Dishonored takes place in an alternate past centered around the city of Dunwall where a brilliant scientist solved humanity’s woes by discovering a new use for a precious natural resource. That’s right whale oil, in some odd dimension, has the potential to power all of our gadgets and technology with none of the nasty side effects of petrol...except you have to kill and harvest it from whales? I’m not being completely sincere though Dishonored is really about Corvo Attano, the bodyguard to The Empress, and his struggle to right his name and seek revenge after he is framed for her murder.
Most importantly Dishonored takes place in a world where people are executing power plays, technology is nearly a foreign/magical entity, and the ruling class has subjugated a large and poor underclass which is rotting the city from the inside out. For a quick recap of why Corvo is here, and how Dunwall got to be the way it is check out our overview of the Dishonored: Tales from Dunwall story trailers.
As mentioned before you play as a bodyguard whose honor is beyond question. Your ward is soon killed and as it happens she was the leading figure in the ruling government. The Empress was a well-loved governess and person but someone else in the city needed her out of the way to consolidate their power. Even though the history of Dunwall is shared among her people it is up to you to get to the bottom of the mysteries surrounding this new shift in power and the dark truths lurking beneath the city. After being jailed you are freed by a resistance movement. You are also helped by an otherworldly entity known as “The Outsider” who gifts Corvo with a rune that allows him to use magical abilities. Corvo is now on the run with a clear set of purposes, find the truth, get revenge and clear his name.
Dishonored is a spiritual successor to a number of games and you will immediately notice many features which are seen in other Bethesda titles but also some well known games from other companies. Gunning down your enemies while using traps & magical abilities? That could be Bioshock. Sneaking through the alleyways finding the stealthiest path? You’re probably thinking of Thief: Deadly Shadows. An authoritarian government using advanced technology to subjugate the populace? There’s a bit of Half-Life poking around in here as well it seems. The entire time I was playing the game I didn’t feel as though Dishonored copied most of these elements outright but by the end of my playthrough I felt a bit cheapened by these facts. Could it have been re-imagined? Did I enjoy it more because it was familiar or could Bethesda Softworks and Arkane Studios strived harder to create something uniquely original?
Graphics/DesignCreating an alternately themed universe what is detailed, believable and fully explorable is a tough task. Arkane has seemingly beat one or two other studios to the punch by giving me a game where I can mix victorian era steampunk with magic and the decrepit noir of a plague ridden Britain. Costumes, landmarks, buildings/architecture, groundskeeping, and even player models all give you a sense of stylized wonder which pull you deeper into a story that is already very alien in nature. That should be mentioned above all, that even though we are familiar with some form of Dunwall’s past the world we are playing through in Dishonored is completely foreign to us.
Half-Life 2 featured the Combine which were an alien race with vastly superior technology. City 17 was the fortress city featured in the Half-Life game that shares many design cues with this new Dishonored game. You will find yourself running around MUCH of the game feeling as though you’ve been here before if you’ve played HL2. To me this is a drawback, there could have been some new and original design methods used. It really does look as though walls, vehicles, blockades and some of the technology were lifted right out of the Half-Life 2 game. Viktor Antonov, one of the designers of City 17 in Half-Life, did indeed work on Dishonored so this sort of parallel is understandable but it really shows in everything from shapes to textures and even lighting.
Seeing huge whales hoisted out of the Dunwall bayside ontop of massive ships solely for the use of their oil is heart wrenching but it serves to remind the player of the state of the environment and the state of the city’s population. You will come across buildings, bridges and landmarks that have been modified to facilitate the onward march of technology. Because of the discovery of the whale-oil energy source this march has come much more quickly than the surrounding environment could compensate for. You will slowly discover a world where culture and time have stopped whereas mechanical and technical prowess have plodded on at a staggering pace. This leads to folks with handlebar mustaches jumping around in exo-armor and military officers in full victorian regalia wielding advanced weaponry. The human mind notices things that seem out of place so when you see some of these anachronistic elements the first set of bells and alarms are sounded. If certain items didn’t get modeled or designed correctly it could be a huge eyesore and a second set of warnings would fire off in your head. While playing Dishonored the human mind is at ease, you accept your surroundings because the are equally well designed and detailed.
The design and implementation in Dunwall is astonishing. You’ll hear this said about Dishonored a lot coupled with the fact that it solves a handful of problems that other RPG games have with level design. Dunwall is a city, it reaches upward and as such you will be required to scale walls, trudge through waterways and crawl through vent shafts. Most previous RPGs limited your ability to move around and discover pathways so level design plays into these limitations with flat environments that stretch out like suburban sprawls. Dishonored has a game mechanic that allows quick & easy vertical movement which afforded the game designers the opportunity to create highly detailed and realistic environmental challenges. You’ll find yourself scaling fire escapes to balconies that were seemingly out of reach. You could use a perk allowing you to control someone just long enough to unlock a hidden door leading to a “secret” area. Dishonored is filled with these little details that really flesh out the level design offering a increasingly real world with deep hidden corners and secrets.
Dingy alleyways, dangerous moats and expansive compounds all wait for you in Dishonored and if you explore them thoroughly you will be rewarded with a gigantic experience that far outweighs the initial investment. Every choice is given the same attention to detail so you can play through a level a number of ways, each with a different path, and still have a thoroughly detailed experience.
There is a drawback to the size of the environments though. Console versions of the game suffer heavily with models and environments taking a significant hit to level of detail in order to keep frame rates up to acceptable levels. The Xbox is uniquely saddled with having to install a massively compressed 5gb payload that reduces load times and adds back some of the details lost when playing the game off of the limited DVD medium. Still the textures and structure of the game provide a level of immersion that will satisfy most gamers and their expectations.
GameplayThis is where the bread meets the butter for Dishonored by offering an ingenious take on playstyle that other RPG titles will find hard to beat. You have a set of abilities that is expanded on by the magical powers The Outsider bestowed upon you. Corvo can hunt runes placed around the city to expand his powers and he can find bone charms that will modify the way levels are played. With these two things working together Dishonored is a very dynamic game that allows you to pick your own path. If you choose to expand Corvo’s blink ability you will be able to traverse difficult to reach perches and hidden rooms. If you beef up his possession skills he will be both unmatched in battle and equally as stealthy.
To find runes you equip a “steampunk” heart that pumps and is kept alive by an odd mixture of technology. The heart helps you to locate targets in the environment ala Assassin’s Creed eagle vision, it will give you a distance and direction. Some of the skill purchases cost a large number of these runes so you will not be able to have all options available, you must pick and choose which skills you want to strengthen based on your style. After you beat a level you can restart it to complete more of the unfinished goals but you will not have the added benefit of the runes that you gathered from later levels in the game. This invariably means that certain portions of early levels will be inaccessible or more challenging no matter what your progression through the game is. In my opinion this makes the game much more replayable but will confuse some players as they might expect to take their achievements and runes with them to any level they start. Some items you find throughout the world will be the only way to unlock secondary missions so it pays to look around and collect everything that you can. Some of these missions relay important parts of the story, not critically important to you finishing the game but pretty useful for decrypting the lore of Dunwall.
The bone charm mechanic is pretty unique in that it allows you to spend points into modifiers for whatever level you’re currently playing. So for example If I wanted to be particularly stealthy while roaming around an outdoor area or inside of a heavily guarded building, I could activate a charm that would allow me to possess white or albino rats for an extended period of time. Bone Charms can be linked together to create complex situations where your basic charms or skills’ effectiveness is vastly increased. So while considering the white rat possession benefit you could also activate an charm that would increase the frequency in which you encounter albino rats throughout the level. This can benefit the player by creating unique opportunities to play a level the way you want to. The dynamism of Dishonored really shines here and you can tell it was a primary goal of the developers to offer these kinds of choices for the player in the final game.
There are many shortcuts around the traditional stealth game mechanics: you can be a sniper, a close-up aggressor, or even a pacifist through manipulation of the NPC characters & the environment. I found that I could slink around a building leaving most of the aggressors alive or If I chose to I could silently murder everyone in the vicinity. Dishonored is not strictly a stealth game either, if you’re tactful you can be a fairly beefy and aggressive juggernaut often taking on 4 or more enemies at once. There are lots of ways to die too though. If you’re not careful there are a few ways you will be killed instantly and if you don’t use your abilities even enemies can kill you with only a few well-placed shots.
You will be required to complete a number of missions during which the main goal will be to eliminate a prominent member of society who’s had a hand in adversely affecting the people of Dunwall. These people are also responsible for the death of The Empress and your unfortunate framing for the crime, because of this your missions are often about revenge.There are a lot of options when finishing off particular levels, Dishonored is very much about revenge so you can simply kill your final target or you can exact long-lasting pain by keeping them alive in a disgraced or debilitated way.
Music/SoundThe sound and music of Dishonored are indeed thematic from the weapons you will be using to the era in which you will be playing. These are not the main features of the game though and they take a hit whereas the rest of the game is lifted up. Moving around Dunwall you will find yourself face to face with many interesting mechanisms including turrets, trains, guns & even the dreaded Tall Boys. These technological monstrosities are imposing in every sense of the word and even their sound design imparts a sense of fear when they are encountered.
So yes the sound is amazing but the music is especially limited. Large environments echo and are filled with gigantic sounds but the music doesn’t come to match the rest of the grand game that has been created. You will find yourself in awe of the environment that has been created but nothing in the soundtrack moves you so completely that you have to stop and admire the auditory choices that were made. This has been one of the first games I’ve looked over in a while that hasn’t so completely grabbed me as I listen to the soundtrack. It’s not horrible by any means it is just simple, unengaging and it could be repurposed for a number of other role playing games with little issue or notice.
ConclusionAs an RPG Dishonored has few competitors right now and it is easily one of the better designed games in the last few years. It takes advantage of an ingenious play style that will engage for hours at a time without becoming stale or unmanageable. It is a treat to run around Dunwall almost hunting your prey through a handful of methods that all feel as though they are given a similar attention to detail and weight. There is a mystery to solve in Dishonored and as you progress through the game you will unravel a story that has a predictably devious twist at the end. Nevertheless it is still more enjoyable than the ending of another long-awaited RPG shooter that dropped in recent memory.
Trial and error will be a big part of your early experience in the game. You’ll make jumps and start fights that just don’t go your way especially in the harder difficulty settings. Dishonored is forgiving though offering you the tools to overcome almost any obstacle you encounter. The replayability of the game is something that although understated adds to the value of this premium title that will stay at the $50-$60 range for many months to come. Once you finish the game you can revisit levels and chase down achievements. There are a ton of side missions that expand the story of Dunwall as well if you miss those the first time through I’d genuinely recommend searching for these the second time as they are well worth it.
The best part of Dishonored is the amazing setting. From the first moments you enter the city to the final minutes of the game you are playing around in a highly detailed world that is unmatched in modern gaming. Grand vistas, monumental structures and an entire city to explore await you from the moment you step into Corvo’s shoes. You can shape your experience in the game by playing a number of different ways and this is where Dishonored really rewards its players. Fans will undoubtedly want another visit to Dunwall so you can expect the minds behind the game to take notice and begin developing another installment soon. Bethesda has another winner on their hands here and Arkane Studios has a new flagship title they can flesh out in future releases.