Review by MTLH

"Dishonored's world is beautifully realised but as a game it's a bit rough around the edges."

One of the biggest games of 2012 was Arkane Studios' Dishonored. By the time it was actually released, the hype had reached severe proportions. It takes only a perfunctory glance at it's commercial and critical success to see that the hype certainly wasn't too far off the mark. I usually don't enjoy stealth games all that much, despite me really wanting to. I have tried titles such as Deus Ex, Thief and Splinter Cell but they just didn't do much for me, especially that last one. Dishonored's setting appealed to me so I decided to give it a chance even if the genre doesn't exactly agree with me. I am glad I did.

The visuals rely more on design than technology. The game's Victorian steampunk setting has been beautifully realised with the same also applying to it's decrepitly rundown mood. Judging from the characters, it becomes clear that the graphics don't go for total realism but instead mix it with some minor cartoon stylings. It's a style that is quite reminiscent of BioShock to take an example. Character highlights include facial animation and detailing, both of which are surprisingly not limited to just the principal cast.

What did bother me about Dishonored's graphics is that the overall quality can fluctuate quite noticeably. Characters exhibit the qualities mentioned in the previous paragraph but at the same time can also display some decidedly wooden animations. This mostly crops up when a character goes from one set of an animations to another, with each set in itself being fluid but the transition being anything but. Another example form the environments which can be breathtaking only to be ruined by just one low quality texture too many. The game's hub for instance which is situated at a waterfront. Looking over the water you can see a large part of the city laying across it. It initially looks majestic until you take a closer look and notice that it's little more than a piece of badly constructed stage scenery. This is an example that is hard to miss as it fills the entire screen but eventually other, smaller details with a similar deficiency like posters and piles of garbage begin to add up.

Don't get me wrong, taken as a whole the visuals do look good. I don't usually care about technical deficiencies when it comes to a game's presentation as long as the visual design is good enough to compenste. It's just that Dishonored doesn't look as polished as it could have been. There is a litany of little blemishes that, if you start paying attention to them over the course of the game, begin to grate. As it is, it's the visual's design and coherent style that holds everything together. It's fortunate then that both are truly great.

The soundtrack manages to nicely complement Dishonored's visual style. The score enhances the mood without overshadowing it, adding a lot to the game's sense of creepiness and alienation. Sound effects are generally quite good, also offering the kind of audio signs necessary in a stealth game. The voice acting is just great, really bringing the various characters to life. This applies to both the regular conversations as the accidental mumblings of the guards and citizens you sneak past. If there is a gripe here, it's probably that some lines are repeated just a bit too often.

The city of Dunwall is in turmoil. This industrial powerhouse has lost it's Empress to assassins while her heiress has been kidnapped. To make matters worse, the population is being decimated by a terrible plague while the new regime resorts to brutal measures to ensure order. The blame for the Empress' death has been unjustly laid on her loyal bodyguard, Corvo Attano, while the real culprits bask in their newfound power. There are still a few loyalists left however who free Corvo and task him with eliminating those responsible so the princess can ascend her throne.

Dunwall is arguably Dishonored's greatest triumph. It's a well realised city with a great sense of place. More importantly, for all of it's steampunk stylings and supernatural elements, Dunwall is also quite believable and doesn't feel like just a setting. Dishonored neatly portrays a society in a state of dilapidation and decay that has known better times. The various books and recordings scattered throughout the game add to it's world while the Heart, an enhanced human heart carried around by Corvo, whispers information about the various landmarks and people. Both methods work although there is a little too much repetition. As for the actual story, it's an entertaining yarn whose eventual twist can unfortunately be spotted right from the start. The various characters are surprisingly believable, to use that word again, in their motivations and behaviour which does strengthen the plot. Corvo's eventual confrontation with the game's final culprit forms a good example of this. It is a pity that the ending is rather condensed and abrupt, robbing Dishonored of the grand finale it deserves.

Dishonered is a stealth game played from a first person perspective. Corvo can sneak around, use conventional weapons and has access to a few otherworldly abilities. Corvo's missions usually entail being dropped off at a location, gather information and subsequently take care of his target before escaping. How he does this is up to the player's discretion.

Corvo has an arsenal of weapons and gadgets at his disposal. He can use a crossbow with various types of ammunition for example or grenades. One weapon he has almost continuously on hand is a sword. For a fee these can be upgraded over time by increasing the ammunition capacity or sword proficiency. This does not only apply to Corvo's weapons as it also allows him to enhance, for instance, his boot so he can move around more silently.

The otherworldly abilities are also tied to an upgrade system. All around Dunwall Corvo can find so-called runes with which he can unlock special powers. These include teleportation, possession and being able to slow down time. Besides these active abilities there are also a few passive ones to unlock called enhancements, for instance increasing health and agility. Also scattered around the city are bone charms. These can be allocated to a number of slots, which can be expanded, and grant Corvo certain slight perks. All this allows for a good deal of customisation yet it could also have been a bit more elaborate but more on that later.

The level design facilitates these abilities nicely. As mentioned, each mission sees Corvo entering an area tasked with eliminating someone or other and it's up to the player how to proceed. Each area offers a lot of freedom, there usually being various ways in which to accomplish the task at hand. This means that Corvo has different options as to how to enter a building, deal with guards and even ultimately his target. Do you take the backdoor or go via the roof? Will you evade that guard or try to take him out? Killing your target is an option but isn't there a less bloody way? These are the kind of questions the player will frequently encounter.

A few of the levels on offer are quite inventive. Dishonored's highlight is a fancy dress party at a mansion and it serves as a perfect example of what the gameplay entails. The party is hosted by three sisters, one of which is on Corvo's list. After having snuck his way in, Corvo must talk to the various guests and seek additional information to find out who of the three is actually his intended target. Of course there is nothing stopping him following the easy route of simply killing them all. Then again, Corvo also has the option of sparing his victim by handing her over to her secret admirer. All the while Corvo can engage in idle conversation with the other guests, thus learning just how corrupt Dunwall's upper class is, loot the mansion and partake in a duel. This is also the one mission where, in a glorious twist, his mask allows him to move freely about in public because it is seen as part of his costume.

Dishonored not only offers the freedom to tackle the levels as you wish but also gives the player some leeway as to the manner in which they do this. Corvo is certainly able to kill his way through the game but can also choose to only incapacitate his victims. Killing, as well as bodies being discovered, leads to a higher state of chaos in Dunwall which can affect the game in various ways. Depending on the level of generated chaos, Corvo's allies view him differently, the plot will be slightly altered and the city itself will become either more or less dangerous. More chaos for instance means that there are more rats roaming the streets while targets will be better protected. That is not to say Corvo can just storm into every situation as caution will always be required to some degree. Dishonored is a stealth game after all and not a shooter. It's even possible to finish the game without killing anyone at all.

Corvo's abilities tie into this freeform approach. Depending on the upgrades that are chosen for him, Corvo can be turned into a ghost or a mass murderer. Related to the latter, he can be outfitted with the ability to call forth a swarm of murderous rats or knock back foes with a blast of wind. His melee attacks can also be strengthened for instance. Even so, because Dishonored primarily favours stealth, the eventual choices that can be made are rather limited. Corvo may be turned into a shadow or a killer but he must predominantly remain silent and sneaky.

Focusing on the game's stealth systems for a moment, it has to be said that they generally work quite well. I didn't encounter any situations where Corvo was noticed when he really shouldn't have been. There where however a few instances where the exact opposite happened. There is a moment for example where Corvo sneaked undetected past a dancing couple in plain sight. He is also capable of not being noticed while standing right next to someone. What also happens occasionally is that a foe will look directly at the assassin and still fails to notice him. Sure, during those times Corvo is usually hiding behind something but it can give the stealth systems an artificial feel. A feeling that isn't exactly weakened by how mechanically those same enemies go about their business at times. This kind of predictability aids the player who can take advantage of it but can also harm the game's suspension of disbelief.

Replayability is certainly a strong point here. Besides each assignment being able to be completed in multiple ways there is also the option of playing more or less aggressively. This makes going through various playthroughs quite a fulfilling and worthwhile endeavour. Seeing that Dishonored isn't a particularly short game to begin with, trying out various playstyles certainly lengthens it's lifespan.

Dishonored can be played with the keyboard and mouse combination or a gamepad. The latter option certainly works well enough but I do prefer the more PC centric scheme. I found it to be the smoother option of the two but, for what it's worth, I tend to find games with a first person perspective uncomfortable to play with a gamepad anyway.

Dishonored's main attraction is it's world. Dunwall has been beautifully realised. Arkane Studios has managed to infuse the city with a personality of it's own as well as a history. Dunwall is more than just an interchangeable setting, it gives the impression that it was there before the events of the game and will be there afterwards. The presentation plays a huge part in this achievement as does the writing.

The gameplay underpinning this universe isn't bad either. Dishonored offers a location and a mission and let's the player loose to do whatever he or she sees fit. A fully equipped Corvo is a joy to control, having him teleporting across buildings and taking possession of a hapless soldier before choking him unconscious and entering the gate to your target. A target that, after some thorough exploration and information gathering, doesn't necessarily has to die. The subsequent replay value also shouldn't be underestimated.

Still, Dishonored isn't a perfect game. The main issue is that it is a bit rough around the edges. The visual quality can be somewhat uneven, the stealth mechanic can feel too artificial at times, the ending is rather abrupt and Corvo's abilities could have been diversified a little more. The overall experience does alleviate these flaws to an extent. It says something about Dishonored's thrall that a lot of the issues only annoyed me in hindsight when I sat down and actually started to take a long look at the game I just completed. In the end I can certainly recommend Dishonored and hope that the eventual sequel can live up to the world it's situated in.

OVERALL: a 8,4.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 02/06/13

Game Release: Dishonored (EU, 10/12/12)

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