Anyone who played the first Assassin’s Creed will be familiar with the particular brand of disappointment that permeates the Dishonored experience: it’s a solid game that should have been really, really great. Flashes of brilliance abound, but the title never coalesces into something truly incredible.
THIEF, I PRESUME?
Dishonored can best be described as a mash-up of Bioshock’s steampunk utopia stylings with Deus Ex’s choose-your-own-adventure style gameplay. The art design is lovely: the Victorian architecture draws inspiration from the industrial revolution, and the slightly deformed character models give the game a little comic book flair. Throw in a little sprinkle of the occult – you level up and gain new abilities by searching for bone charms and runes hidden in the expansive levels – and Dishonored feels like a twisted nightmare caught somewhere between a Tim Burton movie and reality.
But the world, while crafted with painstaking care (there are tons of books to be found that fill in the game’s mythos), is somewhat lacking in a few areas. For one, the Unreal Engine is really starting to show signs of aging, which casts a shadow on the excellent artwork the game has to offer. Textures look muddy and bland, character models are rudimentary, and the whole affair looks rather like a first-generation Xbox 360 title, rather than a proper last-hurrah. There are some slight framerate issues when things get a little hectic, and I encountered a bug where the game would hang when I would try to load an autosave. Reverting to an earlier file worked just fine, but it was still rather disconcerting (I’d suggest keeping multiple files).
SOME BUMPS IN THE ROAD
Hollywood-level talent is responsible for a good many of the voices, but most of the performances are relatively flat. Not bad, mind you, just rather uninspiring. You can see the outlines of a once vibrant, colorful world; one would thus expect to find some interesting characters populating the streets. Alas, this is not the case, as they all follow rather traditional archetypes – most falling under the category of “evil and power-hungry.” Someone like the genius scientist Piero should be a fascinating individual; instead, he’s essentially a glorified shopkeeper from whom you can buy ammo, weapon upgrades and health elixirs. The music and sound, too, while quite serviceable – perhaps even good – manage to be wholly unmemorable.
And therein lies the problem with Dishonored: while it tries valiantly to immerse the player in its world, its story, its political struggles, the game ultimately fails to make the player care about what’s going on. The plot – what really buoyed the likes of Bioshock and Deus Ex into the pantheon of classics – is a completely generic tale of regicide and revenge. There are no twists, no surprises; you simply kill people to get them out of the way and to progress to the next mission. The tense atmosphere is completely wasted on flat characters and a predictable, paint-by-numbers good versus evil bloodbath. Not every game is required to have a brilliant story, but even games like The Legend of Zelda or Mario manage to stir up an emotional response in the player.
Much of this problem can be traced back to the disconnect between Corvo (who you control) and you, the person sitting behind the joysticks. You see, Corvo doesn’t speak at all. But he is an integral part of the game’s world, vital to the story and clearly has a part in the mythology. Since he fails to utter a word, however, you kind of play as a ghost – since neither you nor Corvo are ever fully inserted into the world. It has to be one or the other; this vague no man’s land that the game straddles is tremendously unsatisfying.
And then there’s the whole thing with the occult and magic, which seem more like an attempt to explain Corvo’s magical abilities than anything else. It could work, but the game errs on the side of the bland and uninspired. The runes and bone charms all look and act (they emit this boomy-rumbling noise when you're nearby) undeniably creepy, but the explanation behind their existence is positively snooze-inducing. Some being called “The Outsider,” (re: spirit from the netherworld) occasionally pops up to explain their origin and how they tie in with your fate. The magic feels yanked from a 5th century book of pagan rituals, as if the designers wanted to conjure up images of the barbarism/Dark Age associated with the fall of the Roman Empire. Ultimately, it seems a little too in-your-face and obvious to accomplish the intended effect.
The level and gameplay design though are impeccable. One wondering if it’s still possible to innovate in the FPS genre need look no further than Dishonored’s incredibly varied and smooth gameplay. Equally at home being a raucous, bloodthirsty action title and a sneak-around stealth affair in the vein of Thief, Dishonored manages to perfect the formula that Deus Ex introduced to the world so many years ago. And while Deus Ex (and its sequel/prequel) had rather stiff gunplay and conveniently placed vents next to high-level clearance doors, Dishonored features unbelievably organic level design and silky controls.
Seriously, these don’t feel like game levels; they look and play like real buildings and streets. There are ways to approach missions, scale buildings and accomplish objectives that the gameplay designers probably haven’t accounted for. Instead of having two ways of solving a potential problem, the game often presents half a dozen solutions. This gives Dishonored incredible replay value, while also making each experience fairly unique. Even if two players gun through the game, ignoring the stealth portions, it’s likely that their paths will be vastly different. And while the game is relatively short, the tightness of the design and fluidity of the gameplay elements make it worth returning to again and again. No other game allows you to glide through the air at warp-speed and stab someone in the throat in a single, well-rehearsed motion. It just feels right.
This makes the game consistently fun to play throughout – something that can’t be said about titles like Bioshock, Deus Ex, Halo or even Half Life. It’s just a shame that I don’t care about what’s going on within the world. You’ll run around, stab lots of stuff, snap some necks and toss people into the sea, but there won’t really be a point. Dishonored confirms this with the lame 15-second clip ending that differs slightly based on if you killed lots of people or were slightly more benevolent.
THE WRAP UP
The framework of a legendary title is here, but it’s all a little rough around the edges. The world brims with untapped potential, but the game fails to really invite the player into its dark, dying and mysterious steampunk world. For a game with the tagline “revenge solves everything,” it’s a rather unemotional and remarkably dry sojourn through the plague-ridden streets. Despite Arkane’s best efforts, Dishonored lacks soul, and what should be a masterful piece of art instead feels a lot like cold, calculating science.
- Developer: Arkane Studios
- Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
- Available on: Xbox 360/Playstation 3/PC
- Genre: FPS/Stealth
- Release date: October 9, 2012
- Price: $59.99 MSRP
[Guest review by Nick Johansen. For more reviews, check out tinderboxed.]