I’ve always loved the stealth genre, and steampunk (or in this case, Gaslamp) tickles my fancy, so when I saw the CGI trailer for Dishonored I sat up and took notice. When I finally got to see it in action at E3 I knew that this was going to be a title that managed to stand out against some of the high-budget super-titles that tend to dominate the holiday season with their sequels. Watching every developer diary and video for Dishonored just made the wait for the game that much harder. Well, the final product has finally arrived and it is time to see if the game manages to live up to the heavy weight of anticipation.
The story of Dishonored is really the story of Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, the young princess Emily Kaldwin, and their protector Corvo Attano. The industrial city of Dunwall stands as capital to the Empire of Isles, using whale oil to power all aspects of life. We join the game as Corvo returns from one of the nearby islands where he was investigating a mysterious rat plague that is beginning to touch the poorer citizens of the city. As he enters the city he is greeted by young Emily, who escorts him to report to the Empress. When calamity strikes and the Empress is slain by mysterious assassins and Corvo is found holding her body as her life slips away, he is blamed and branded a traitor. In the scuffle the young Princess is abducted and naturally the blame for this is also laid squarely at Corvo’s feet. As he is carted off to prison, our adventure begins.
Dishonored is a title that is best experienced more than described. This comes mostly from the fact that every experience will be slightly different than the last. There are multiple paths (in excess of 8 or so most of the time) to gain entry, and there are multiple ways to dispense justice once you get there. You can (and I did) go through the entire game without killing a single person, resorting to stealth, sleep darts, and non-lethal actions to take down your foes. You can wholesale slaughter every living person you see, striking them down with sword, crossbow, and even unleashing a swarm of rats to feast upon their corpses. If happy accidents are your thing you can infiltrate the enemy camp and discover fun and interesting ways to push enemies to gruesome deaths. Electrical walls, long falls, being crushed under falling objects, and many more environmental calamities await unwitting foes that cross Corvo. Just as it is with the paths, there are a great many options to seek your revenge.
In the world of Dishonored, actions have consequence. Slaughtering enemies raises the “Chaos” level. Since this is a hidden stat, you’ll only see this reflected at the end of a mission. If you’ve raised the Chaos level high enough you’ll begin to see more “Weepers” (plague infected victims that bleed from their eyes and puke blood while insects buzz around them) and plague rats in the city. Since the little bastards can actually kill you with enough bites, the rats alone are a problem. The Weepers present a more immediate threat as they will begin to make some paths far more difficult. On a long enough timeline with a high chaos rating you’ll even see a different ending level and outcome.
Lights, Shadows, Magic, and Weapons
Corvo is a master assassin, and his greatest weapon is his ability to utilize light and shadow to his advantage. Unlike most stealth titles, Dishonored focuses more on whether enemies have you in their line of sight or can hear your actions rather than sticking to prescribed arcs of light or darkness – putting something between you and your foes is vastly more important. As enemies take notice of a noise you might have made, or your movements attracting attention, they’ll become suspicious and move to investigate. If they spot you from a closer distance they may immediately call for backup and attack you. To help lure enemies to where you might quietly dispatch them, you can toss objects in the environment such as bricks, bottles, or even firing an errant shot. It also gives way to one of the best features I’ve seen return to first-person shooters – the lean.
Corvo can lean out from cover allowing him to peek around a corner, safely surveying the environment. You can also initiate powers and fire weapons from a lean, giving the master assassin an incredible edge over his enemies. This is a feature sorely missed from shooters, and I am very glad to see it return.
Corvo’s arsenal consists of his blade, a pistol, and a crossbow, but over time it can be extended greatly. Spring-loaded razor traps, auto-hacking tools, grenades, sticky bombs, and sleep darts are just a few of the items he can unleash in the game. It’s when Corvo gains the ability to use magic that things get…interesting.
In the city of Dunwall there is legend of a being called “The Outsider”. When Corvo meets this mysterious man in person he is granted the ability to cast powerful magic. The first power he receives is a spell called Blink, allowing Corvo to teleport a short distance in any direction, including up. This opens up a huge list of pathways that were otherwise closed off by height. Corvo can use a magic heart to track down Runes which enable more powerful spells. All spells have two levels of power, so searching for Runes becomes a pretty important side mission. The powers can give you the ability to see enemy cones of vision, slow or even stop time, violently shove enemies with a force of wind, increase your jump power or health, turn dead enemies to ash, possess enemies in body and deed, and more. If you are running the pure stealth angle you’ll find that you run out of useful things to upgrade about ¾ of the way through the game, but if you are heading down the violent path there is plenty new under the sun.
Runes aren’t the only collectible in the game – you’ll also run across bone charms. Carved from the bones of whales, these objects of power offer a small boon to the player. There are a total of 35 charms with 25 being chosen and placed in the game in various locations. The charms can grant a variety of powers including giving Corvo a small amount of mana for performing assassinations, bumping your maximum health slightly, faster mana or health regeneration, or the ability to throw objects a little further. You can use three right off the bat, but you’ll have to buy upgrades to push that number higher.
Through the course of your adventure you’ll eventually find an ally that can upgrade your gear. He will allow you to use your hard-stolen coin to increase your optic range, raise the amount of charms you can equip simultaneously, upgrade pistol power and reload times, and far more. Additionally, there are a handful of blueprints that grant even further specialization such as explosive rounds and increased armor.
Beyond the tangible collectibles there are a ton of bits of story information and books scattered throughout the world. While these are 100% optional, it may unlock otherwise barred safes, guide the player to hidden caches, or otherwise serve to expand on the fiction guiding the story. It brings some immersion to the title, expanding nicely on some of the subplots.
Over the 20 hours and 9 missions of gameplay of a first run-through (this game does beg for at least another to see what a high-chaos level does to each level’s randomization) you’ll find that not only does Corvo’s powers grow – so does your ability to combine them. As an example, since a Springrazor trap can be attached to any surface, even a living one, you could toss it onto a nearby rat, possess the rat, and then spring the trap as you approach a heavily-trafficked guard checkpoint. You could also stop time, choke out an enemy, shoulder him, and vanish into thin air using blink. Want to really impress your friends? Let an enemy fire at you, halt time and then possess the foe only to walk him in front of his own round. You could also silently choke out an enemy, sling him over your shoulder to teleport to the top of a bridge and then toss his body into a force field to turn his corpse into ash. Just like paths and powers, there is a great deal of choice here.
“Yes, yes” and “Indeed. I believe so”
Dishonored features a star-studded cast for voice work. Carrie Fisher (Matrix), Daniel Hagen (Guild Wars 2), Lena Headey (300, Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles), Billy Lush (Generation Kill), Susan Sarandon (Thelma and Louise, Dune), April Stewart (Mass Effect, Guild Wars 2), John Slattery (Mad Men), and Brad Dourif (Dune) round out the actors lending their voices to the storyline. All characters deliver rock solid performances, but it is the NPCs that drop the ball. Playing through the game stealthily means taking your time, and taking your time means listening in on NPCs until just the right time to strike. As conversations repeat over and over you have to wonder why more lines weren’t recorded. The questions remain static (e.g. “Will you be leaving the city for the Fugue Festival?” with the same character responding with “Yes, yes” and “No, no, no” and “Indeed. I believe so” all coming from the same NPC. In fact, the responses are heard in almost every level. These three can be the answer to a request to go drinking, a possible promotion, and more. Meant to be randomized, once the rose is off the bloom these responses stick out like a sore thumb.
Beyond the voicework, the game’s music is rock solid. Composer Daniel Licht (Hellraiser: Bloodline, Dexter, Modern Family, Silent Hill: Book of Memories) delivers a score that fits the Gaslamp universe, giving players soothing tones when remaining in stealth, and a driving soundtrack when engaged in combat. The audio remains balanced across the board, but levels can be adjusted individually should you feel the need. The game also supports subtitles – a feature much appreciated.
Power to the PC. Also, bugs.
For any game slated for consoles, it’s often the PC version that suffers. Controls are often limited, textures suffer greatly, and features are busted at best. Thankfully the folks at Arkane wouldn’t stand for that, and it shows. The game supports a huge variety of resolutions, Field of View adjustments, full anti-aliasing modes, and even the ability to turn off light shafts and rat shadows. Similarly, you can adjust between several difficulty levels, how much your head bobs when you run, and where chain climbing occurs relative to the camera’s position. For purists you can also adjust tutorials, objective displays, whether or not important objects are highlighted, and much more. In terms of control the game handles perfectly via keyboard and mouse, and equally well with a controller. Since literally every control in the game can be remapped, you are once again presented with choice.
My review PC is a MSI GT70 which handled the game with everything maxed, holding a steady framerate and loading levels or save games inside of 2-3 seconds. Similarly equipped PCs should be able to tackle the game easily, but the recommended requirements are actually pretty low. The game is powered by the Unreal Engine 3 and Havok, so if you’ve run similar games on the same engine you’ll likely be just fine here. Just as in other games that use the Unreal / Havok combo, little animation hiccups ensue. Corpses get stuck in walls, unconscious enemy limbs vibrate and elongate to hilarious proportions, character heads vibrate, and occasionally awkward or obscene ragdoll poses happen when sleeping foes are dropped. Additionally, if you stack enemies like firewood as I do, you’ll quickly notice that they may randomly disappear. I’m sure this was done to assist memory usage or framerate, but when you are keeping track of roaming randomized guards, it’s better to be able to keep count.
In addition to the Havok bugs, we did find one showstopper bug that had us retreating to previous saves. During a mission that had us knocking out an aristocrat and then steeling her away in a boat, we were unable to complete the mission. Her escort would not engage in conversation, and one party guest was unnaturally trained on the opening to the basement, leaving no path where we could escape undetected. Redoing this area on a previous save allowed us to at least rush past our watchful party guest and initiate the escape.
Graphically Dishonored is a triumph. The heavily stylized graphics gives characters a gaunt and chiseled appearance, granting a great deal of personality to the various NPCs. The variety in creatures is more than pallet swaps. The environment is a fantastic blend of rusted trash Gaslamp built on a decaying and ruined city, as well as the opulent and magnificent world of the aristocracy. While some of the textures are somewhat bland, areas like the previously mentioned party level are absolutely magnificent.
Dishonored manages something well beyond a solid product – it gives us a taste of stealth that has gone unfilled for quite some time. With the randomization system running full tilt, so many alternate entrances and escapes, and a plethora of collectables, the game lends replay value well beyond the already-impressive 20 hours of gameplay. Developer Arkane Studios has a portfolio that includes Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, Bioshock 2 (they did the design, animation, and art), and now Dishonored, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that this game feels like a blend of those previous titles and last-gen stealth powerhouse, Thief. Whether you like to sneak, like to slay mercilessly, or somewhere in between, there is something here for you. Dishonored is very easily a contender for Game of the Year.