With Halo 4 and Black Ops II just around the corner many gamers are warming up their trigger fingers in preparation for long nights of online mayhem. In the meantime, however, Arkane Studios and Bethesda Softworks have put out Dishonored, a first person stealth/assassination game that isn’t a sequel, a spinoff, or a military shooter. This original IP invites you to experiment with various powers and generally play how you want. So-called real freedom in games often leads to simple, binary decisions or anarchic action that can make otherwise great experiences turn sloppy. More Thief than Assassin’s Creed, DIshonored tries its best to deliver on everything its developers have promised with a unique style and choices that matter.
Dishonored takes place in the fictional city of Dunwall, a rat-infested hive of plague victims, brutal aristocrats, and a fomenting rebellion. Reminiscent of Victorian England with electricity and advanced industrial flourishes, this environment has a lot of character and feels equally fantastical and legitimate. You will stalk the streets, sewers, and rooftops as Corvo, a man wrongfully accused of killing the Empress he has sworn to protect. A one time bodyguard, he becomes an assassin, striking back against the corrupt politicians who framed him and conspired to rule Dunwall. It’s a decent story with memorable characters, plot twists, and moments that are affected by your choices. After escaping from prison you will go to the Hound Pits Pub, which serves as your home base for most of the game. Here you can buy or upgrade equipment, take on assassination missions, and talk to the rebels you’re working for. After taking on an assassination target a boatman will take you to the appropriate part of the city and you can begin stalking your prey. These sections of Dunwall are self-contained regions that typically consist of a target building with a few adjacent areas. You won’t be able to wander through the entirety of the city, but each mission level is fairly large. Streets, sewers, and various structures are all laid out in a way that invites exploration and experimentation with multiple paths to take, different keys to find, and a variety of ledges to climb. While your primary objective will always be to take out a specific person, there are secondary objectives to undertake and you really do have a lot of freedom when it comes to disposing of your marks. Helping and talking to certain NPCs will often give you different, non-lethal, ways to complete a mission. You will also have access to multiple, supernatural powers that can be purchased and upgraded with runes you will find hidden throughout Dunwall. These powers included the ability to see enemies through walls, teleportation, slowing down time, and possession, among others. While Dishonored has certainly been built as a stealth assassination game, straight up combat is an equally viable option most of the time. You will have access to a blade, guns, crossbows, and grenades. Shooting works well and melee combat, in particular can be very fun. Parries, counters, and finishing moves keep sword fights exciting and different enemy behaviors make each encounter unique. There is a waypoint system that will help lead you to varying objectives, but you really can move and kill in any way you like and Dishonored’s stellar design complements any play style you can come up with.
From the cries of guards and reports of pistol blasts to the sounds of sword fights and footsteps, the sound effects in Dishonored are often unique and frequently very good. Hearing guards walking around or just talking in an adjacent room helps build tension and gives you constant information about your surroundings. Occasional announcements over a city wide PA system will chime in in a jarring fashion that almost always startled me and helped keep this environment feeling appropriately oppressive. Some great actors like Susan Sarandon and Brad Dourif lend their voices to Dunwall’s inhabitants and the voice acting overall is very good. There are diseased citizens, gruff tough guys, and eccentric aristocrats with different accents and vocal tonalities that give Dishonored’s characters a lot of personality. Music is generally good, but is used more to accentuate certain moments than to provide a constant soundtrack. Certain themes I heard throughout my missions were especially haunting and I found myself wanting to hear more of them, but Arkane Studios’ choice to relegate music largely to the background serves this game’s stealth focus. While not the most impressive sounding game I’ve ever played, Dishonored has a very good audio package that serves to legitimize its original world and let the player know what’s going on around them.
I know I use the word “stylized” a lot in these reviews, but that’s because I’m attracted to games that aren’t going for photorealism. The technical achievements of game graphics can be quite amazing, but when a developer is trying to release a game not only on PC but also 6 plus year old consoles, a little stylization goes a long way. If I sound defensive it’s because I really like the way this game looks, but I’ve heard murmurs of disdain regarding its visual presentation. While there are some decent shadows, reflections, and God rays that definitely impress, the graphics on display can be a little rough around the edges. Dynamic light and shadows are practically absent in the console versions of Dishonored, character polygon counts aren’t especially high, and textures have a sort of muted/painted feel. If none of this bothers you: good. This game looks great. For anyone who has ever followed a game in development and pored over concept art, the look of this game should seemly oddly familiar. More so than any other game I’ve played, Dishonored looks like painted concept art come to life. It’s not cell shaded and I don’t think the textures look cartoony or anything, it simply has a strong artistic style. Detailed architecture, iconic poster designs, and exaggerated character designs all let you know you’re looking at a game with a visual identity all its own. Certain characters have oversized jaws or hands, dogs look like they’re half shark, and the combination of old victorian buildings with sci-fi light walls make it clear this is a world unlike any you’ve seen before. If you’re watching this review you can obviously see how good this game looks and its visual flair is a breath of fresh air amongst heavy hitters like Mass Effect or Gears of War.
In many ways Dishonored plays like two different games mashed together. This would be a problem if the disparate parts didn’t mesh so well from moment to moment. While there are a handful of stealth games that promise viability for overtly offensive tactics, Dishonored really delivers. Teleportation and the ability to see through walls certainly help you move through this game stealthily, but, if you do need to fight opponents face to face, Dishonored’s competent melee and shooting systems will allow you to hold your own. Also, straight up combat in one section of a mission won’t necessarily put all enemies in the region on alert, so I found myself switching between stealth and offensive tactics constantly. This game always obliged, and I found myself enjoying my journey through Dunwall more than most sneaking missions I had undertaken in the past. Taking down an assassination target might involve teleporting (or blinking) up to an air duct, pick-pocketing a guard, and rewiring an electric barrier to target enemies instead of you. Rarely will you see a direct path to a target and Dishonored’s flexibility makes it possible for you to plan out assassinations in your own way and alter your plans on the fly. Controls are exceptionally responsive, specific powers or weapons can be mapped to the control pad (if you’re playing on a console), and every moment spent in Dunwall serves to solidify this as a dangerous and adaptable game space. Sneak, shoot, or stab. No matter how you choose to stalk your prey, Dishonored has your back and will offer up hours of fun that let you play how you want to.
Powering through Dishonored’s campaign on Normal difficulty takes around twelve hours. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to see everything this game has to offer in fewer than twenty, though. Unlocking new powers requires locating runes you’ll have to search for, hidden bone charms will buff other character abilities, and equipment needs to be purchased with loot you’ll find while out on assassination missions. This game has been structured in a way that demands multiple playthroughs and, thankfully, allows for several save files and the ability to select any given mission from the main menu once it has been completed. Murdering more people means more deadly rats, darker environments, and a different ending. Using non-lethal tactics will make NPCs more likely to help you and helps the story resolve in a more benign fashion. Even without any sort of multiplayer or game plus mode, Dishonored demands your time on consecutive playthroughs and rewards you handily for your attention.
Design – 9.5
Audio – 9.0
Graphics – 8.5
Gameplay – 9.5
Replay Value – 8.5
Overall – 9.0