There are few games where I feel confident in saying that the stealth aspect was done well. For recent titles it has often felt like something tacked on at the end after everything else had been done; a mini-game that serves to break up the monotony. It’s a real shame as many of the games that I played during my formative gaming years like Deus Ex, Thief and the like, had stealth sections that were superbly done. It seemed as if the game developers who were behind those titles just simply up and vanished, leaving behind those with only a modicum of understand of how to make stealth games enjoyable. Dishonored isn’t one of these titles and it makes me incredibly happy to put it in the same category as those seminal stealth titles.
Dishonored takes place in the Neo-Victorian steampunk world of Dunwall, a city that’s been ravaged by a plague of unknown origins turning many of the city’s districts into wastelands infest with rats and those on the brink of a gruesome death. You, as Korvo Attano, serve as the high empress’ body guard who was sent on a mission to get aid for the suffering town. However upon return the empress is murdered in front of you and her daughter taken away, leaving just you to take the fall for that horrendous deed. Dishonored then follows your story after your fall from grace as you fight to recover the empress’ daughter and clear your name.
To be completely honest I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed with the graphics of Dishonored. Whilst I had abstained from watching any gameplay videos so as to not taint my first impressions of it from the announcement videos I remember watching my expectations were built up around the idea that it would be a pretty modern looking title. This is not to say that they’re terrible graphics, far from it as you’ll see in many of the screenshots that follows, there were a few things that were so jarring that my immersion was broken completely. Talking to the NPCs comes to mind, although that could be from the camera locking to their face Oblivion style and having them death stare you down whilst you talk to them.
As I alluded to in the opening paragraph Dishonored is one of the games that does stealth right. Realistically there’s actually 2 completely different games to be played here (maybe 3, even): the first is your typical hide in the shadows and make your way to the objective and the second is a RPG/FPS hybrid where you can run and gun your way through it (the third type would be a varying mix between the two). Both of these play styles are completely viable too and in fact it would seem that you’d actually have a much easier time playing as the run and gun style rather than taking the stealthier route. That being said I found the stealth to be far more rewarding than hacking my way through everyone, but at no time did I feel forced into taking one option over the other.
Stealthing around is quite fun as whilst you’re not given a completely open world to explore like in Thief the sections you’re let loose in are quite detailed with multiple pathways to goals and endless places to explore for additional treasure. The magical abilities you can unlock as well (by searching out runes scattered across the levels) can enable you to do some really amazing things like taking possession of rats and then using them to get into places that would be otherwise inaccessible. It’s also quite thrilling to be hiding just inches away from enemies, watching their movements, moving in to strike and then later hear their allies remarking about where they might have gone.
Going toe-to-toe with every enemy you meet is surprisingly viable, something I didn’t really expect from a game that marketed itself primarily as a stealth based action game. The primary means of dealing out damage is a good old fashioned sword that comes hand in hand with the awkwardness that always plagues FPS games that try to include them. However you’re also given a great selection of other weapons to use such as a gun, crossbow, grenades and things that are essentially proximity mines that fling shrapnel everywhere. Considering the ridiculously plentiful ammunition that’s available everywhere you could very well play this entire game without having to bother with stealth at all and one of the achievements, Mostly Flesh and Steel (complete the game without any additional supernatural powers), seems to encourage this. There is the fact though that the more people you kill the more devastated the city becomes (and the darker the ending will be) so playing run and gun will have some consequences, but it does give Dishonored a decent amount of replayability.
There’s a 2 sided upgrade system that functions as Dishonored’s levelling system and up until a point it works quite well. The primarily upgrade system are runes which allow you to unlock and upgrade supernatural powers. Most of them are incredibly useful and primarily geared towards the players who prefer stealth over brawn. The second upgrade system is the mechanical one enabling you to improve all your non-magical powers as well as doing things like reducing the amount of noise your steps make. In the early game these upgrades can be the difference between finishing a mission and struggling with it endlessly but past a point there’s not much return on investment in tracking more runes or gold down.
For instance since I was playing as a stealth character nearly all the mechanical upgrades were pointless to me and since they use gold instead of runes I ended up having a pretty big surplus for most of the game. This is not because I tracked down all the gold I could find, far from it, its just that once you know what play style you’re going you can min/max your upgrades to make you perfectly fit for such objectives. For me this happened about half way through but a determined player could craft the ideal character after the first 3 missions or so. Sure I still invested in upgrades after that but they didn’t make a huge difference in how the game played for me and I could have just as easily left the runes and gold unspent.
Which brings me to another point. When I was first doing research on Dishonored (mostly looking for average play times) I found an article that said a direct run through would clock in at about 12~14 hours but also that players looking to explore would probably double that as there’d be a lot to find. Whilst the play time is incredibly inaccurate there is some truth to the exploration aspect as you can find many unique encounters if you’re willing to run, blink and jump all over the place. However most of the time the reward isn’t particularly worth it, usually being potions or ammo, and after a while I just stopped seeking them out as I was always maxed out on nearly everything and the only thing I couldn’t find I could buy in unlimited supply anyway. I’m sure there are many people who will get heaps of enjoyment out of seeking all these things out but for me it just didn’t feel worth it after about halfway through Dishonored.
The story of Dishonored is better than most games of similar calibre even if it’s something of a rehash of the typical falsely accused man who’s out to clear his name and make everything right. You at least have some form of agency in that your choice of actions influences both the world around you and how certain characters react to you which is what puts it above other games in the same genre. That being said I didn’t really feel anything for the characters or have a deep emotional involvement in the plot and I think that’s because of one simple thing: the terrible voice acting.
Nearly all of the lines delivered are flat, read in an almost emotionless monotone. It’s rather confusing as the written passages and notes scattered everywhere are quite good, so the writing itself isn’t bad, just the delivery. This is made worse by the canned questions and responses that are obviously heuristically lined up (“Shall we meet for whiskey and cigars tonight?” “Indeed, I believe it is so.”) but never seem to work quite right. There are some stand outs like Lady Boyle’s playful banter and the final soliloquy by the captain but apart from that everyone else could just as easily be a text to speech generator given their delivery. I’m not asking for L.A. Noire levels of emotional craziness but a little more emotion in the lines might’ve made me a bit more involved in the story than I was.
I was asked my opinion of the game several times over the course of playing it and it was interesting to see how it changed over the course of my play through. Initially I was disappointed, I had gotten swept up in the hype again and the initial impressions didn’t match up to my expectations. However as the game went on I found myself enjoying it more and really got into the stealth aspect of Dishonored. It’s probably not game of the year material as many of the major review sites would have you believe but it is an incredibly strong title and in a world where new IP is the hardest thing to market it’s really refreshing to see something like this come to market. For those of us who yearned for the return of the Thief era stealth games Dishonored pays excellent homage to them and is well worth the price of admission.
Dishonored is available on PC, Xbox360 and PS3 right now for $79.99, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on the second hardest difficulty with around 8 hours played and 40% of the achievements unlocked giving the Low Chaos ending.