an unlimited number of ways to progress. Exploring the levels, finding the plethora of available routes to your destination, and discovering every angle of attack becomes a joyous obsession due to the open nature of the stages. And yet, for being so open, there is no lack of focus. It’s mind-boggling how deliberately placed every ledge felt, and how many routes through a level I found that would have been unnavigable if just a few objects were placed a few more inches away from one another.

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The levels are not only sprawling, but vertical. The horizontal area encompassed by each level is limited, but when each section of the game stretches stories into the sky the game becomes a playground, and creative problem solving a jungle gym. It encompasses everything level designers should aspire to. Dishonored sports some of the best level design of 2012.

Not only are the levels deftly crafted to encourage exploration, but they’re rendered in a striking distinct style. The art consists of a stellar blend of water color,  steam punk, and Victorian-era imagery that left me ascending the highest buildings for the best views of this wonderfully realized cityscape being ravaged by disease.

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The second integral component to elevating this above any other current stealth game are the tools at the players disposal. You have your standard tranquilizers and choke-holds to approach situations non-lethally, and you are armed with a saber and a gun if you prefer to get messy. What makes Dishonored special are a host of supernatural abilities conferred to Corvo by a mysterious and powerful benefactor. Chiefest among these abilities are a short ranged teleport, blink, that allows you to fully take advantage of the level design. A few other powers in your arsenal include the ability to possess enemies, slow or stop time, and launch a powerful gust of wind. These tools can be mapped to your directional buttons and combined with each other and with environmental hazards. Remarkably I never came across an ability or a weapon that I could not find a use for.

In one instance, I had to bypass a gate that, if I were to try to pass through it, would kill me instantly. Guards cannot trigger these gates. I possessed a guard, proceeded through the gate unharmed, and walked him to the edge of the cliff. When I stopped possessing his body, I used the wind blast to knock him over the edge. Next, I blinked on top of a ledge above a guard and descended upon him with my saber ready. Before I could carry the body away, a patrol neared. I had the corpse devoured by rats, and then blinked behind the two patrolling guards, froze time, and fired two crossbow bolts into their heads which both hit simultaneously as time unfroze. I had plan planning this attack for several minutes, the execution was intense, and every guard had been dispatched without being alerted in a matter of less than a minute. Variables in the environment, the composition of enemy types, and the steady pace of new abilities and upgrades ensured that I was never following a similar pattern throughout the game, and more to the point, these things ensured that I constantly saw new approaches that I could take. By the end of my first playthrough, my head was buzzing with ideas about circumstances I wanted to create to test combinations of weapons and abilities, and with new ways to play the game. Even counting my favorite stealth games of all time I’ve never felt that type of freedom.

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Another mystical item conferred to Corvo by his supernatural benefactor, the Outsider, is a heart of arcane origins that reveals the locations of secrets used to upgrade Corvo’s powers. More interesting that, the heart allows Corvo to eavesdrop on the inner thoughts of the game’s conniving cast of characters.

The bulk of the world building and fiction is conveyed to the player through the heart and through eavesdropping on conversations or finding notes littered around the world that reveal the rich history of the city and its inhabitants. The guards A.I. maybe fiercely stupid, but it allowed me to flub up and spook them, make my escape, and then go back to listening in on the details that made me care about them and the world I was in. I love this approach to world building.

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Getting back to the topic of combat, though, the non-lethal options you are presented with are admittedly far less enthralling. Sinners get all the fun it seems. You can possess, chokehold, bypass, and tranquilize your way through the game, but putting a restriction on your ability to kill is also going to severely limit your freedom. To be fair, though, pacifist runs do introduce a new kind type of tension, and creativity is often born from constraint. It’s just that this style of play doesn’t play to the game’s strengths as well. The level design and a liberal application of blink still opens up horizons that no other stealth game can boast, so there’s also that as a mitigating factor.

I also found the non-lethal approach interesting because of the game’s absolutist approach to morality. It doesn’t plainly state which actions are good or bad, but the game implies as much with the punitive nature of the chaos system. Killing is considered a high chaos act, and having a high chaos rating results in there being more guards patrolling the streets, more vicious rats, a darker ending, and a host of other negative impacts.

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Some of the impacts of having a more violent Corvo are sensible. It makes sense that a brutal assassin would earn the paranoia of guards and maybe the cautious contempt of his peers. It makes sense that a more malevolent Corvo might have a negative influence on those around him. Where the logic breaks down is that this chaos system is binary, and the non-lethal alternatives to some of Corvo’s actions are often more grotesque and unethical than simply assassinating somebody and having it end quickly and quietly. Some non-lethal approaches have Corvo searing the flesh of a man with a white hot branding iron and permanently scarring him, or shipping a conspirator off to live her life as a tortured sex slave. By virtue of these being the low-chaos options, the game prescribes them as being plainly more ethical than murder. It’s disappointing because it saps the complexity from making an ethically questionable choice.

And while the world building and characterization were handled adeptly, the plot didn’t seem quite water tight. Everyone seems to have their own plans for the late Empress’ heiress, Emily, but they all depend on her being oblivious.

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Right in the beginning you fight off a wave of assassins in front of Emily. The Empress’ fate is ultimately sealed, but Emily can see your allegiance for herself. The acting ruler in the Empress’ stead is Lord Regent Burrows who also orchestrates Emily’s kidnapping. His plan is to eventually reveal her to the public and play the role of hero. At that point, though, why would Emily not just vouch for Corvo’s innocence and assert her regency as heir to the Empress? In fact, rescuing Emily so she can do just that is one of the early focal points of the game, so why don’t the villains just kill her and blame Corvo and his alleged co-conspirators?

For my gripes regarding the mechanics boiling morality down to absolutism and plot holes, I found myself easily able to forgive the game’s flaws due to the excellent world building and characterization, the blissful sense of freedom provided by the game’s stunning level design and Corvo’s arsenal, the emergent wonder I experienced while playing, the striking visual style, and an otherwise gripping story filled with self-serving characters and double-crosses.

9.0 / 10

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