Posted: April 14
Successful new intellectual properties are typically very difficult to produce in the world of game design. The process requires the developers to build all aspects of the video game from the ground up. They have to decide what type of art direction they're going for, conceive all pieces of the plot and characters from scratch, and build all of the technical systems such as graphics and combat from scratch. This is why new IPs are often rough around the edges. Sequels are so ubiquitous and generally more critically acclaimed because the developers already have an existing foundation to build upon from the previous title and they can focus on adding polish.
Dishonored is one of the special few new IPs that manages to avoid most of the pitfalls and delivers a diverse, adaptable, polished experienced right from the get go.
The most noticeable aspect of the game is its art design, which was deftly crafted by one Viktor Antonov, a Bulgarian art director famous for his work on designing City 17 and its outskirts in Half Life 2. His touch is recognizable in Dishonored as chaotic Dunwall shares many similarities with totalitarian City 17. Nothing feels like it was pasted over from Half-Life 2, though. Dishonored is a true steampunk game and Dunwall has it's own feel that's inspired by Victorian era London gone bad. There's a dirty river, loads of industry, and even a familiar-looking bridge. All of it is given a unique touch, and the result is a very immersive world. This is escapism at its finest; be prepared for the Dunwall to suck you in immediately and carve away the hours of your day as you explore every nook and cranny. I haven't been as enamored with a new setting since playing BioShock and first experiencing Rapture.
The plot is serviceable though predictable. Daud, the conflicted villain of the game, is the strongest and most interesting character. It's a shame he doesn't get more screentime, though Arkane have remedied this with a pair of DLC episodes in which he is the playable character. The player character, Corvo Attano, is a silent protagonist. This is a negative for me since I personally detest the silent protagonist trope in video games. I understand that the goal of the silent protagonist is to allow the gamer to project his own reactions into the game, and I know that many gamers enjoy it, but it pulls me out of the experience when I don't hear my character speaking to anybody addressing him because it's so unnatural. I can't logically connect the fact that my character is mute, yet nobody in the game ever seems to comment upon it. I don't enjoy it in the Half-Life series, and I'm not a fan of it here, either. I will say that the game deserves a mention of its voice acting, particularly the role of Daud as played by Michael Madsen of Tarantino fame. Other praiseworthy roles are played by John Slattery (Mad Men), Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-♥♥♥), Brad Douriff (Lord of the Rings), Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), and Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise). They spent some money on voice talent, and it pays off. The one qualm I do have is the reptitive nature of the guards' canned conversational quips, of which there are few. They repeat themselves regularly which breaks immersion.
The wasted landscape of the plague-ridden city can become tiresome and a bit grating. There are corpses littered about, filth, rats, and crumbling buildings galore. The design is fine but the pacing leaves you in these types of areas for a bit too long. The more civilized settings in certain levels such as the gentlemen's club and the high society party feel special by comparison, but the pace would benefit from seeing more of the inhabited areas of the city and fewer of the burned out, deserted ghettos. There are only so many ways you can depict diseased ruin before it becomes repetitive.
The game's graphical muscle won't blow you away if you're used to games like Crysis 3, but the art direction props up the visuals enough to make them astounding in certain areas. There's an old oil painting feel which permeates the game, and it fits the look and feel of the setting very well. I get a sense of great design while playing this game. There aren't all that many graphical options to tinker with, but there is a field of view slider, which is always cause for celebration with PC ports. The game also runs exceptionally well on PC, so even if you're not wowed by the visuals and the art design like I am, the technical aspects of the visuals won't hinder you from enjoying the gameplay at all.
Dishonored is fully adaptable to your style of play, which is refreshing in a game that emphasizes stealth. If you're a stealth fanatic (as I admittedly am), then you'll enjoy it here. It's possible to finish the game without ever killing anybody or being spotted, and you're able to accomplish this thanks to being provided the tools to move quickly and silently throughout huge areas. Blink allows you to teleport instantly a certain distance across the map, and you can also acquire the ability to see through walls. Mobility is a requirement in many stealth games, and Dishonored gives you the tools to traverse the environment quickly when needed.
The beauty of the strong stealth play is that it's balanced by an arguably better combat system. The combat powers at your disposal (slowing or stopping time, possessing enemies, finishers, etc) all synergize incredibly well with one another and they allow you to take out your enemies in endlessly amusing ways. It's a sign of the design team having clearly described objectives, and I was genuinely amazed at how well the game flows between stealth and combat. I expected to play this game for its engrossing, artistic setting and ended up getting the biggest kicks out t's combat system. In my opinion it's the strongest aspect of the game, which is indicative of the game's greater value considering its already great art direction. There are multiple reasons to play this title, which helps it appeal to a broad demographic. It's no one trick pony.
The only real criticism I have of the game is the clumsy way in which it handles morality. Great games have been bungling morality mechanics for nearly a decade now (BioShock immediately comes to mind), so it's not surprising, but in Dishonored it becomes a glaring flaw because they get so much else right.
You're informed very clearly that the city will descend more and more into chaos if you kill your enemies rather than avoiding them or knocking them out, and your allies will begin to view you unfavorably the more deadly you are. While this is logically understandable (a lack of law enforcement officials presumably increases chaos in a troubled city), the mechanic unintendedly puts shackles on your ability to transition between stealth and combat. The gameplay seems designed to be freely adaptable so you can move seamlessly between stealth and combat when you're spotted, but it then tells you via the plot that playing stealthily and non-lethally is better. You begin to feel corralled into playing the game stealthily rather than being free to adapt to combat situations if you get caught. The plot punishes you for being spotted and having to fight your way out.
It's a disconnect in design between a plot that wants to make you accountable for your choices and gameplay that wants to be flexible. A potential solution would be leaving the chaos meter to be regulated entirely by how you choose to dispatch your assassination targets. Then it's isolated to the plot and doesn't have any effect on the way you choose to play the game. It's a disappointing flaw, but it doesn't take much away from a game that offers so much to begin with.
Overall, this game is a beautiful, immersive experience and it should absolutely be played by anybody who typically enjoys stealth games, or games that offer rich, engrossing settings. I'm very much looking forward to Arkane's inevitable sequel to this game.