This has certainly been an interesting year for gaming. We’ve seen BioWare nearly obliterate their reputation with the ending of Mass Effect 3, one of the first movements that successfully that had such an ending changed, (or at least made it the way it should have been in the first place), a spinoff movement called Retake Gaming that’s trying to invoke a Gamer Bill of Rights, (I’m not joking about that last one), a revival of the Max Payne franchise, that abomination that was Resident Evil 6, and a surprising number of new franchises being introduced like Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning and Dragon’s Dogma and although I couldn’t get into either I may give them another chance later down the road. But the game that I want to talk about today is a new game that is not part of a franchise nor does it have a big developer to its name. And in this I am referring to Dishonored.
Released earlier this month, Dishonored is a game that had some interesting build up to its release, in my opinion. For starters, developer Arkane Studios had next to nothing to its name outside of some additional level design and animation on Bioshock 2. It also earned a ton of pre-release nominations and awards by various gamer magazines and websites for being one of the most original and innovative games at its showings at E3 2011. So did Dishonored live up to its initial hype and does it deserve your money and time or is it another overhyped game that will be discarded and forgotten about by next year? Read on to find out.
The game takes place in the steam-punk city of Dunwall; a city decaying of a massive plague that seems to kill any who are infected. You play as Corvo, the bodyguard to the Empress of the city who is framed for her murder and the kidnapping of her daughter sentenced to death by the real culprits who have taken control of the city. After escaping this fate, Corvo joins a group of people determined to depose the culprits and restore the Empress’ daughter, Emily to the throne, killing or otherwise neutralizing anyone who stands in his way. And along the way a mysterious being known as The Outsider grants Corvo magical abilities in order to help him on his quest.
Now, the best part of this game is the set up as you really feel how this city is suffering and why it is that the antagonists need to go down and it very quickly invests you into the plot with its characters and gameplay style. Your actions actually do affect the places you go and will often have consequences, especially towards the ending and Epilogue. If there is one major problem with the plot and the rest of the game, it’s that it was too short. It gives me the impression that it was originally meant to be a lot longer but parts of it were cut out to meet a budget or deadline. For example, the game never gives us a real answer as to why The Outsider decides to help Corvo and the game seems to hint that this was all part of a much larger plan but never expands on it which was really strange. There is also a relatively predictable twist towards the end of the game, and if you were paying attention to the game and characters you should see it coming a mile away.
Despite how basic and apparently cut down the plot was, it still works due the gameplay and characters. While we’re not looking at the next Rockstar or BioWare in terms of writing and it is more than a little basic, the storyline does have a surprising amount of depth to it. But again there really isn’t much to say about the story itself other then it worked because of the games other elements but seemed to have been cut down in size by a limited budget, time table, and the lack of a major reputation to Arkane’s name.
As I’ve mentioned above the game is pretty short but, damn do they pack a lot into its limited length. For starters, this is not what I would call an easy or action based game. If you run into a camp full of enemies or allow one to raise an alarm, you are going to get swarmed and get your ass kicked. In this game, it’s not so much about killing everyone on the map as it is getting to your target and it really seems to reward you for taking the stealth approach as opposed to killing everyone in your path. There are multiple ways to get into a single area, be it jumping across the roof tops, slipping right behind an enemy soldier while he’s taking a leak, or possessing a rat and just running right past them. Further encouraging stealth as opposed to battle is the limited amount of weapons, health and magic you can have at one time, forcing you to decide when it’s the best time to use these abilities or weapons. Some of which encourage battle while others encourage stealth and it’s up to the gamer to decide when which approach is best.
The actual number of magic abilities you have are relatively limited when compared to games like Skyrim or Dragon Age, but good God are these abilities cool. The Blink teleporting ability is incredibly useful for quick escapes and reaching places that you wouldn’t have been able to go before and or just to dodge around enemies and is useful in both the action and stealth ways of playing. Bend Time has similar applications and can be extremely useful when fighting or using stealth and the possibilities with these two alone is endless. There are a few other abilities that aren’t as useful or noteworthy but the two that made the abilities for me were the Possession and Devouring Swarm abilities. Now with the possession ability you can inhabit the body of a soldier or a rat which will allow you to go places and do things without drawing to much attention for a limited amount of time. But by far the most satisfying ability to use is Devouring Swarm, where you summon a swarm of rats to eat your enemies alive and just watching them strip the flesh from your enemies is oh so satisfying. If you decide to play the game you’ll know what I mean but it should suffice to say that this is probably the only game that I have ever played where rats are actually a threatening protagonist.
The last thing to note is the fact that the developers actually give you the choice to either kill your targets or sentence them to other fates that may or may not be worse than death. And what I find so wired about this is that so few developers do this. For example, in one mission you have the choice to either kill two brothers or allow a crime syndicate in Dunwall to kidnap them, who will in turn shave them and cut out their tongue and sends them to work back breaking labor in a diamond mine for the rest of their days. The only other games that really seem to give you these kinds of choices usually boils it down to either killing the guy or letting him go to disappear or repent his ways and quite frankly I like the option that this game offers a little bit more because either way you choose if feeds into your sadistic side.
However, there are some downsides the gameplay. For starters, the graphics in this game look downright ugly and look like something that would have come out four years ago as opposed to today. And it’s more than a little buggy and sometimes the enemy AI really isn’t as smart as it should be, (like a soldier will see a corpse and not raise the alarm) and the whole stealth/action choices probably won’t seem as fresh if you’ve played Deus Ex: Human Revolution and one might make the argument that they did it better in that game. The other problem it suffers from is, again, the length of the game. It seemed like there should have been more missions and more targets to take down, particularly in the final act of the game that almost seemed rushed.
Despite the graphics, bugs, and comparisons that will probably be drawn to Deus Ex, this is a really fun game and I was really impressed by what they did in this department and this is not easily done. The options were just so good for the missions, both for what you do to the target and how you get to him. The way they limit your arsenal is something that they don’t do enough of these days and it was really refreshing to see a game that actually does require a degree of stealth in order to win it and the main magic abilities are so much fun to use and is the highlight of the game. I just wish that the game could have been a bit longer to add on to this and that the graphics had been better to make it a bit more visually pleasing. But as a whole I really love what Arkane Studios has done in this department and I can’t wait to see what they do in their next project in this department.
Like everything else in this game, the characters are limited by its length. But like the gameplay, they managed to pack a surprising amount into it within a limited amount of time. When I found out that Corvo was a silent protagonist with very limited dialog options my respect for the game took a nosedive, as I’ve always hated protagonists like this and feel that they should have died off long ago. Apparently the developers did this so it would be easier for the gamer to jump into his shoes and project himself as the character. And this works surprisingly well. Unlike the protagonists in games like Far Cry 2, it’s obvious that Corvo has some kind of emotional attachment to this world which makes his battles against his enemies all the more compelling. Exactly what that attachment is seems to have been intentionally left open for interpretation. It could be a lust for revenge, service to his country, or out of love for the Empress and her daughter; it’s never made clear and your own interpretation makes the character all the more compelling.
Most of the other characters are a little bit more difficult to describe. On the surface they’re a little bit one noted but have other sides to them that we do get to see. For example we have Admiral Havelock who seems to be a good soldier and wants to restore Emily to the throne but has a sadistic side that he only rarely reveals and saying anything more will result in spoilers for the game as will saying to much more about the bulk of the supporting characters. Many of them have very good voice actors including John Slattery, (best known for Mad Men) as Havelock, Lena Headey as Emily’s caretaker, Callista Curnow, and Susan Sarandon as the mysterious, insane witch Granny Rags; each of which are very well acted and have a surprising amount of depth to them. The best of the whole bunch, however, was Brad Dourif as a mad scientist character and his voice was just perfect for the part and knew just how to capture the insane, arrogant and ingenious parts of his personality and he happens to be one of the most entertaining characters in the game.
However, the game did drop the ball a little in this department as well. We really don’t grow attached to a lot of the supporting characters who don’t have a big name to them, mostly because they are kind of pushed aside in favor of the major ones so when some of these characters die we really don’t care and you’ll probably be asking yourself “who was that?” The villains likewise have so little screen time that they ultimately lack any kind of depth or complexity and they may as well be Rodger Moore Bond Villains for how basic they are. And again, the game’s length seems does take its toll on the character interaction as well. I get the impression that many of these characters were suppose to have larger roles and maybe have a few more subplots going on but the game just didn’t have the length for this and it really drags it down.
All around the character are compelling and you do get attached to many of them. But at the same time, many of them are not as developed as they could have been and like the plot feel like they were slashed to meet a budget and a deadline. But still, I think that if you decide to play this game, you’ll find them compelling and likeable and they really help to invest you into what was otherwise a mediocre plot.
So, what do I think of this game all around? We’ll to be honest, I’m kind of split. This is a game that is absolutely worth your time but I cannot say that it is worth the full $60 you’ll pay for a new copy. It’s just too short. Granted, the pack a lot into its short length, but it is still just to short of a game to justify paying $60 for. The story was a little to basic, it was too short, and the characters weren’t as fleshed out as they should have been. However, I can whole heartedly hope that this game is successful because, it deserves it. Just based on the gameplay and how good the set up was for the plot and characters, I can tell that Arkane Studios is a development company that has a lot of potential and I really want to see what they can do with a bigger budget and more ambition. This game is doing things that I honestly haven’t seen before in recent memory and I want to see more of this. If you have the chance to play it or have the $60 to spare, I say spend it but if you can get a hold of a copy without paying for it do that instead. But all the same, I really enjoyed this game and hope it succeeds but damn, was it a game that that was just shy of greatness.