If anyone were to ask me my favourite stealth series, it would have to be the granddaddy of them all, Thief. With the fourth in the series seemingly in a development no mans land, I was hoping that this new IP from Bethesda and Arkane Studios would fill that Garrett shaped hole in my gaming world. That said, it would appear that I am not alone, and the people over at Arkane Studios have a similar passion for the steam-punk master of shadows.
In Dishonored you undertake the role of Corvo Attano, Lord Protector and chief bodyguard of the Empress of Dunwall, Jessamine Kaldwin. Returning unsuccessfully from a mission to the Free Isles, to seek political aid and insight into a mysterious plague that is ravaging the citizens of Dunwall, you are embroiled in the assassination of the Empress and the kidnap of her daughter, Emily Kaldwin.
Captured by the Empress’ spy-master, Hiram Burrows, you are quickly taken to the prison of Coldridge, where you are held and interrogated for six months. On the eve of your execution, Burrows, now the Lord Regent, and Campbell, the High Overseer, leader of the chief religious faction in Dunwall, reveal that your early return had interrupted their plans to overthrow the sovereign and situate her daughter on the throne as a puppet monarch. Your return placed you in the wrong place at the right time, for them to use you as a scapegoat in their regicidal plans.
Returning to your cell, you are slipped a note from a group known as the Loyalists, who believe you innocent and correctly presume the murder of the Empress is the work of the former spy-master. Escaping the prison you find yourself in a rundown pub owned by the leader of the Loyalists, Admiral Havelock, who requests your aid in removing the corrupt government and recovering the future Empress Emily from their grasp.
Following your exploits is The Outsider, a supernatural being whose worship is outlawed by the Overseers, who offers you his aid in seeking your vengeance against those who have wronged you.
During this meeting, you are given your first taste of the powers The Outsider can bestow, when he grants you the ability to “Blink” from one point to another. He also supplies you with an organic heart he has constructed, which will detect any Idols carved in his name, and any bone charms which have been imbued with some of his powers. The Bone Charms act as permanent buffs, and can range from increased health or resistance to plague carrier attacks, to decreasing the chance someone will hit you when shooting or building your adrenaline by killing plague rats.
Each of your spectral abilities require Runes to unlock and upgrade and adrenaline to use. These include: Blink, as mentioned previously; Dark Vision which allows you to detect enemies, their line of sight and also gives a visual representation of the distance noises you make can be heard; Possession which allows you to control, for a short time, animals and at a later level humans; Bend Time which allows you to slow and eventually stop time completely; Devouring Swarm which summons a host of rats to attack and consume anyone they kill; and finally Windblast which can push and knock down enemies or even shatter doors.
Alongside the six main active abilities, you also have four passive abilities your collected Runes can upgrade: Vitality, which increases your health and regeneration; Blood Thirsty, which allows you to build up adrenaline to unleash brutal melee fatalities; Agility, which allows you to leap further and reduces fall damage; and finally Shadow Kill, which will reduce to ash any enemies you stealth kill, and at the later level anyone you kill, freeing you of the need to hide the corpses of those who have crossed you.
Combining these abilities with the array of weapons and devices you have available makes for interesting and unique approaches to each of the areas and enemies in the game. Whether that is summoning rats using Devouring Swarm, bending time, attaching a spring razor trap to one of your rats before possessing the rat and running it into an enemy for them to be eviscerated by the trap’s razor barbs. Or perhaps possessing a guard, guiding him away to a remote spot, dropping a grenade before blinking over behind the second guard and subduing him from behind while his colleague explodes in a gluttony of gore. Alternatively, you could climb the nearby Watchtower, hack its control panel and watch as the two unsuspecting guards are removed by their own defences. The options are there, and caters to your play style, be it primarily stealth, aggressively combative or a mixture of the two.
The combat mechanics feel solid and precise, without the insubstantiality of melee which some first-person games suffer. Although most of the weapons, gadgets and abilities available to you cater specifically to combat, those who run head first into battle will no doubt have to reload numerous times. Combat is easy to undertake, but hard to master, and no more so than when outnumbered or out-gunned. In those situations it is far better to make a run for it and get to safe ground to hide, lower your alert status and try again. Even on the normal setting an accurate pistol shot is enough to all but obliterate your health in an instant.
Stealth in Dishonored is, as previously stated, a duplication of the occlusion based system from Thief, where hiding in shadows and behind objects and architecture to avoid the enemies cone of vision. Built in is the ability to Peek out from behind this cover which, although giving you a full view of everything to the side in which you lean, as long as your body remains behind the cover you cannot be seen.
The Chaos system Arkane have created is a simple but elegant device. Your choices throughout the story have an impact on the city of Dunwall as it suffers from the mysterious plague. Killing enemies will adversely attract more rats and certain side quests, such as sabotaging an illegal plague tonic distillery for rewards, will leave the less wealthy citizens more open to the infection and may introduce to future levels more “weepers”, the citizens infected beyond the point of no return. Although it only has two settings, low chaos and high chaos, which level you are on affects how others treat you. You may find that some of the quest npc’s will no longer assist you if you are too wanton in your destructiveness, and may even go out of their way to alert your presence to the guards.
For the majority of combative NPCs in the game there is a four tiered alertness system. These range from unaware, suspicious, aware of the character, and actively hunting the character, and are signified by markers over each enemy’s head. Furthermore, hiding from these characters will only reduce their alertness to suspicious, and they will also advise nearby guards of your presence, which in turn will make them more alert to their surroundings. It is entirely possible to alert one guard at the very start of a section, only for an elaborate game of Chinese whispers to spread the knowledge of your proximity across the entire play-area.
Arkane haven’t crafted a fully free roaming world, instead opting for a world dissected into areas specific to one of the nine levels, though each of these areas is quite expansive. These areas are also then further divided into sub-sections separated off with load screens, and I would suggest you heed their recommendation to install the game, as without the hard drive install these load times were quite long. The world and the characters exude a certain level of charm, from the grimy slums and flooded sections of the city in and near the quarantined area, to the large and distinguished housing in the upper class districts, it all has a distinctly Victorian feel to it. Arkane Studio’s time working on Bioshock 2 can be seen throughout the game, with character models and architecture that could allow you to easily believe that Dunwall co-exists in the same world as Rapture.
With its mix of technology and magic, not once did the world seem disjointed. Whether in the suburbs that have massive automated watchtowers, Walls of Light that will vaporise people passing through them and Arc pylons that blast out bolts of electricity at anyone who is not attuned to them, all of which is powered by refined Whale Oil, or in the slums where the cult like worship of The Outsider propagates the use of magic. Although distinctly counter to each other I believe this is one of the key reasons it works so well. Technology vs. Magic, Rich vs. Poor, Science vs. belief. It is between these two worlds that Corvo so conveniently fits, making use of both technological advancements and mystical powers alike.
The Voice work and scripting helps to convey the plot, and with the likes of Susan Sarandon and Brad Dourif, and the emerging Chloe Grace Moretz (of Kick Ass fame) portraying some of the main characters it is easy to find yourself immersed in the lore. Like previous titles associated with Bethesda softworks, Dishonored makes good use of in-game literature to flesh out Dunwall into a fully living and breathing city. History books, works of fiction and books of Academia from within the Dishonored world litter the levels, allowing you to build a deeper understanding of the world that could not be conveyed solely in the plot.
The availability to replay your levels to change your chaos rating will draw the majority of people back for another play-through to obtain both endings.
For those that suffer from anything greater than mild obsessive compulsive disorder, and we all know gamers like that, there is a plethora of stats and achievements to unlock and master. The game rewards you for completing a level without being detected or refraining from killing any enemies, and gives you statistics on how many bone charms, Idols and gold you have collected over a level. Not to mention the achievements and trophies that will require fanatical devotion to the game such as Clean Hands, Surgical or Mostly Flesh and Steel.
That is not to say the game is flawless. At a mere eight hours long some may feel underwhelmed with the game, even with the possibility of replaying your missions. It also has to be said, that you will revert back to your previous ability level, so there is no opportunity to enter a previous level with your new found powers and tricks to make your life easier.
At times the AI’s reaction to my activities, or lack thereof, dragged me kicking and screaming out of the beautifully crafted and enthralling world. Let me give you a prime example: tasked with infiltrating a building to remove a high profile target involved in my alleged crimes, I proceeded to negotiate the environment to reach the structure. Leaping from rooftop to rooftop unseen with Blink, silently rendering guards unconscious and unceremoniously dumping them in trash bins, then finally traversing a river by possessing a Hagfish, I found myself behind some crates ,on a patch of land, just metres away from my intended target. Now, all that stood between me and my quarry was one city watch guard, with another guard and a tall boy - the stilt-walking archers - on patrol nearby. Patiently biding my time, I watched as the tall boy and the guard went about their patrols, while the second guard stood golem-like guarding the door, with nary a move being made.
Eager not to be discovered, I leaned out from the crates, waited for the next gap in the patrols and took the shot. True to my aim, my sleeping dart found the guards neck and he slumped to the floor, snoring loudly. I then watched in dismay as the second guard finished his pass and started to make his way back to the door. I wouldn’t have time to recover and hide the body before it was discovered. I quickly focused on a nearby hagfish in the river, ready to possess it should my victim be found. The guard stopped dead in front of his comrade I held my breath, counting the seconds…then he returned to his patrol without a second thought for his brother in arms, who until a few moments ago was perfectly cognizant and awake, and now lay in a dream world drooling on his own lapels.
I removed the body, and hid him once again in a convenient trash bin, and went on to complete my mission. By the end, I had convinced myself the guard hadn’t seen him, but once my stats came up it was obvious he had. Every level has an alternative, non-lethal method to disposing of the target, so I finished up the level unseen, and without killing anyone. Then I saw, that the number of unconscious bodies found was one. Since all previous bodies had been hidden, and unless one of the guards had been munching on some brined hagfish and disposed of the the empty tin in one of my many “body-bins” throughout the level, the patrolling guard had seen his unconscious colleague, and just went about his patrol as if nothing were amiss.
The fiddly mechanics behind your blink ability can also hinder you at times. Navigating along rooftops and on the top of signs and posts can be an awkward proposition as the precision required is sometimes too exact. Sitting in full view, with enemies patrolling nearby, while you shuffle back and forward to get the targeting to hit that sweet spot to allow you to blink without falling to your death is not ideal in a stealth game, and on numerous occasions resulted in having to restart from my last save to try again with a less frustrating path.
Let me be clear, these are the only two detractions I could discern from the overall experience, and both are the exception rather than the rule. The AI is typically very responsive to its surroundings, and the majority of ledges, pipes or vents on which you precariously navigate are easily accessible.
At the end of the day, Dishonored is a hugely enjoyable and accomplished game and how you wish to make your way through the story is the biggest choice you will make. Will you live up to your role as Lord Protector and remove the corrupt government who is destroying the city from the inside, and try to remove the plague threat that is decimating Dunwall? Or will you spurn the people who have branded you a traitor and cut a swathe through Dunwall to exact your revenge, leaving them to rot in the plague infested streets you leave in your wake? it is entirely up to you.
MLG Rating: 9/10 Platform: PC/PS3/Xbox 360 Release Date: 12/10/2012
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Dishonored for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of one week on a PS3. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.