The tail end of a generation has never been kind to new IPs, few and far between as the days tick down until a newer, better iteration of the current tech hits consumers and renders all before it obsolete. Creating an entirely new title from scratch, for it to only have shelf-life of less than a year, you can’t blame publishers for being overly-cautious. Naturally when one is eventually announced an awed hush descends, followed by rabid fervor and eventually intense anticipation, and never was this more true than for Dishonored.
Backed by one of the biggest publishers going and fronted by the indomitable Harvey Smith, with Half Life 2 and City 17 designer Viktor Antonov waiting in the ranks, with an equally formidable voice cast to match. Bethesda have fronted the last handful of Fallout and Elder Scrolls iterations with a huge hollywood name, but Dishonored trumps all with Susan Sarandon, Carrie Fisher, Brad Dourif and Chloë Grace Moretz lending their voices to proceedings.
Dishonored takes place in Dunwall, a vividly stylised steampunk rendition of early-Victorian London amidst the Rat Plague, tearing the city asunder with a rich vein of fantastic artistic design flows through it. it’s clear what Antonov’s vision was and how fantastically this was achieved. Much of the City Watch’s buildings show glimmers of the monolithic Isengard, and the juxtposed revolting opulence of the Boyle Mansion and Golden Cat against the abject squalor of the infected, quite literally left to rot by the powers that be. Unlike Rapture, Dunwall isn’t a dead city beyond revival, but it’s certainly on its last legs.
Unlike the Black Death, the Rat Plague does more than disease and eventually kill, having a cordyceps-like effect and inhabiting the hollow shells of former Gristonians, resulting in Weepers, an euphemism for what’re essentially docile zombies. Unfortunately the Weepers are treated by Dishonored in the same manner as its aristocracy, mere pawns, serving as little more than a narrative tool to convey the fractured nature of the city. With little exploration into personal effects the plague on the citizens, save for the odd NPC asking you where loved ones are and when set aside the likes of Rapture, Dunwall seems a little shallower than it ought to be.
Where Dishonored truly excels is through its combat, doing away with the checklist morality systems of yesteryear and such a system for a protagonist tasked with murder would be nothing short of asinine, the resultant factor being more kills lead to a ‘darker’ ending. Not to say Corvo is necessarily good or evil regardless of your approach to the game, he’s as grey as the permanently overcast skies of Dunwall itself. What’s special is just how many playstyles Dishonored caters for, neither favouring the sword-ho, the vigilante super hero or the unseen ghost. Unlike games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution which force specialisation from the outset, provided enough runes have been collected, Corvo can use his powers and inventory at will, it’s up to the player to decide how they approach the game. Rewards are there to be reaped when adopting a stealthier approach, but no more than through a sense of accomplishment, which is no mean feat in itself. Dishonored can be played from start to finish without hurting a fly, every single assassination target has some form of non-lethal means of dispatch, acquired through additional sleuthing and environmental awareness, but not all are the righteous acts they may appear to be.
The combat is largely facilitated by the excellent level design, only possible through Dishonored’s use of linear mini-sandboxes. Each level is a playground, with limitless variables and avenues of approach, not distinct paths but an entire raft of possibilities. Levels are excellently balanced, each large enough to facilitate a myriad of choice but focused enough to not lose Dunwall’s sense of craft and focus. Dishonored would undoubtably be the worse for in an entirely open setting and in many senses it feels like the game Assassin’s Creed wants to be.
Corvo even feels like a finely tuned assassin, running feels tight and slick, darting around corners gives pursuits a real sense of pace and urgency, if such an approach takes your fancy. Powers are also well balanced, beginning with but a Blink, the ability to teleport short distances, executed both simply and works well as a ‘core’ power, essential for the some of the more satisfying takedowns. And even in being implemented so simply, Corvo feels precisely like the bewitching assassin he is. Animal possession adds another dimension, although even feeling more like a camera atop a remote-control car than a creature scurrying through cracks and crevices, but human possession and combing with other powers is where it really comes into its own. Stopping time whilst under fire, possessing an enemy into the line of fire then slitting the throat of the gunner, and such other delights feel absolutely sublime when pulled off, failure is always due to player-error, the halmark of an excellent game.
Voice-acting, delivery and character animation are all flawless, standing in stark contrast to games of Bethesda past, every character has unique gesticulations, largely due to the smaller scope in which Dishonored inhabits, Arkane’s utilisation of Quantic Dream’s motion capture studios really shine through, even through such heavy stylisation. Susan Sarandon as the enigmatic and completely insane Granny Rags is a particular highlight, a synecdoche for how Dishonored approaches morality, as well as Piero and Anton Sokolov.
Arkane have delivered an excellent game, rife with possibility and marvellous combat, set within the walls of the brilliantly vivid Dunwall. Weaving it all together is a narrative that doesn’t engage quite as well as some of the greats, with stylisation opted for over characterisation, but the combat more than makes up for it. Dishonored and Arkane certainly had a tall order to fill, but it’s safe to say they footed the bill then bought drinks for everyone in the room.
Dunwall is excellently realised, both artistically and mechanically, serving as the perfect canvas for completely open gameplay.
A lack of thorough characterisation and treatment of the Weepers lets Dishonored down slightly.