Review: Dishonored – A Stealth Steampunk Shooter

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Arkane Studios, a newcomer made up of veteran developers, has dropped its first game, and it's a stunner. Dishonored is one of the best games I've ever played. But let's back up a bit.

Corvo Attano, royal guard to the Empress of the Isles, Jessamine Kaldwin, is falsely accused of her murder, and implicated in the abduction of the Empress’ daughter and heir, Lady Emily. In the power vacuum that appears in her absence, devious Royal Spymaster Hiram Burrows assumes her position as Lord Regent. Six months later, now in prison and sentenced to death, Corvo escapes with the help of the “Loyalists,” a resistance group dedicated to returning the true monarchy to power. They recruit him to do their dirty work — namely, assassinate the conspirators of the coup that murdered Empress Kaldwin.

Sound like fun? It is.

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Complicating matters is the Rat Plague, a mysterious, fatal illness that’s swept through the capitol city of Dunwall and claimed the lives of more than half of its inhabitants. Fortunately, Corvo is immune to the disease, and he’s got a cadre of cool weapons and gadgets and even a mechanical mask to help him in his quest and conceal his true identity. As if this wasn’t enough firepower, a shadowy, god-like figure known as “the Outsider” visits Corvo after his prison escape and grants him supernatural powers. It’s these powers and the unique setting of Dunwall that give Dishonored its singular qualities.

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Dunwall is the capitol city of a government called the Isles, literally a collection of large, inhabited islands. The game never reveals where or what this place is, exactly, leaving us to assume it’s some kind of alternate reality or version of history. The game design conjures Dunwall as a highly original mixture of the old aesthetics and the new, blending Victorian-era London with Half-Life‘s unforgettable City 17, and plenty of steampunk influences for good measure. (City 17′s visual designer, Viktor Antonov, was Dishonored‘s art director — and it shows.)

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Dunwall is a city both familiar and strange. For whatever reason, Dunwall doesn’t draw electricity or power from the same sources that we do. In the this world, electricity is powered by whale oil, an abundant resource that’s highly volatile. Imagine if technology had developed around a hundred years early in our world — that’s how the world of Dishonored looks and works. They have things like high-powered weapons, ventilation ducts, and audio recordings, but there are no televisions, no phones, and no cars (though there are a few vehicles on rail tracks).

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The supernatural abilities granted to Corvo by the Outsider are seen by the world at large as a form of black magic, but whatever they are, they empower the player in a profound way. This is probably the strongest emotion that players will remember from their time with Dishonored: feeling a lot more powerful than most games even come close to letting you feel. These powers include: Possession, which lets you merge with and take control of any animal or person for a brief time; Bend Time, which slows or stops time for everyone around you while you’re able to manipulate objects and people; Dark Vision, an enhanced kind of sight that shows you the positions of enemies, their sight lines, the sounds you make, the locations of important, hidden items, and more; Devouring Swarm, which brings down a swarm of man-eating rats to kill and eat your enemies (easily the game’s most gruesome thing to witness); Windblast, a powerful gust of air that can throw back enemies and clear obstacles; and Blink, which lets you instantly teleport at will across short distances, reaching areas that otherwise would be inaccessible.

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You get the option of choosing which powers you want — along with a selection of enhancements to your health and hand-to-hand fighting capabilities — so you can tailor your skill set to the way you want to play the game. Blink is the only power that everyone gets, and this was a brilliant move on Arkane’s part because Blink never stops being fun, and it’s infinitely useful. Blink is so much fun, I think they could have built the entire game around this one mechanic, and it would still be a blast to play. Dishonored‘s environments are constructed smartly enough that Blink gives you nearly limitless options for how you want to traverse them. Blink happens instantaneously and it’s completely silent, so it’s perfect for stealth players, allowing for some crazy cool enemy take downs. Things get even more fun when you combine powers together in creative ways. Trigger Bend Time, for example, and then Possess an enemy so that they’re positioned right in the line of fire of another enemy’s gunshot. The possibilities are many, and results of these actions are insanely fun to watch.

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The key to the game is player choice, and the freedom that Dishonored gives you in how you play is just staggering. In every mission, there are multiple paths available to complete your goals, and there are numerous side missions provided that really open up the world in a big way. You can go in guns blazing and kill every enemy you encounter, or you can sneak your way through the game, taking the time to kill only when you have no choice, and simply knock out or run from the rest. I’ve seen where some players have complained about the length of the game being too short, but I believe this is only the case when you rush through it on a mad killing spree. Dishonored is kind of like eating a hearty meal: you can scarf it down if you want, but it’s exponentially better if you take the time to savor it. I strongly recommend taking the slower path; explore Dunwall’s every crack and corner, talk to its citizens, read the books left all over the city and let them fill in this society’s history and culture, and you’ll find the game to be a richer, more compelling experience.

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Another unique aspect of Dishonored is the “Chaos” ranking system, which alters the game world based on your actions. Play the game with non-lethal means, knocking out enemies or tranquilizing them with darts, and the world around you is a friendlier, more sympathetic and more open place. Go all hard core and kill everyone you come up against, and Dunwall becomes a darker, far more dangerous place with fewer paths open to you. The Chaos system tracks your activities through each level and alters the game world on a scale of outcomes that’s much broader than simply “benevolent” and “dangerous.” Every kill counts, and every choice you make counts as well. Even the finale and outcome of the game will be influenced — and can even be radically different — based on the choices you make.

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As Corvo sets out on his quest to avenge the Empress and restore order to Dunwall — not to mention getting to the bottom of the Rat Plague — he proves more than up to the challenge. Corvo is sort of like a combination of Gordon Freeman and Ezio Auditore: like Gordon, he interacts with the other characters in the game while never uttering a single word; and like Ezio, he’s a shadowy assassin that does his best work in darkness and takes out his opponents using stealth and tremendous skill. Like both, he’s a character that you’re drawn to, that you want to learn more about and can’t wait to step into the shoes of again and again. I’d put him right alongside others in the pantheon of iconic video game heroes, like Master Chief, Ezio, Nathan Drake, Lara Croft, and Gordan Freeman.

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It’s not every developer that has the gumption to dive head-first into world building in order to create a new video game. Even fewer would attempt to give so much control over what happens in the game to the player, letting them play their own way from start to finish. In a day and age when publishers are more likely to throw money at a sequel, since it’s almost always a sure thing, it’s a breath of fresh air to see Bethesda boldly bet on newcomer Arkane Studios and its very first title. Granted, Arkane is made up of developers that have been instrumental in past hits like Deus Ex, Arx Fatalis, and more. But Dishonored is a wholly new IP, and it’s clear from the first hour of play-through that Arkane means for this to be a major new franchise.

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Even all this incredible complexity I’ve described barely scratches the game’s surface. There’s so much more, like the fascinating characters, voiced by a stellar cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Brad Dourif, Michael Madsen, Chloe Grace Moretz, Carrie Fisher, Lena Heady, John Slattery, and more. There’s the haunting music by Dexter‘s Daniel Licht. The cool gadgets like the Spring Razor, a nasty kind of grenade that you can stick to any surface, which shreds enemies to bits in a huge blood bath when they touch it. The various classes of enemies and the vicious tools at their disposal, such as the Tallboys, which are like tanks on stilts, or the Wall of Light, an energy barrier that disintegrates unauthorized persons who try to walk through it. The Weepers, plague-infected citizens who roam the streets like zombies. And of course there’s the story, a riveting tale full of twists and turns that’s told with the bravado of a master filmmaker.

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Sure, it’s not without its discrepancies and issues. Patrolling guards never notice when one of their number disappears after you’ve taken them out, for example. But I noticed not a single glitch, and the game as a whole presents such an original experience, I found myself not caring about tiny leaps-of-logic like this. Any issue I encountered was inconsequential in light of the freedom and power Dishonored gave me. My favorite aspect of the game is the tangible sensation you get from using Corvo’s supernatural abilities. Everything about the presentation of these powers is honed to perfection, from the visual effects to the sound effects, to make you feel like you’re really using these powers.

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Dishonored reminds me why first-person games can be so worthwhile, and more importantly, how high-quality, polished IPs can captivate the imagination considerably more than the latest iteration of an aging franchise. I laid awake at night thinking of the characters, the setting, and the incredible abilities available to me in Dishonored, wondering how different tactics or pathways might change my game. I haven’t obsessed over a game like this since the original Assassin’s Creed. With so many options, there’s nearly limitless replay value, a fact that’s particularly impressive when you remember that there’s no multiplayer mode. Who needs multiplayer when singleplayer is this much fun?

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Arkane Studios has created a game that schools others on everything from world-building to player choice, while always putting first the one thing that so many games forget: fun. If this really is the start of a new franchise, then bring it.

Dishonored is a perfect 10 out of 10 from me.

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