Dishonored is more different than you’d expect.
It’s a single-player game in the era of multiplayer-driven “platforms.” It’s set in a Victorian era-infused “oil-punk” fiction with a stylized, painted, exaggerated look. The focus isn’t on guns, but movement and strategy. It’s exactly the kind of game that a certain core audience has been asking for, one that eschews focus-grouped market trends, that has a clear creative vision that doesn’t feel like it had a million fingers on it. It’s a risk, as these things go.
But the benefit of ignoring market-driven thinking shines throughout Dishonored’s asymmetric story of politics and comeuppance. It is aggressively different from anything else you’ll play this year, though old-school PC gamers will feel the threads of familiarity strummed again and again as Dishonored borrows and steals material from a wide variety of influences to make something new. But Dishonored’s clear vision and thoughtful design choices make for an experience that feels different, new, and more importantly, uniquely engaging.
Dishonored drops you into a Moby Dick-inspired dystopia of plague and political machinations. It tells the story of Corvo, a royal bodyguard framed for regicide and thrust into the murderous power struggle for the whaling city of Dunwall. I was given just enough time to grasp the comparatively mundane aspects of Dishonored's mad science and political intrigue before supernatural forces came into play. Unlikely allies human and otherwise offer tools and assistance in Corvo's quest for justice — or revenge.
It takes place from a first-person perspective, but Dishonored isn't a shooter, as such. Instead, the focus is on stealth and traversal of the multi-tiered, open environments of Dunwall. Arkane smartly urges players to think vertically with the early introduction of the Blink power, a short-range teleport. A prison break opening sequence establishes the benefits of subterranean exploration and the dangers that stalk below the city.
Dishonored gives you weapons — there's even a sort of matchlock pistol. But Corvo's equipment more often takes the form of tools, nudging you towards thoughtful tactics. Using Corvo's arsenal and constantly finding new ways to employ it and the supernatural abilities you can unlock made me feel smart, offering a sense of reward above the option of brute force.
Brute force and direct violence are an option, and not just as a means of giving you enough rope to hang yourself with. Arkane wants you to experiment, to push. Dishonored doesn't so much provide direction as it does useful information. Eavesdropping on conversations between NPCs might provide an alternate route into a structure, and a sharp eye could reveal an aerial approach not immediately apparent.
It's stunning how non-structured everything in Dishonored can appear from a level-design perspective, but as you experiment with your approach and case your targets, it's clear how much thought went into possible player action. Dishonored establishes a language of player possibility, fostering a "why not" attitude instead of focusing on relentless objective-driven design. Corvo has to take down the figures who set him up, as well as their benefactors, but whether that means death or a more poetic end is up to you. (continued below)
Thief: The Dark Project (1998)
It's easy to see how the original Thief influenced Dishonored, from a sense of place in an alternate Victorian era with advanced steampunk technology to its first-person sneaking.
Dishonored's emphasis on multiple possible outcomes and strategies for assassination targets should strike a familiar chord for fans of the Hitman series, and at one point, Corvo even hides in plain sight a la Hitman's Agent 47.
Dishonored's use of supernatural abilities mimics BioShock's plasmid mechanic closely, even borrowing the dual-wielding power/weapon setup of BioShock 2. Even the health and mana meters and pickups strongly resemble those found in Irrational's seminal hit.
Half Life 2 (2004)
Half Life 2 art director Viktor Antonov left Valve for Dishonored developer Arkane, so it shouldn't be any surprise that there are strong visual design similarities between the two. There are hints of City 17 and the Combine throughout Dunwall. Dishonored's first person storytelling also owes a strong debt to Half Life 2's in medias res narrative structure.
(cont.) This helps Dishonored feel open, despite being broken down into levels. I built relationships with the city of Dunwall's districts as I explored them and later returned, using that knowledge and those relationships to execute new assignments. More importantly, the way you carry out your assignments directly affects the city and her districts. Other games have allowed for multiple means of achieving objectives, but Dishonored succeeds particularly in its tacit encouragement of the juggling act of violence, subterfuge, and mercy. Revenge is easier, but has its price, while justice is more difficult to find.
This dichotomy is often reflected in the state of the city via the alliances and more specific decisions you make. Your choices can have unforeseen, dire consequences. An act against a vicious street gang might lead to a renewed outbreak of the Rat Plague, for example, causing a new influx of Weepers — victims in the late stages of the plague driven violently mad — to listlessly patrol abandoned streets in Dunwall.
If you kill them, or other civilians, the military response to your presence will increase, threatening an even greater spiral into violence and death. Corvo's actions influence people in places that may not be apparent until the very end of Dishonored. There's a brilliant sense of consequence and reciprocity to Dishonored that makes even small actions seem like potential triggers for much greater cascades.
Sometimes, design problems make Dishonored less communicative than it should be. It can be difficult to know when Corvo is hidden. While the outer edge of the screen will darken when you're crouched and in sneaking mode, I still found myself spotted a little too often when I thought I was hidden, which led to multiple loops of save-and-reload as I struggled to determine what was considered cover and wasn't. This is mitigated by the lean mechanic - leaning around corners allows Corvo to see, as well as aim powers or weapons, without exposing himself - and there's an old school PC game sensibility to the option to save at almost any time in multiple slots. This allows for experimentation without suffering total calamity when something that looks like cover isn't. But Dishonored fails to communicate consistently elsewhere, such as judging the effective range for Blink, or what surfaces are actually traversable, for example.
Dishonored suffers a third act blunder and can't quite find the same rhythm
Dishonored also suffers from a third-act narrative blunder. It built its momentum until it drew my anticipation taut, and then … it exhaled. It fumbled a climax, and then things picked back up again, introducing new wrinkles and design ideas.
It also continued Corvo's transformation. Over the course of 16 hours I found a steady escalation of power that took Corvo from a glowering man lurking in shadow to a Dark God capable of freezing time and brazenly walking out in the open amidst powerless, unseeing enemies. Dishonored's stumble comes after hours of inspired cat and mouse, where the role of predator and prey constantly shifted when it needed to in order to keep things engaging, but it doesn't quite find the same rhythm again.
Dishonored succeeds, despite its late narrative missteps. With everything against it, Arkane has created a game with a unifying vision and design that stands apart from its contemporaries as something different. But more importantly, Dishonored succeeds as an ambitious game not content to take one thing and do it well. It demands more than most games ever will of its player, and gives more to players than most other games will ever manage.