Dishonored – Game Analysis and Review
By Patrick Newman
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Designers: Ricardo Bare, Harvey Smith, Raphaël Colantonio
Composer: Daniel Licht
Engine: Unreal Engine 3
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Release Date: October 9, 2012
Genre: Action-adventure, stealth
The current titans of the shooter genre (Battlefield, Call of Duty, Gears of War) are on-rails experiences in essence. Superficially they offer choices and variety in gameplay, but for the most part the range of potential experiences is narrowly defined – everything is just scenery on the way to creating more corpses. Dishonored carries forward the proud tradition of classics like Half-Life, Thief, and BioShock, in which visceral pleasures and calculated smarts go hand-in-hand. Lavishing a steampunk surface onto the time-tested “framed bodyguard of slain politician fights to clear name” story template, much of Dishonored feels fresh, and like contemporary shooter RPG Deus Ex, it’s about the journey as much as the destination.
Dishonored tells the story of Corvo Attano, a bodyguard to the Empress in the dystopian, plague-infested city of Dunwall. Not long after he is tossed in jail following the Empress’ murder by Machiavellian schemers, Corvo is contacted by a rebel group that breaks him out of prison in exchange for his services as a hired gun. The group’s plan involves eliminating key members of the new ruling class, and securing the Empress’ daughter to take the throne following the upheaval. When Corvo is visited upon his release by a mysterious, magic-wielding being named Johnny, who then bestows those magical powers upon Corvo himself, the stage is set for dynamic, spell-infused action set within a thrilling backdrop of guerrilla politics.
Much like the grimy medieval city in Thief, or Rapture in BioShock, Dunwall fully succeeds at being an enveloping, atmospheric place begging to be explored in its every nook and cranny. The booming evocation of a squandered Industrial Age that never was, Dunwall is a fully electric fishing nexus made possible by the whale oil obtained in nearby waters. The plague’s presence is felt everywhere, from the piles of decrepit corpses lining cobbled streets, to the smokestacks that cast a gloomy pall over the exterior action. The setting plays directly into the tone of the game, in which corruption is inseparable from leadership and politics, and characters are willing to do just about anything to fulfill their agendas.
Though the game isn’t open-world, Dishonored’s pervasive element of choice practically demands that objectives be tackled in a non-linear fashion, and environments explored to their full extent. Though the story casts Corvo as an assassin, the game can be beaten in its entirety without killing a soul, since assassination targets can be dispatched in more ways than one, and guards can either be avoided or knocked out. In this sense Dishonored reminded me of the classic Deus Ex, in which a wide range of narrative options can feed into a single conclusion.
The game has a rigorous customization and leveling system that complements Corvo’s newly acquired magical powers, of which there are ten. They can be unlocked in any order following the acquisition of “Blink,” a teleportation skill. Players can level up by collecting Runes across the city, and build their character to fulfill any kind of campaign they’d like to lead. Dishonored features 9 expansive missions total, which themselves feature rich and varied environments ranging from elaborate masquerade balls to rat-infested prisons. Players are encouraged to take their time with the sandbox-like missions and get the lay of the land, as there is much to be absorbed and experienced before effectively pouncing on a given target.
Some wonky controls prevent the game from sliding into the realm of those other aforementioned classics, since neutralizing guards from behind is often a chore when Corvo blocks instead of grabs. The odd erratic response from the uniformly dull guards – such as when you are spotted in total darkness despite your best efforts, also takes a little of the shine off of Dishonored, but none too significant. This is a beautiful game with a compelling story, unique art design and characters, and mostly fascinating gameplay that begs a sequel. In an era of franchises and simple bombast over brainy reasoning, Arkane Studios’ latest effort is a stunning achievement.
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