Historically, ZeniMax Media and Bethesda Softworks have made some pretty smart decisions together. From developing The Elder Scroll series to obtaining the rights of Fallout from Interplay Entertainment, its latest move – the acquisition of Arkane Studios as a subsidiary developer – may have proven to be it's smartest one yet.
Dishonored, while not the perfect game, could not have arrived at a more perfect time. With many of 2012 's AAA titles having been pushed well into next year, Arkane Studios latest project certainly has a chance to shine. But is this tale of betrayal and revenge one that is worth playing? And more importantly, can the game's masked protagonist stand on his own when gaming's premier assassin franchise, Assassin's Creed, steps back into the fray with its biggest and most anticipated release yet?
In Dishonored, gamers take up the mask of Corvo, a skilled bodyguard for the Empress turned vengeful assassin. Now here’s the part where I wish I could say it’s a tense and riveting story which rocked my socks from beginning to end; it formulates about as excitingly as stated in the first sentence of this paragraph however. Unlike the backstory we understand about the extensive training characters like Altair or Ezio went through in order to fulfill a purpose, Corvo is essentially helped out of a prison after being framed for murder and told that he is now an assassin and he needs to kill a bunch of people.
You barely get to know the loyalists that assist you and are pretty much forced to do everything they say with only small bits and pieces of information as to what you are achieving. As the story plays out it even undertakes a fairly predictable path. If it seems like I’m not bashing this aspect of the game nearly enough however, it is because there could be no story at all and it would still be a blast to play. You won’t be playing Dishonored for its exhilarating and ground-breaking story; you will play it because being a bad ass assassin with a myriad of powers and gadgets is pretty damn awesome.
From the very start of this supernatural adventure of betrayal and revenge it couldn’t be more obvious that this is the type of game Bethesda would definitely burn their brand into. Most interestingly a good way to view Dishonored is this is how an Elder Scrolls or a Fallout game would play if the open world aspect was consolidated just a bit into segmented zones. Undoubtedly it plays similarly to a Skyrim or a Fallout 3. This is most evident by the simple things like picking up stray coins or cans of food on tables and shelves. There are limitations to many actions, but appropriately so; for instance while you can still pretty much kill anyone you want as in the aforementioned titles we are drawing comparison from, if it effects your mission the game will end and you must restart. Slaying even the maid that cleans up after everyone in the main base of operations for Corvo will “dissolve” the loyalist union that supports your character in his missions. Before anyone asks, yes I found this out personally. Not my fault she wouldn’t get out of my way.
These restrictions are hardly a hindrance to enjoying the game, as I said they are appropriate and not over or under bearing. The prime contributing factor to what makes this true is how incredibly satisfying the combat is. Deriving a stealth aspect akin to Batman: Arkham City as opposed to a kindred Bethesda game, there are more than enough approaches to battle to keep things interesting. Combining the many superpowers such as short teleportation (Blink) and taking possession of animals and opponents, stealth and in-your-face slaughter both benefit equally from variety.
When really studying the layout of each area and doing the hard math, there actually isn’t a great deal of opportunities for combat in terms of sheer numbers. This is easily circumvented by the fact that there are about 10-15 ways of engaging and finishing a conflict depending on your position and surroundings. Nothing is quite as gratifying as sniping a target from a balcony with a sleep dart, then blinking down behind his buddy and choking him out while he checks on his cat-napping comrade. Of course if you’re more into silencing the pulse of your prey there are lethally nifty gadgets like a proximity shrapnel trap to incorporate into your tactics or handy powers like summoning a feisty group of plague infested rats to attack the nearest living thing.
The powers Corvo can attain are not necessarily all integral to surviving, but they are geared more toward providing choice. Each one is fun in their own right, and with the exception of an excessive usage of the rat summoning skill each one can also be used for lethal or non-lethal tactics. The more “artistic” or stealthier manner of execution often wins out over running in and taking names because of how easy it is for Corvo to perish under conventional means; invincibility or even enhanced durability is not one of your super powers in Dishonored. A few sword slashes and a gunshot will prove as deadly as a fall from the right height, so those encounters can often prove time consuming as well.
Much like in recent games where non-lethality and stealth can be heavily rewarding such as Deus Ex, it is possible to play through without so much as raising a single alarm, being spotted once by a guard, or even killing a single person aside from your marks. Even then, there are non-lethal methods of neutralizing certain assassination targets; choosing those over murder will also yield their own personal benefits. This kind of variety is always a good thing, especially when it serves to distract from some of the game’s lesser qualities. While Dishonored does not have these in abundance, they did become increasingly noticeable in the later missions.
Aside from the mediocre story, the quality and difficulty of the missions after about the fourth or fifth one suffer a pretty steady decline. One in particular went so quickly that I went around picking fights with people after clearing out any optional areas just to get my playtime for that mission up to a half an hour. Most following that one I was able to breeze through even on a shortage of ammo and supplies; enemies just did not put up enough of a fight anymore and the A.I even seemed to dumb down to the point where I was sneaking up behind someone to choke them out and another guard turned the corner and by all rights saw me there clear as day, yet did nothing but stand there with his alert level one tick below red and simply turned around and left. It isn’t something that happened repeatedly, but not having to engage two or three enemies in the fray at that point severely altered how easily I should have concluded that mission.
Graphically speaking there is not much to complain about at all. Dishonored is easily one of the most well designed games in recent memory in terms of the architecture and stage design. A mash-up of an industrial fisherman’s paradise and 19th century England is nicely realized with distinct artwork and the power of Unreal Engine 3. While the amount of interactive areas of each map is not as vast as it could be, it is certainly enough to keep eyes all along the walls, guard stations, shelves, and other nooks and crannies all throughout the game. The beauty of Dishonored will not go unacknowledged.
Fun Factor: The bread and butter in Dishonored is the combat, and it’s tons of fun. I don’t suspect I’ll ever get tired of replaying missions and just being as creative as possible in dispatching of my foes. Between lethal and non-lethal there are a healthy amount of approaches to clearing out areas.
Difficulty: Certain missions provide a decent challenge; overall there isn’t anything too frustrating and nothing overtly difficult. Later missions see a decline in challenge regardless of what difficulty level is chosen.
Length: The entire game can be completed in 20 hours on the first run if you’re looking for runes, bone charms, and doing all of the little extras. Trial and error with multiple continues is also accounted for here. Rest assured more time will be put in replaying missions after they’ve been beaten to either take a lethal/non-lethal style or to collect everything if it wasn’t done so the first time.
On the Negative Side: Story is simple and derivative and a faltering level of challenge level are the only things that really pull the game down. A fix in both would do wonders in bettering the overall experience however.
Bang for Your Buck: Corvo is no man’s placeholder, Assassin’s Creed III will be one of the biggest releases in gaming history without a doubt but Dishonored has proven itself a contender all its own. Your assassin fill is indeed generous this year, and with future DLC already planned this is one investment you can allow.