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Dishonored Review

In my mind, there’s only one real way to play Dishonored: with all of the assists off, on the hardest difficulty, with the HUD as minimized as possible, and the dedication to play as stealthily and cleverly as possible.

Others will take the violent, wanton approach; cutting heads and stabbing backs as they go, but for me, the real joy in Dishonored lies in the amazing feeling it provides of outsmarting your enemies. To me, that’s what stealth games should be all about–racketing up the tension with careful set pieces requiring timing, planning, and sometimes, on-the-fly improvisation.

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Dishonored gives the player a huge number of tools and options to do just exactly that. The only area when it fails is where it allows the player to cut corners if they decide they tire of the stealth approach. Dishonored is a beautiful, deep, and intense experience, but half the time it can’t decide whether it’s a stealth game, or a hackneyed shooter with magical powers.

Dishonored is a new IP from Arkane Studios, the developers of Arx Fatalis (one of my favorite RPGs) and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. The game is published by Bethesda–people seem to keep confusing them as the developer. That’s not the case at all, and Dishonored isn’t anything like your “typical” Bethesda game.

In Dishonored, the player takes the role of Corvo Atano, the bodyguard of the Empress of Dunwall, a dystopian, bleak city clearly inspired by the Dark Ages of London, but with a steampunk twist. Early in the game, the Empress is murdered, and you are framed for her death– setting you off on a quest for revenge and justice. The story in Dishonored starts off excellently and has some wonderfully emotional scenes, but as a whole, it is somewhat flat, with bland characters and dialogue.

The best part of the story is Dunwall itself–the city is so fantastically designed, so real and visceral in its murk and misery, that one cannot help but feel as if they, too, are a citizen of its damp and narrow streets. The game is exceptionally immersive–I could not put the controller down for the first few missions, and felt positively exhausted by the bleakness and decay the game presents you with at every turn. You feel true disgust at the Weepers, for instance, long-gone victims of the rat plague that bleed from the eyes and stumble about like zombies, and as you climb into the higher levels of Dunwall’s society, you will feel an even greater disgust at the aristocrats that so casually dismiss the suffering of the common people. Dunwall is a city going through true Hell–and Corvo is the only one who can turn the tide (or just push it even further into decay).

As Corvo, you are granted a number of supernatural powers that aid you in your mission. The abilities vary widely. “Possession” allows you to enter the bodies of animals and guards, and acts as a sort of disguise, allowing you to bypass heavily guarded areas, or even take your target somewhere quiet so you can drive your knife through their back. “Bend Time” allows you to slow, and after upgrading, completely stop time; this allows for loads of experimentation. “Blink” allows Corvo to teleport short distances–it’s absolutely invaluable, and makes stealth a joy. Blinking up to a guard and slitting his throat before he even has the time to cry out is insanely fun, and the missions allow for all sorts of climbing, exploration, and creative ways to use this fun and exciting power.

One mission requires you to scale a huge suspension bridge, and it is guarded by arc pylons, giant Tesla coil-like towers that zap anyone who comes too close with a bolt of instant lightning death. I got a bunch of guards to chase me toward the arc pylon I had sneakily reprogrammed to target them instead, but instead of running into a neat row and getting incinerated, as soon as the group saw their first comrade dissolved into dust (a really awesome and satisfying visual, as well), they instead kept their distance and began sniping at me with their pistols. It was then that I turned on Bend Time, jumped into the middle of them with a proximity mine, and jumped away. I turned around, turned time back to normal, and watched them all explode into pieces.

It really makes the stealth in the game feel very active and involved. You won’t be sitting around watching guards patrol, you’ll be blinking past corridors once they turn their back, or cleverly ambushing them after seeing them with Dark Vision (another power, which allows you to see enemies and objects through walls). There are a number of powers, all of which can’t be unlocked in one play-through. There are also bone charms, which add small bonuses to the player – much like the Gene Tonics from Bioshock 1 & 2 – although I think they should have had more of an effect on the gameplay. The bone charms really don’t add too much, with the exception of one that allows you to choke out enemies faster.

Dishonored allows tons and tons of room for experimentation and emergent gameplay. Each of the game’s nine missions allows you to tackle your objectives from numerous angles, and your targets can be killed in all sorts of ways. Interestingly enough, the game also allows you to beat it without killing anyone–a challenge that comes with a hefty achievement reward. All of your assassination targets can be dealt with in alternative ways. I found sending two corrupt aristocrats to work in their own mine, with their tongues torn out, to be a far more grisly and satisfying conclusion than simply stabbing them in the heart, for instance. How many enemies you kill affects your Chaos rating, which in turn, increases the number of the guards you encounter, the ending you receive, and the overall tone of the game. You can, of course, do the opposite, which involves killing and murdering everything. Corvo has a variety of weapons–a silent, deadly crossbow; an obnoxiously loud pistol that can clear out an entire room in seconds flat, and my favorite, spring-razors–which are silent, lethal proximity mines that send shards of razor wire flying in all directions when they are triggered.

All of this depth and ability to experiment gives Dishonored insane replay value. I have beaten the game three times, each time finding new things, new strategies, new story tidbits to discover. From a gameplay standpoint, Dishonored offers a level of freedom and directionlessness (in a good way) that is pretty unprecedented for this generation. Some of the game’s freedoms work against it, however. At any point you can simply turn down the difficulty and turn the game into a snooze- fest that involves running up to every guard, getting into sword fights with everyone, and causing all around mayhem. If you play Dishonored like a pure action game, you’ll be missing out on the point entirely.

The right way to play it is with the lights off, slowly creeping your way through each level, teasing secrets of the world from snippets of forgotten journals and eerie, Brave New World-like mottoes splayed across the game world – “The Boldest Measures Are The Safest.” If you run through, slicing everything to bits, the game will not only be incredibly short (you could easily run to each target and beat the game in 6 – 8 hours), but deeply unsatisfying, and the fact that Arkane allows the player to approach such a gem of a universe in an awkward and ugly way suggests it was pressured to make the game appeal to action gamer fans, or gamers lacking patience and the willingness to explore without a giant objective marker pointing the way toward the next objective.

So, my suggestion is: Turn off the HUD. Crank up the difficulty. Experiment. Explore. Soak up all the tremendous love and attention to detail that has gone into creating which I honestly believe is one of the best fictional cities I’ve ever encountered in a game… and truly allow yourself to step into the shoes of an assassin.

Contributed to Game Freaks 365 by Asad Syed