It’s all so clever. So simple. So unforgiving. So merciful. Dishonored, the new first-person stealth action game from French developers, Arkane Studios, is a wonderfully contradictory and intelligent offering. A fresh IP with the poise of a Triple-A franchise, it inducts you into its dark and spellbinding world with aspirations of transforming you into a magical master assassin simply by convincing you it’s best if you don’t actually kill anyone.
It may sound like a huge joke: An assassin who doesn’t do any assassinating. Why, it’s enough to have the Serious Fraud Office knocking down your door and an entire episode of BBC One’s Rogue Traders dedicated to exposing how you’re making a killing from not making any killings. But Arkane isn’t messing about.
Success in Dishonored is never conditional on playing so sparingly. In fact Arkane goes out of its way to shower you with different options to achieve your atonement. But it’s clear it’s fixed on persuading you to become a more mature, more thoughtful gamer (even if it is only for the duration of its own title). And for those who pay attention and persevere, the sense of superiority you’re rewarded with is a suitably satisfying one.
Returning after a long and fruitless aid mission abroad, Dishonored protagonist, royal bodyguard Corvo Attano, has barely steadied his sea legs before he’s framed for the assassination of the Empress and the abduction of her daughter to whom he’s devoted. As work place pranks go it’s on the harsh side, but Corvo has a superior counter. Aided by a group of resourceful Loyalists and entrusted with super natural powers by the Outsider – a mysterious being who stands somewhere between God and the Devil without any of the burdensome party politics – Corvo is encouraged to become the ultimate weapon of retribution. The eye for an eye his adversaries never saw coming.
At its heart Dishonored may be a straightforward tale of revenge, but it’s a game Arkane has constructed with a cultured air and an academic adroitness. The main setting, Dunwall, is a sophisticated, sinister and stimulating place. A Dickensian dystopia built by a scientifically progressive steam punk society and torn in two by a rat borne plague. A city of inventors and industrialists; free thinkers and fundamentalists; opulence, oppression and opportunism; poverty, pestilence and promiscuity; Dunwall is powered by a literary richness rarely found in game design just as much as it is by its precious flow of whale oil.
It’s a world painted in emotive water colour strokes and populated by living portraits whose weary eyes and sallow completions betray their hardships and despairs. Dunwall’s chief architect, Viktor Antonov – the same man responsible for Half Life 2’s City 17 – has a talent, possibly unrivalled, for draining the life out of his creations, and here his austere urban planning, with sickly sunlight streaming through its grimy windows, perfectly embodies Dunwall’s plight.
Officially, there’s no ‘right’ way to go about completing Corvo’s mission. Arkane has divided Dunwall into a series of tightly tailored sandbox levels, each focused on giving you maximum freedom to choose your own physical and philosophical path. So, if you want, you can shove a sword in your right hand, a pistol or crossbow in your left and take the direct route to retribution.
Despite liberally accommodating these more straightforward methods, however, shooting up a song and dance isn’t Arkane’s idea of enlightened entertainment. It’s far too unrefined and injudicious. Instead, they’d prefer you to conjure up much more imaginative ways of making people disappear, including yourself.
Aside from the crucial ability to lean-and-peak from the safety of cover, Dishonored’s basic stealth mechanics are traditionally brittle. Remain undetected and you’re safe, but if enemies like the rank and file City Watch, or worse, the intimidating, stilt-legged Tall Boy units catch sight or sound of you, you’ll be hunted, attacked and engulfed in reinforcements.
Where Dishonored’s flexibility and ingenuity lies is with its small, but carefully differentiated, band of super natural powers Corvo can call on to enhance his elusiveness. Blink, the most invaluable, allows you to teleport short distances, while others enable you to see through walls, possess other living creatures, slow time, turn bodies to ash or summon a devouring swarm of rats or a toppling gust of wind. Powers are unlocked and upgraded with mystic ruins and these, along with stat-boosting bone charms, can be located using the beating of a disembowelled heart to pinpoint their location. Like a kind of tachycardia Sat Nav.
With these abilities to hand, Dishonored become something much more complex and unique than simply Assassin’s Creed meets a Paul Daniels’ magic set. Stealth games naturally have a more considered pace and studious approach, but in Dishonored, not only does Arkane make fight or flight realistic survival methods if spotted, they also develop being sneaky to almost scholarly levels.
Each of the game’s nine missions is like a field trip in assassin’s acumen. Whether you’re escaping a maximum security prison, infiltrating a lavish den of iniquity, crashing an opulent masquerade ball or abducting an eccentric scientist, Arkane is imploring you to explore, observe, investigate and experiment. Immerse yourself in Dishonored’s world, pick your way through the squalor of side streets, blink across balconies and rooftops, scuttle through the putrid sewers, catch snatches of conversations at keyholes, chain and combine powers together and you’ll discover characters, information and locations that open new doors and change your entire thinking.
Played with the purity, intelligence and order Arkane wants you to strive for, Dishonored is a constantly uncompromising and frequently exasperating game. Every decision has consequences, every movement has to be thought out, every kill or incapacitation of an enemy leaves a body that needs to be disposed of. It repeatedly teaches harsh lessons, but for those willing to do their homework it’s also wonderfully absorbing and hugely empowering. While Arkane never forces its ethos on you, quickly and almost unconsciously you become afflicted with a kind of Assassin’s OCD, reloading and repeating sections again and again until you feel you’ve done things to an acceptable standard.
With all that said, there are undeniably areas where Dishonored doesn’t meet its own high ideals. The blink mechanic is not always accurate enough, aerial takedowns do not work well enough and, although enemies’ AI is clever enough to throw hesitations and deviations into their routes, they also exhibit some unbelievably inconsistencies behaviour. The most disappointing thing of all, however, is the central story. It’s uneven, slight and predictable. Given the highbrow tenor of the rest of the game you might expect it to deliver a similar display of intellectual fireworks to a Bioshock or a Braid, but instead it’s something of a damp squib.
Despite this, the closer you examine Dunwall, the more you notice how Arkane has cleverly learnt from clever games that have preceded its own. Its intellectual alumni may have paved the way for its existence, but Dishonored is very much a distinct creation and one of the most memorable experiences of 2012. It’s a game that’s been designed, refined and streamlined with an unerring eye and an assured hand and proof that bright new stars can be born at the twilight of this console generation. An education in assassination that’s more about the people you spare than you ones you kill is an achievement that deserves to be held in high esteem.
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