As Samuel the boatman motors me closer to the makeshift dock that serves our hideout at the Hound Pits Inn, I notice a crowd has gathered, eager to find out whether I was successful in my mission or not. It’s not a large crowd because we’re not a large group, but their need to know is palpable nonetheless. As I step off the old-fashioned yet crudely futuristic motor boat and present the crowd with the evidence of my success - evidence whose importance to our overall goal cannot be understated - I feel a strange swelling of pride in my chest. Not protagonist Corvo Attano’s chest, mind you, but my chest. Despite the fact that my chief goal was the brutal assassinations of a pair of individuals, that 40 other corrupt members of the Dunwall City Watch were left for dead and numerous prostitutes were choked into unconsciousness because they got in my way, I know I did something good. That crowd gathered on the dock desperately waiting for news of my mission is all the proof I need. I’ve played many assassination games in the past, but Arkane Studios’s Dishonored is the first one to ever make me feel good about my actions.
The atmosphere that helps generate this euphoria is the oppressive misery of my surroundings. The island nation Gristol’s capital city of Dunwall is a horrible, scary place extremely reminiscent of both BioShock’s underwater horror show that was Rapture and Half-Life 2’s vaguely cold war-era Soviet Unionish City 17. Dunwall’s economy is built on the back of the whaling industry and giant whaling ships often sporting dead whales hanging from gantries above their old-fashioned yet crudely futuristic decks are routinely spotted moving in the wide river that runs through the heart of Dunwall. The whale oil derived from these great beasts is what drives Dishonored’s steam punk setting. You see there is some property unique to these whales that makes their oil very volatile; so volatile in fact that it has powered an industrial revolution in what might have once been a quaint Victorian-esque city straight out of a Jane Austin novel instead of the Dickensian hell-scape Dunwall has become. A great plague, called the Rat Plague, has begun to tear the city apart. It’s led to martial law, curfews, and further isolation of Dunwall’s ruling class from its working class.
This is where Corvo’s story begins. As Royal Protector of Dunwall’s current ruler, Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, Corvo is sent on a mission around the four island nations that make up Gristol’s immediate socio-political sphere (that socio-political sphere, incidentally, may or may not be located on Earth as the globes full of unfamiliar landmasses hint at) to beg for aid in fighting the plague. His return marks the player’s in media res
introduction to the game and the world it exists in thanks to a very well done boat ride (there are lots of boat rides in Dishonored) ending in your arrival at the imperial residence at Dunwall Tower and capped off by a water-lock boat elevator ride like nothing I’ve seen before in a videogame or movie for that matter. Soon after you arrive and report the bad news to the Empress, who is clearly more in-touch with the Dunwall poor and working-class than her advisors like, she’s run through by teleporting and sword-wielding assassins who leave her to die in your arms just in time for the Royal Spymaster and City Watch to show up and arrest you for her murder.
Thus begins Corvo’s transformation from royal bodyguard to angel of vengeance. Along the way you learn much and more about the city of Dunwall, her history, and the world around her thanks to the many collectible audio logs, books, and other written messages you come across. Dishonored’s back story is surprisingly fleshed out for a game that isn’t a 40 hour long RPG epic. One of the more interesting aspects of this backstory is the prevailing religion in Dunwall. It would appear that Corvo’s powers are gifted by the Abbey of the Everyman’s devil or anti-Christ-like figure known as the Outsider who periodically appears to Corvo in the form of a fairly young and non descriptly handsome young man. This backstory is one way Dishonored sets itself apart from its videogame brethren like BioShock, Half-Life 2, the Hitman games, and Assassin’s Creed. None of those games have quite as much of a fleshed-out backstory as Dishonored. In fact, BioShock is really the only one that comes close in single-game world-building, but ultimately, even one of the best games of the last five years falls short.
With the game’s atmosphere set firmly in place, you undertake a series of missions for the motley crew of Dunwall aristocracy fighting against the even-more-brutal-than-before reign of spymaster-cum-lord protector
, Hiram Burrows. These missions will take you to various parts of the city; however, Dishonored isn’t an open-world game. The game’s nine missions are linear even though their associated “levels” are large and fairly open, and full of interesting things to see and do. Often a little exploring will open up alternate paths and side quests. In fact, most levels are big and offer so much to do that it can easily take a few hours or more to complete each one depending on your play style. You can go into each mission on a straight-forward shooting rampage that leads you straight to your goal or you can utilize Corvo’s Outsider-imbued supernatural abilities and stealth skills to slip in and out like a ghost, achieving your goal without anyone being the wiser (you can also mix those play styles to be the messiest murder-ghost anyone has ever not seen).
The abilities you have to choose from include a teleport ability that allows you to move quickly around the environment, reach otherwise unreachable areas, or surprise-murder anyone and everyone. Ultimately, that ability will be the one you use the most because it’s just too useful not to use. The other abilities break down into roughly two categories: stealth powers and “rambo” powers. Stealth powers will let you possess rats and fish (and later people) so you can move around unnoticed or make your victims disappear in a puff of ash so no one can find them and raise an alarm. The “rambo” powers let you unleash a wind blast that can knock groups of enemies off their feet or build up adrenaline to power impressive sword fatalities. Some powers can be useful to either play style. For example, you can call forth a swarm of rats to attack and even kill enemies in the loudest way possible short of firing your gun, or you can use them to devour dead bodies so you don’t have to hide them. You can also slow, and later stop, time to gain an advantage in combat or pass through areas undetected. There are other powers as well, but I don’t want to spoil everything.
Scattered throughout each level are runes. These runes allow you to unlock and upgrade powers. There aren’t a terribly high number either, while some upgrades require a seemingly impossibly high number of runes to unlock. Basically, it pays to specialize. If you take the buffet route and sample everything, you’re probably not going to find enough runes to upgrade your favorite powers. There’s nothing more disappointing than realizing you won’t be able to freeze time because you wanted to see what possessing rats and fish would be like, and you’ll never be able to possess humans because you wanted to see what force push was like.
It’s not just magic you can use and upgrade either. Corvo’s supernatural arsenal is complemented by a mechanical one. He can wield either a pistol or crossbow in one hand while he wields a short sword (or long knife) in the other. The crossbow can fire standard bolts along with sleep and incendiary bolts and allows for silent kills (use the incendiary bolts if you want screaming rather than silent kills). At long range and when combined with the magnification upgrades to your mask and the magic power that turns dead bodies into ash, the crossbow becomes a very useful long range, mostly silent murder machine. The pistol, on the other hand, is all martial to the crossbow’s art. Loud and inaccurate at distances longer than point blank, its ammo capacity can be upgraded along with its accuracy and reload speed. It’s strictly for “rambos” and emergencies. However, my favorite was the sword. The sword combat is a blast, just full of lopped off arms and heads, brutal neck stabs and parries that lead to insta-kills. A sword only play through should be an entertaining venture
Your offensive tools are rounded out with frag grenades, and spring traps that explode in a spray of razor wire to cut enemies to pieces. Meanwhile, technophiles will be able to use the rewire tool to turn the City Watch’s electrical barriers and area denial Tesla coil-style weapons against them - or you can simply unplug them when no one is looking. Your mechanical arsenal is upgraded by the resistance’s resident genius, Piero Joplin. Using coinage and other salvageable materials you can find and collect, you simply “buy” each upgrade. You can also unlock new ones by finding blueprints during missions.
All of those gameplay elements come together in a mostly compelling experience that still suffers from its share of issues. The biggest issue I imagine most people are going to have is with Dishonored’s graphics. The game uses the Unreal engine so it will look very familiar. The Unreal engine tends to produce games that all look alike - like things are molded out of clay and then covered in colored tin foil. This is true of Dishonored to be sure, however, it’s also filled with muddy textures and weird faces. It’s not exactly ugly to look at. In fact, at times it can be rather striking thanks to the lighting and creativity of the world design; however, nothing can stand up to close inspection. Dishonored is one of those games that looks good as long as you don’t look directly at it. That, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily damage the game’s quality; however, Dishonored’s frame rate might because it can be rather shaky at times. In fact, sometimes the game feels like it’s going to come apart at the seams. I don’t want to give you the impression that it’s always like that or that it is particularly distracting from Dishonored’s good parts, but it does happen. Obviously, how much it bothers you depends on you.
Story-wise, Dishonored also suffers a bit. The problem is empty characters that lack any real depth or personality. It’s disappointing to see a game put so much work into its back story and then fill it with characters that are little more than lifeless quest givers and villains that are evil just because the story demands that someone play the bad guy. I mentioned Piero Joplin before and he is a good example. He’s voiced by character-actor heavyweight Brad Dourif. If you don’t know who Brad Dourif is, he played the town doctor in Deadwood and Grima Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He’s a great actor and always brings life and depth to the people he plays, but Piero Joplin is dull as dirt and Brad Dourif sounds like he’s bored whenever Piero talks. Attempts at characterization, like when you catch him spying on a female resistance member while she’s bathing, which he tries to play off as scientific curiosity rather than an example of the lengths a man will go to see boobs, fall flat. What could have been a solid character moment or at least a bit of comedy is neither. It just happens. Spying on naked women is a lot of things, most of them bad, but it should never be boring.
In fact, the whole A-list voice cast, including the likes of Susan Sarandon, Carrie Fisher, Chloe Grace Moretz, Michael Madsen, and a litany of others are utterly wasted because every character sounds so bored when they speak. And honestly, if I didn’t know they were in it, I wouldn’t have recognized a single one besides Brad Dourif. I couldn’t even tell you who they played without looking it up first. It’s sad and a little mystifying that that’s how the voice acting turned out.
Thankfully though, on balance, the quality of the moment-to-moment action, the cat-and-mouse-and-magic-and-murder gameplay, is high. It may have its problems, but they’re issues that shouldn’t be in the forefront of a game like Dishonored, and aren’t. Furthermore, there are drastically different ways to play Dishonored and that should add legs to a game with no co-op or multiplayer of any kind. Ultimately, Dishonored is just fun to play, and that is always the most important thing. It may not reach the heights of BioShock or Half-Life 2, but it certainly could have if just a few simple non-gameplay elements had been stronger.