Many decisions go into choosing to eat a meal at a new restaurant: will be it nice? Might it give me indigestion? Will I tell my friends about in the morning? (Ed: Will I live to tell my friends about it in the morning? We’ve all been to that restaurant.) Some of the similar decisions go into choosing the games we play. Arkane Studios’ latest stealth/action FPS title, Dishonored, is all about exploration and choice. Is deciding to play this game a bad decision? Let’s find out.
Dishonored follows the story of master assassin Corvo Attano as he returns to the city of Dunwall from an overseas trip. Corvo is a trusted confidante of the Empress and goes to meet her atop her palace. It is here that insidious forces come into play, killing the Empress, kidnapping her daughter Emily, and sticking Corvo with the blame. Stripped of his rank, Corvo is thrown into jail to await execution for his “crime”. Luckily for him, a bunch of loyalists believe in his innocence and assist in his liberation. Corvo makes his way to the loyalists’ hideout, and a plan is started to eliminate the conspirators behind it all. There is some political backstabbing going on and it’s soon going to be punctured by the very real stabbing that our silent protagonist is going to perform. Revenge, in this case, is a dish that is going to be served bloody. And raw.
Dishonored takes place in Dunwall, a retro-futuristic industrial city that is ruled by highfalutin aristocracy. While the royalty enjoy lavish parties in their mansions, the working class live among the rats that have brought the plague to Dunwall. The city watch patrol the streets and maintain the wealth gap while thugs take advantage of the misfortunes of others, peddling health-giving elixirs at extortionary prices. The city is like a powder keg primed to go off, and it’s palpable. Arkane Studios have done a sterling job in bringing the 1800s Victorian-inspired setting to life.
Dishonored is a wonderful world to play in. Speaking of playing, it’s refreshing to find that you’re not being dragged through the game by the nose. On the contrary, with each of your missions, you’re given the high-level objective, and left to your own devices. You need to complete the tasks you’re set and have the choice to bludgeon your way through the game or get the job done without killing anyone at all. This is an unexpected turn from the norm, especially for gamers like me whose idea of completing a level is killing every last enemy in it. In Dishonored, the “clean hands” philosophy is that there is always a non-lethal way to achieve your goals. You just need to open your eyes. And listen. And exercise patience. In experience, this is easier said than done. Finishing a mission without killing anyone doesn’t result in new weapons or powers. In fact, the only indication of your non-lethality is a little glowing orb at the mission complete screen. That doesn’t mean you get nothing for your efforts. Keeping a low profile means there are less rats scurrying around the place, fewer plagued citizens, and the city watch guards are not as alert as they would be if you left a trail of bodies in your wake.
Thanks to his weapons and gear, Corvo is a deft hand at killing. His sword slices through body parts with the skill of a surgeon; his pistol separates heads from bodies with a pleasantly loud bang; his crossbow fires bolts that can kill, stun, and incinerate. He can lob grenades and place proximity traps that shoot out sharp razors should an enemy wander into them. Corvo is also in possession of the “heart”, a mystical mechanical organ that beats with increasing frequency when he is near runes. Runes are the artefacts that Corvo uses to acquire his supernatural abilities. One of these powers allows Corvo to teleport short distances in the blink of an eye. It’s quite as satisfying as using blink to appear behind and enemy, strangle (or brutally behead) them, and then disappear again. Sort of like a mad, Victorian Batman (Ed: Now there’s a game I’d love to see!). Other powers include the ability to see enemies through walls, possess the bodies of animals and people, and even conjure up a swarm of rats to distract or devour enemies. Which powers you choose to acquire and upgrade depending on the way you choose to play. Dishonored gives you all the tools to be an exemplary killer, it’s up to you to put them to the best use.
Dishonored is not an easy game to play. Whether you choose to be the brutal killer or not, it’s always nerve-wracking when you’ve been spotted. Breaking the line of sight and staying concealed is usually enough to dissuade a guard from further investigating the disturbance but if you’ve been caught red-handed, the city watch work co-operatively, not only to gang up on you, but to sound the sirens so that everyone knows of your presence. For those hoping to be shadows, this invariably means a reload of a saved game. While the auto-save feature works well, there were a few times when after a death, I was popped inconveniently back into the game mid-battle. At other times, the reload returned me to a time at the beginning of a section. It wasn’t consistent so I had to make a habit of manually saving in the moments before I headed into a heavily-guarded area.
Steampunk assassin or Victorian slugger or somewhere in between, Dishonored lets you play the way you like. The city of Dunwall holds many secrets and is ripe for explorations. There are multiple routes to your mission objectives, with many collectibles and interesting characters to encounter along the way. The experience is there to be savoured not just once, but a few times over.
Final score: 9 backstabby prawns out of 10
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, Windows
RRP: R549 (PS3 and Xbox 360), R349 (Windows)
Age Rating: 18