The city of Dunwall is faltering to an alarming degree. Plague carrying rats scurry though the streets, infecting and eating the populace, seemingly at will. Quarantine zones have been set up to curb the infected ‘weeper’ menace but the problem keeps getting worse. You play as Corvo, the Empress’ bodyguard returning after time abroad. You are called back to her service and arrive just in time to witness her slain by invisible assassins. Blamed for the crime and imprisoned, you must escape to rescue her young daughter, the only heir to the throne. In order to clear your name you are supported by a group of like-minded soldiers and nobility who act as quest givers. Each mission starts with you being boated into a section of the town. The rest is up to you.
Dishonored is a stealth game, but is so much more than just hiding in shadows. Each city area has an ultimate goal (usually to take out a central figure) that can be approached in multiple ways. The greatest change with Dishonored is that it promotes non-lethal attacks over the traditional kill but don’t get caught gameplay of its contemporaries. Most achievements and bonuses require you to hide or ‘ghost’ you way through levels undetected. You’re encouraged to take your time, learn the guard patterns and find extra clues before using non-lethal takedowns. Dishonored punishes you for killing your enemies by making the game harder. More rats and weepers will appear in each level and mutated plants will attack if you get too close. While this approach can be quite interesting, you may not like the obvious encouragement to play the game in a certain way.
As you progress, you develop a range of talents to aid your stealth, which really gives you the creativity to approach levels in different ways. Ideally, guards should be taken out from behind in a choke hold and then hidden. Runes can be found which allow you to unlock powers and extend health. ‘Blink’ is the most useful power as it lets you quickly teleport across short distances. ‘Possession’ sees you taking over a rat or a person, letting you stroll past guards in plain sight. ‘Dark Vision’ lets you see enemies through walls. Some abilities are better suited to an aggressive game experience, while others enhance your ability to sneak.
You also gain access to a variety of useful two handed weapons, in a manner similar to BioShock and Skyrim. Your assassin’s blade is automatically allocated to your right hand (but you don’t have to use it) and the extra or magical weapon given to the left. Crossbows kill silently over long distances and can even be equipped with a sleep bolt. The pistol kills at close range and can also be loaded with incendiary ammo. Traps can be placed on walls and people and grenades thrown for maximum damage or for a very loud distraction. Just be aware that any loud weapon used will attract guards. Fail to kill them or knock them out straight away and they will chase you down.
Dishonored looks great, carrying a muted colour palate, combined with a softer edge to the graphics. Smooth textures cover a wide variety of Victorian steampunk buildings, that actually look lived in. The city is probably the best character in the game. The architecture not only looks great, it also provides plenty of platforming opportunities without making it too overt. There are no convenient waist-high barriers here. Instead you’ll be climbing pipes, jumping from ledges and crawling through sewers. Dishonored creates areas of distinction based on story needs, so the poor and weeper prone areas of the city have a dark, wet design and the wealthy live in stately homes full of art and display cases. Smoke effects and searchlights add to the overall mood and the sense of oppression is palpable.
Surprisingly there are a lot of name actors providing voices (Susan Sarandon, Carrie Fisher and John Slattery of ‘Mad Men’) and they all do a great job. That said, there really isn’t a lot of depth to the script. In the end the characters don’t have a lot to offer except quest variations. While there are multiple endings to unlock, storytelling in the game is very average, with simple objectives and very few characters being allowed to express themselves in meaningful ways. Exploring and finding ways through each level is fun, but you never really feel that you have much of an impact on the overall world beyond eliciting simple comments from its inhabitants.
This game marks a vast improvement for Arkane Studios over its previous release, Dark Messiah of Might & Magic. Though it bears many similar gameplay elements, Dishonored improves on all of them, ramps it up to eleven, and then asks you to avoid killing to succeed. Is it a good game? Yes. Is it as good as the hype machine suggests? Probably not, but you’ll certainly be glad you played it.