Review by Sain_of_Caelin
"Blink and you just might miss it"
The build up to the release of Dishonored was an interesting one. Published by Bethesda Softworks and developed by Arkane Studios, most known for their creation of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. Drawing inspiration from a multitude of sources like Deus Ex, BioShock and Thief, Dishonored generated interest from many fan bases. But mainstream support was limited until the advertising campaign began. Bethesda's publishing credit also brought up misguided worries about bugs. With Dishonored having so many inspirations it's easy to lose a unique identity, let's find out if it was able to carve out a position of it's own.
And so we are introduced to our silent protagonist Corvo Attano, royal bodyguard of the empress of the Isles, an empire in the midst of a plague, with rats ruling the capital city on Dunwall. After a bizarre attack on the palace Corvo is framed for the assassination of the empress and our journey begins. Dishonored is a somewhat archetypal revenge story, with a few extra flourishes that assist the cliche. Helped by allies both physical and metaphysical Corvo is tasked with proving his innocence and nullifying his enemies all while trying to place a young princess on the throne. The overarching plot is acceptable and provides a backdrop for other elements to shine. Though revenge is a common theme in video games the writing and voice acting is of high quality making the concept new again. Most revenge games do so as a good starting point to bring the main character somewhere else, but Dishonored sticks with the theme throughout. There are some plot gaps and loose ends by the end of it all, but to reiterate, the writing will nullify these minor problems.
But to really grasp the plot as a whole be prepared to engage every level in a deep way. One could very easily rush through the plot in less than 7 or 8 hours, but without the nonessential content the plot comes across as very plain. Taking the time to explore each level fully nets you sidequests, subplots,and audiographs (think BioShock). Not to mention various notes and books which have found a beautiful balance here. Neither take more than a minute of reading each and yet they convey so much of the world building, monologues and character interaction. The world building in particular is a bit of a let down in some ways though, there is so much started about the culture and lifestyle of the Isles, and yet the feeling is conveyed that the in game lore only scratches the surface. But you can only criticize so much for providing such great content that the player needs more.
There is also a gameplay element in place, the chaos system, that changes how the other characters interact with Corvo depending on his actions. It essentially boils down to: kill a lot of people, enemies and allies alike are wary of you and the city becomes more chaotic and difficult to traverse; kill less people and others will like you better. It's a nice system for Corvo to interact with the plot without speaking, but it could have been taken advantage of better and leads to disappointment in other areas of the game to be discussed later.
While graphically speaking Dishonored is not very impressive at a technological level, it makes for lost ground in it's stylistic approach. The textures range from weak to passing, and though texture pop-in is not a common problem, I had one occurrence where the pop-in was very abrupt and obviously present, though if it is an issue, it's a very inconsistent one. The enemy models are passable, creatures are a little weak, human models are a bit better, but because of the water color reminiscent style nothing comes across as an eyesore. Those looking for a ultra realistic approach might want to steer away, or watch some videos first though.
The capital city, Dunwall, in particular is stunning. This is no doubt due to Viktor Antonov, designer of City 17 of Half Life 2 fame. There are definite similarities between the two locations, but Dunwall stands as it's own entity. The Victorian Age is not exactly shown as live and thriving in this sick and infested world, but it is a varied and tightly constructed backdrop that Arkham Studios have laid a distopian steam punk coating over. The strong contrast between the Corinthian column littered royal districts, industrial simplicity of the military districts and the plague infested, barricaded slums and sewers speaks volumes and looks great. Some might find it a shame that Dishonored is not a sandbox game, but in fact split into occasionally overlapping levels. While ideally a continuous world might be preferable the chapter splits allow for a greater level of care in each area and it shows, albeit more in the beginning stages than in the end. There is a noticeable downward trend in the environment quality in the later stages, but at no point is the presentation of the world bad.
The voice acting and ambient sound on the other hand is consistently amazing. There is what seems to be a small number of voice actors and a few instances where major character VAs also voice minor characters, but outside of one instance it's not very noticeable. The writing also contributes to the soundscape quality, soldiers periodically mumble to themselves about the state of the city, or recite in game poetry. Perhaps most impressive is the conversation that enemies have between each other. There are some overused curse filled exchanges and snarky remarks which is annoying, but the majority of NPC conversations are unique to particular times and contexts in the game. The sound track is very small and rarely plays but the times you hear the music creep into the game is adds to the atmosphere. Like the environments the use of music is on a surgical level.
Though the writing is impressive the gameplay is the obvious focal point of Dishonored. The layout is very similar to the Deus Ex games. Action is split into different levels, generally very different from one another and there is a strong emphasis on choice.
Through various plot devices Corvo attains a variety of equipment and magical powers that give players a plethora of options. The blink ability, a teleportation skill, was the most anticipated and follows through on the promise of quality. While you hold down the L1 button you are shown the projected area you'll blink to and the distance you'll fall, or how high you'll climb to get on top of the object. This ability to blink into a climbing position adds a lot of vertical flexibility to the skill. Hand in hand with blink is the way the levels are designed. The early levels are all tightly wound with a large focus on verticality. This tight design tapers off later on, though the verticality stays throughout the game and is one of the factors that most differentiates the game from contemporaries.
There are other skills of course. Passives that allow you to dispose of bodies by turning them into ash, or upgrades to movement speed and jump height. But most your points will be invested in blink and the other active abilities, like the ability to slow/stop time or see through walls. Unfortunately nothing scrapes the level of depth that blink does and most abilities amount to little other than neat ideas. But the options are there and for the curious gamer there's a lot of neat tricks to play with, like stopping time to kill a guard with his own bullet.
The worst aspect of this is the focus that the game gives being pacifist. Killing too many enemies, because of the chaos system, makes the game even more difficult and gives you a weak ending. So many of the skills revolve around being a lethal force that avoiding killing enemies closes many of the skills, turning a fun and varied experience into a chokehold-fest. It's understandable that a pacifist game is more difficult, but with such a focus on options, it seems unfair to give pacifist players almost none, especially considering you need to play pacifist to get the better ending. The chaos system that causes all this isn't a bad idea, but combined with the slanted skill set it makes for some suffocating gameplay.
That's not to say that the game isn't still fun though. The chaos system isn't absolute, and if you want you can deal with the consequences of high chaos or you could just moderate your killing. There are also some equipment options, like sleep darts that you can buy. Not to mention the bone charms you can find strewn about levels that can confer all sorts of passive abilities, from quicker choke-holds to the ability to regain mana by drinking from faucets.
The game itself is split into about 10 levels that tend to take anywhere from a 15 minute rush to the boss for impatient gamers, to a 2 and a half hour romp for the more curious gamers. Most times clock in at anywhere from 12 to 20 hours for their first play, which is a little on the short side to be sure. But there is some merit in the 2 or so sidequests per level, as well as the many different paths that you can take to complete the levels.
The replay value was something that I assumed was going to be great from the beginning. Early on Arkham Studios showed that there was a system for replaying completed missions, something I'm a big supporter of. This significantly increases the replay value, but shockingly when you replay a level your items and abilities are kicked back to what you had when you first played the level. So unfortunately there's no going back to early levels with the best abilities. And beyond that there's no new game+ mode to take advantage of either. These both certainly diminish what could be a great way to extend the replay value.
Arkane Studios has proven that they have the ability to put out very high quality content with Dishonored. While the game certainly has some fatal flaws the areas that Arkane chose to perfect, the blink ability, the writing and the level design, were amazing. But unfortunately the other abilities are left to flounder with the slanted chaos system, and the last half of the game loses some steam. Despite these issues Dishonored is always at least competent and very likely enjoyable to many gamers. And for those that aren't wowed by the comparative chaff, do yourself a favor, stick around for the wheat.
Final Score- 8.2/10
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 11/05/12
Game Release: Dishonored (US, 10/09/12)
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