Creating a new IP is a tricky business. You have to rely on marketing and word of mouth to get your game noticed. It worked for BioShock and Borderlands, mostly because those games were highly polished, and extremely good. Dishonored feels like it belongs in this company of names. Developed by Arkane Studios, the guys behind Arx Fatalis, and published by Bethesda, this unique experience hits all of the right notes from gameplay to design and everything in between. It just feels great all around, and I think we will definitely be talking about Dishonored when it comes time to pick the best of 2012.
Dishonored drops you into the shoes of the Empress’ bodyguard Corvo. Framed for a crime you did not commit you are quickly outcast and forced to join up with a loyal group of rebels looking to overtake the system, and put the proper people in power. A plague is also overrunning Dunwall’s patrons giving it a damp, and dreary look and feel. I don’t want to spoil too much of the narrative simply because it is so well done. Characters are interesting, and the city has a rich history waiting to be uncovered through speaking to people and reading journals. This game is rich and reminds me a lot of Rapture in that sense.
The world may get fleshed out through these journals, but it is a real crime is that Corvo never gets a proper backstory. He is such a great character, and while you get a sense of his personality, you never get the full story. I know he loves the Empress’ daughter Emily, and he is loyal to her reign, but beyond that he remains a mystery. Everyone else in Dunwall is given proper history, so this makes Corvo’s lack that much more glaring. I understand their desire to create the shell to let the player feel like Corvo, but he feels too interesting to have been left on the cutting room floor.
Avoiding comparisons to Rapture and BioShock is almost impossible. I hate to use that to describe the game, but the similarities are always on the surface. From learning the backstory of the world by picking up notes and journals, to constantly searching areas for coins and items that turn into cash. The economy system is all handled through a merchant in the core hub area, and is used to purchase upgrades such as larger bullet capacity to quieter boots to help with stealth. You also collect blueprints that unlock new upgrades for purchase.
The collectible system is actually useful. You collect bone shards and runes. The bone shards are modifiers that give you bonuses when equipped. These range from gaining more health from food, to making you move faster when carrying bodies. The runes are used to unlock and upgrade your powers and other traits. You can upgrade health and agility as well as unlock a host of powers. I don’t want to spoil the powers because they all make combat and stealth much more interesting and fun. That is the biggest draw to Dishonored, the game really does a great job of offering up large playgrounds to perform missions in. Dunwall is not open world, but it gives off that illusion fairly well.
Dishonored plays from a first-person perspective, but it much less a shooter than anything else. You control your left hand with the left trigger and the right with the right trigger. Your right hand serves as your sword hand while the left operates everything else. This includes your powers and firearms such as your crossbow and pistol. You can hold down the left bumper to open up a quick access wheel and you can assign powers to hot keys on the d-pad. It all works intuitively and makes switching powers fairly easy. You also have both a health meter and mana meter that can be refilled with potions, also done within the quick select menu with the face buttons. When your health is low you will also be prompted to refill it immediately by tapping right on the d-pad.
From the outset the controls feel smooth and intuitive. I hate to keep making the reference, but it definitely permeates comparisons to moving around Rapture. The structure is where things branch off. The game is set up fairly similar to Ubisoft’s famed Assassin’s Creed series, giving you a target to eliminate; the best part is how you do it, is up to you. The world of Dunwall is expansive, and the route to your target is rarely a straight line. In fact, there are ways to take out your targets without ever interacting with them. Dishonored gives you complete freedom with a major focus on stealth.
Following each mission you are rated on your performance. The biggest factor is the chaos meter, which evaluates you based on how noticed your actions were. Leaving bodies and raising alarms effects this the most. Never does the game punish you for playing the way you see fit, and you can select any mission from the menu to improve your score. Stealth is well done. You can sneak up on enemies and kill them quietly or avoid them altogether. You can complete the game without directly killing anyone, and there is even an Achievement/Trophy for it. However, the combat is so well done, that I never felt bad about taking on enemies head-on.
I also found myself constantly hunting runes to upgrade my powers. This is easily the strongest point of Dishonored. The playground is fun to play in, but getting the more expensive toys changes the dynamic constantly. You will find yourself using all the powers, not because they are necessary, but because they are fun. It is also rare when a game gets stealth right. Failing at being sneaky, which I did often, doesn’t frustrate. Instead it encourages you to take different approaches, and that adds plenty of replay value. There is no multi-player at all. The campaign lasts between 10-12 hours depending on how you tackle it, but going back to collect runes and improve your score definitely packs plenty of lasting appeal.
Dishonored runs on the Unreal Engine, and it shows. The exaggerated characters look good, and the animations are slick, but that texture pop-in is evident; especially if you don’t install the game on 360. These are things you can look past though when so much of the art and aesthetic makes up for it. There are also series of weird clipping issues such as enemies sticking out of their hiding places, causing a lower chaos rating. It can be annoying at times. Audio is impressive with solid voice acting and a fitting score. I am still disappointed that Corvo assumed the muted protagonist role, but I learned to accept it after a while.
Dishonored is truly a gem in a field of sequels and “me-too” titles flooding the market. It is a new IP developed with a lot of the conventions of game design in mind. From the beginning the game draws you into the world and never lets you go. Outside of Corvo never being fleshed out, the world of Dunwall reeks of sequel potential. If you enjoy games like BioShock and Assassin’s Creed, Dishonored is a must play. It has the same potential to become one of those games we talk about in the coming years. While it has some rough edges it definitely shines through being both a new IP, and a new take on the genre.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.