Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Dishonored for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

I remember seeing an ‘Extra Credits’ video which was talking about bad games which can look like great games for the first half an hour, before flashing up a picture of the box art of Dishonored. Although this is a bit harsh (Dishonored is definitely not a bad game) it is a good game which looks like a great game at first. Dishonored makes a hell of a first impression, but as I played it became clearer and clearer that it was not the game I hoped it would be, creating a promise that the game never quite lives up to.

Dishonored is set entirely within the city of Dunwall, a sort of steampunk influenced dystopian alternate Victorian London. Dunwall has been ravaged by a rat carried plague, which also has the unfortunate side effect of causing swarms of rats to become aggressive and strip  unwary citizens to the bone. The rats of Dishonored are probably the scariest enemies I’ve encountered in a game this year. Dunwall is a location full of potential, yet never manages to reach the immersive levels of Bioshock’s Rapture or Half Life 2’s City 17. In a way, I almost wish that the developers had gone to the whole hog and set this directly in an alternate history London. The broader fantastical setting of Dishonored is mostly explained in notes and books scattered around the world, and certainly sounds interesting enough, yet receives almost no influence over the main story. This is a similar problem to that seen in The Last Story, a desire to create a broad and interesting setting yet without the ability to weave this effectively into the actual narrative of the game. Dunwall doesn’t feel nearly as fresh or interesting as it should, which is a shame because the developers, the promising Arkane Studios, clearly put a lot of effort into it.

The protagonist of Dishonored is Corvo Attano, bodyguard to the Empress of Dunwall, a disappointingly silent protagonist. Upon returning to Dunwall after a foreign tour seeking aid for the plague ravaging the city, Corvo’s reunion with the Empress is violently interrupted by her murder at the hands of mysterious teleporting assassins, who then kidnap the Empress’s daughter Emily. Found at the scene of the crime, sword drawn, Corvo is thrown into jail for the murder, awaiting execution. A few months later, the former spymaster of Dunwall has seized power, ruling as a brutal dictator. After making his escape from the jail, Corvo meets with a group loyal to the former Empress who plot the downfall of the Lord Regent and the rescue of Emily. Corvo is also visited by a mysterious trickster god figure known as the Outsider, who grants Corvo supernatural abilities, popping up sporadically throughout the game. Like much of this game, the story contains lots of interesting elements which never seem to come to fruition. The potentially interesting influence of the Outsider feels detached from everything else going on in the game, with a great opportunity to establish some plot points for potential sequels squandered. Easily the strongest element of the narrative is the relationship between Corvo and Emily, which sadly is not explored as much as it should be due to Corvo’s nature as a silent protagonist. Very little that’s particularly surprising occurs in the plot of this game, which fails to live up to the potential of it’s incredibly intriguing first trailer.

Dishonored is a first person stealth game, taking cues from the Thief series, and with certain similarities to the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Corvo is sent out on a series of missions into large, fairly open areas with a target to hunt down and eliminate. Sometimes there are optional objectives to make your life easier, but how you get to your target is pretty much up to you. There aren’t many missions in the game, but if you’re taking your time and seeking out the runes and bone charms which boost Corvo’s abilities, each mission will still take you a while, ranging from around 45 minutes to a couple of hours. Armed with a sword at all times, the combat system is rudimentary and clumsy, but that’s sort of the point. If you’re in an open fight with your sword you have failed to remain stealthy, and an uphill battle is your punishment. Corvo is replete with gadgets and weapons, such as a pistol and crossbows  can shoot incendiary bolts for the pyromaniacs  and sleep darts for the pacifists. Most fun are the magical abilities granted Corvo by the Outsider, the most basic and useful of which is the ability to teleport short distances. This move was a stroke of genius by Arkane, allowing Dishonored to feel distinct from other stealth games and allowing Corvo a manoeuvrability at times coming close to Mirror’s Edge. Other powers include the ability to possess rats and fish to get through narrow spaces or waterways and the ability to slow or even stop time. You will not be able to gain every ability on a single play through, so it’s a matter of picking the abilities which you feel best match your playing style. The wide variety of moves are impressive, and there genuinely are a multitude of ways to approach each mission. For each target you can choose to simply assassinate them, or to go for a non-lethal approach, whichI found where generally more interesting, and sometimes amusingly sadistic.

Although the game holds together well, and teleporting around everywhere never gets old, the charm for much of the gameplay wears off quickly. Although we do have a lot of freedom in how we tackle the missions, certainly more than in most modern games, the player is clearly shunted along a few clear paths. Although we gain lots of cool abilities, after using them the first few times they just become another weapon in your repertoire, without the option for use in interesting or unexpected ways. Much has been said about this games length, but I honestly don’t feel that it is a problem. Everything this game has to say is said in those 8-12 hours of play, and any lengthening would have felt like artificial padding, something that this game is blissfully without. Although there are side tasks, you are always focused upon your goal, allowing a clarity of vision unseen in potential rivals such as Assassin’s Creed and Deus Ex.

Dishonored, for better or for worse, is at least an interesting looking game. I’m not convinced that the vaguely cel shaded style, which looks something like Bioshock put through a Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword filter, is the best for the environments, but they deserve some props for trying something different. There’s some truly atrocious texture pop up after loading, but that’s becoming par for the course for most AAA releases as we near the end of this console cycle so I can’t really blame Arkane for this. One area which thoroughly impressed me were the character designs, particular the faces. Although they are in no way naturalistic, they convey a huge amount of character, whilst remaining fairly static. The voice acting is something of a mixed bag, with some truly excellent performances surrounded by some unambitious and boring ones. The clear highlight is Susan Sarandon as the mysterious occult figure of Granny Rags, with Chloë Grace Moretz giving a performance as Emily which could easily have slipped into being annoying, yet manages to fall on the side of charming. Somewhat disappointing is the rather dull performance given to the wonderful Lena Headey, of whom I’m a huge fan, but in fairness to her she’s only working with the lines given to her, and the character she is playing is devoid of interest or charm. Something I loved however was the interactions between the guards, which sometimes made me feel slightly bad after I plummeted from the rooftops and stabbed them in the neck. Sometimes. The presentation of Dishonored is extremely ambitious, but like much of the game it falls just short of the mark of being something truly visually and audibly stunning.

Dishonored is filled with flashes of brilliance, and holds together as a perfectly entertaining few hours of entertainment. If you were hoping for something truly new or revolutionary, or even an incredibly polished experience, look elsewhere. With another six months, or even a year, of development time, I’m convinced that this game could have been great. As it is, it’s just good, and considering the glut of quality games on the market at the moment, good just isn’t enough right now. In a few months during the post-Christmas game drought and this game is costing under £20, buy it, it’s absolutely worth a purchase, but for now there are much better ways to spend your time and money.

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