Dishonored tells the story of Corvo, bodyguard to the Empress of Dunwall. All seems to be well in his workplace... for all of three minutes. In a sudden attack, the Empress is killed, her daughter Emily is kidnapped and Corvo is framed and subsequently imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. There are similarities here with The Witcher 2, of course, but Dishonored is so unapologetic in how its influences manifest that such parallels are barely worth mentioning.
Our hero escapes from prison with the help of a group of loyalists, who want to see Emily on the throne. The player is introduced to a city under iron rule, whose population is suffering from a rapidly-spreading rat-borne plague.
When Corvo reaches the loyalists, events take a surreal turn as magical powers are bestowed upon him by a mysterious figure known as The Outsider. The next day Corvo sets off to track down Emily, and kill those who stand in the way of her becoming the new empress.
Although he is clearly the plot’s pivot, this isn’t really the story of Corvo. Dishonored is about power; specifically it’s about the people who are entitled to hold that power. It’s above all an exploration of social class and ascribed status. Corvo is a working class pawn whose actions are variously dictated by aristocrats and/or senior military types whose only interests are the control of Dunwall, and by a child whose only claim to the throne is her royal bloodline. From a social perspective, Corvo is far closer to the plague sufferers than the people with whom he works each day. In fact, the only difference between Corvo and those dying on the streets is that he has more affluent employers.
But that’s all a sideshow, I’ll admit. The plot rattles along quickly and inoffensively, but there’s little that will be memorable about the story or the characters. Corvo himself is a silent protagonist, but we don’t get the impression he’s the serious, silent type. In fact, judging by how Emily reacts to seeing him in the opening scene, how the men he meets along the way seem to perceive him, and the chatty nature of the dialogue options that are occasionally presented, you get the impression Corvo is quite charismatic. Scene-to-scene, that sense is unfortunately lost between his mutism and the non-player characters’ dull scripting.
You could argue that Dunwall itself compensates for its inhabitants’ lack of depth. Steampunk doesn’t usually appeal to me but Arkane have blended the genre and the game’s aesthetic beautifully into a broody but engaging reimagining of Victorian London. At the heart of this is the weight that objects in the game world seem to possess. Every building, every wall, every rooftop, feels substantial.
This is best demonstrated by the Tallboys, which are bipedal vehicles not dissimilar to Half Life 2’s Striders or perhaps The War of the World’s martian invasion force. These surprisingly nimble giants stomp around the place in dramatic fashion, in one way completely out of step with the earthy vibe of Dunwall, yet in another totally in keeping with Arkane’s aesthetic vision. And that’s not the only aspect that is ostensibly jarring yet inexplicably fitting: Character models have a distinct Team Fortress 2-ness about them that I don’t think most people would naturally place in a world that looks like Dishonored’s. Yet it works, and the combination of these thoughtful, quirky features contribute to Dunwall’s coherence as a setting and reveal an attention to style that’s so often missing from more established franchises.
So what about the gameplay? Well, Dishonored is a tough one to pin down, that’s for sure. I’m a staunch advocate of playing stealth games stealthily, but I’m not sure Dishonored really is a stealth game. Or to put it another way: If it is a stealth game, I’m not sure how successful it is.
The fact is, the direct, violent, murderous approach is incredibly rewarding. You can find yourself wielding a blade while seamlessly switching between magical powers designed to confuse and overpower your enemies like the Matrix-esque slow-mo effect Bend Time, or the attack rats you can unleash with Devouring Swarm.
Even the silent assassin approach can be up-tempo if you so choose. Dishonored makes you feel like Nightcrawler with a blade. Using Corvo’s short-range teleportation Blink to slip from cover to cover in conjunction with Dark Vision, the obligatory copy of Arkham Asylum’s detective-mode, it’s possible to move quickly around large environments completely unnoticed, popping up only when the opportunity to dispatch an enemy arises.
And yet buried in this praise is a criticism of sorts, because in so many ways Dishonored is structured like a classic patience-led stealth game in the tradition of Hitman or Thief. But yet approaching it in that way won't necessarily yield the greatest reward. There's the Possession power that allows you to control rats, dogs and fish to bypass enemies entirely, but the thrill of that wears thin quickly. Most of the equipment at Corvo's disposal is lethal: A sword or gun can't be used to knock an enemy out, and even the sleeping dart for the crossbow can attract attention if not used carefully. If you want to be silent you’ll be sorely limited in your options.
To Arkane’s credit, the control scheme becomes intuitive quickly, and enables players to switch modes of play effortlessly. Corvo’s left hand is used for ranged weapons and magic, while his right holds his sword, giving the controls a Bioshock-like feel.
The cover system might take some players a little while to adjust to. As a loading-screen tip points out, only Corvo’s torso needs to be obscured from enemies’ sight for him to be considered hidden. But with Corvo’s head poking out, you certainly feel visible and it took me an hour or so to get to grips with how lenient Dishonored is in this regard.
But unfortunately it’s probably because Corvo is usually so responsive that niggles really stand out. Blinking to a general area can be done extremely quickly, but teleporting to a more specific point - such as one of the many grand pendant light fittings that seem to adorn every room - can be frustrating.
Similarly, there are rare occasions where you can edge up behind a guard only to find that the option for the non-lethal Jack Bauer-style sleeper hold doesn’t appear. More than once I found myself desperately trying to trigger the prompt by flicking the analogue stick from left to right, which I imagine gives the crouched Corvo the appearance of an infant steampunk ninja in need of a pee.
As I mentioned, Dishonored is a difficult title to pin down, one of those rare releases where scrutiny after a year may be more revealing than impressions based on an initial playthrough. There were so many points at which I nearly lost myself in the world of Dunwall, but the quibbles that I’ve outlined were enough to keep me at arm’s length. All in all, a great game that falls just short of being the modern classic that it could have been.
- Beautiful world
- Slick gameplay
- Good replay value
- The stealthy approach isn't incentivised
- Poor characterisation
Dishonored Xbox 360 Review
In a marketplace overflowing with HD remakes, sequels and re-imaginings, can Dishonored get a look in? I hope so. Its combination of fast-paced stealth and a beautiful world are a joy to behold. I know it's a busy (read: costly) time of year but it would be a crying shame if Dishonored was passed over just because it isn't an established franchise. Imperfect but highly recommended.
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