Dishonored ReviewBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Oct 07, 2012
Dishonored delivers on almost every admirably/crazily ambitious promise made by its creators. Its impeccably crafted gameplay and exquisitely haunting and detailed world stand in loving tribute to all of the iconic and acclaimed franchises that inspired it, and yet it still has a soul and style all its own.
- Gorgeous, mesmerizing, authoritarian-gothic world
- Blink ability = genius
- A replay-lover's dream
- Relatively straightforward story with an anticlimactic ending
- Quirky gameplay hiccups
- Inconsistent AI
Dishonored got its hooks into me the moment it was revealed last year thanks to its unique art style and instantly mesmerizing game world, and even after around 30 hours of teleporting, stabbing, shooting, climbing, and rat summoning, those hooks are still firmly in place, even if they aren’t buried quite as deep as I was hoping they would be. Make no mistake about it though: Dishonored is one of those games that will float in and out of your head with haunting regularity each time you put down the controller. The world it drops you into is just that vivid and fully realized; oh, and it doesn’t play half bad either.
Players assume the role of Corvo Attano, personal bodyguard (and more?) to Dunwall’s Empress Jessamine Kaldwin. The game opens with Corvo returning from a six month trip to neighboring regions to seek aid for the devastating rat plague that has torn Dunwall apart. Upon his arrival, he witnesses/is framed for the Empress’ murder, accused of kidnapping the Empress’ daughter, and heir to the throne, Emily, and thrown in jail to await his execution.
Corvo doesn’t stay locked up for long though, as he escapes the day before his scheduled beheading and soon finds himself part of an underground movement devoted to bringing down Dunwall’s new leader, the Lord Regent, who they believe orchestrated the Empress’ assassination, and ensuring Emily takes her rightful place on the throne. Needless to say, things are a bit more complicated than they seem, and it’s up to Corvo to ensure the wrongs are righted and the deserving are swiftly stabbed in the neck (or put to sleep, depending on your style).
Now, Corvo’s revenge tale has a solid enough setup, an appreciated, if predictable, twist towards the end, and even wraps up most of the loose ends in the closing moments. However, the mystical, power-granting Outsider---and actually the entire magical element---ends up being the most underdeveloped part of the story, despite the huge role both play in Corvo’s personal journey. The story is perfectly serviceable; it just never quite lives up to the mythos established and supported by the universe in which it takes place. Not to suggest that that would be an easy task. After all, the world of Dishonored is among the most phenomenal fictional settings ever created.
All you have to do to understand how much emphasis Arkane has put on bringing the city of Dunwall and the world of Dishonored to life is look at one screenshot or piece of concept art. With the help of visual design director Viktor Antonov, best known for designing Half-Life 2’s breathtaking City 17, the team at Arkane have managed to create a universe that not only makes for moody, atmospheric settings but also make you feel like you are part of a larger, lived-In world. Whether it’s maneuvering through stark governmental facilities, wading through foul Weeper-infested canals, reading reports on whale oil production, or sucking down a can of Pratchett jellied eels, Dunwall’s gothic, plague-infested history is all around you, brought to life with a clarity of vision that only gets more and more awe-inspiring as the game goes along.
Having a setting as rich as Dunwall as your disposal simply to walk around in would be enjoyable enough, but Dishonored also happens to deliver about as solid a first-person action-stealth experience as you could want. Sword fighting in first-person always feels a bit awkward, but once you get down Dishonored’s blocking and countering rhythm, it feels natural enough. The rest of Corvo’s arsenal consists of weapons designed to dish out horrific levels of death in a variety of ways, including a pistol that can be upgraded to shoot explosive rounds, a trip mine that whips around razor wire and cuts enemies to pieces, sticky grenades, and the always enjoyable crossbow. So if you decide to take the action route, you will not want for ways to feed your blood lust (just know that the deadlier you are, the darker the world and the game’s outcome will be).
For as surprisingly enjoyable as Dishonored’s combat is, the game’s true brilliance shines through when you take advantage of Corvo’s various powers; and not just in the non-lethal sense either. My first playthrough was all about being silent and violent (i.e. using possession to take control of a guard, move him to a secluded spot, and then running him through with Corvo’s sweet blade). Between being able to see through walls so you can better plan your next move or summoning swarms of rats to eat unsuspecting enemies, the combinations are endless, and all equally satisfying, especially when put in the context of levels that not only encourage creative thinking but reward it too.
The two major rewards you’ll be on the hunt for are bone charms and runes. Bone charms grant you passive abilities like being able to swing your sword faster or getting more health from eating food, where runes allow you to upgrade your special abilities. It’s possible to unlock all 10 abilities, but you won’t be able to upgrade them all to full (level 2) power, so you’ll have to decide which ones fit your particular playstyle. You find these items by using a beating heart given to you by the Outsider, and in addition to showing you how far away each one is, the heart will also beat faster when you are closer to one. It will be beat louder and faster when it’s equipped, but even when it’s not, you’ll still get a random heartbeat every now and then to tell you you are close, which can get to be a tad annoying, but serves as great motivation to collect them all as fast as you can. There are also odd baubles and coins to collect, as well as blueprints that you can give your craftsman Piero in between missions to access even more upgrades and purchase ammo and gear. In other words, lots of incentives to explore every nook and cranny you can find.
But by far the most impressive and game-defining feature is Corvo’s teleporting Blink ability. Next to the grapple hook-parachute combo in Just Cause 2, Corvo’s Blink is easily my favorite traversal mechanic of this generation, maybe of all time. The freedom of movement Blink allows gives the game a Portal/Assassin’s Creed-like feel in the sense that you are no longer looking straight ahead for where you should go next but rather up and around, to the ledges, roofs, windows, and pipes that surround you. The brilliance of the game’s level design though is that you can still access a lot of the same areas simply by climbing to them, for those who’d rather not engage in black magic.
It’s also easy enough to combine Blinking and climbing too, thanks to the brilliant inclusion of a landing indicator that will either show up as a circle for a flat surface and as an up arrow to indicate that Corvo will automatically pull himself up. While the Blink marker works well for the most part, it has some quirks. A lot of times it doesn’t seem to extend as far upwards as it does outwards, which can be confusing (and annoying if you’re in a tight spot and you’re trying to get clear in a hurry) when you can’t jump to a ledge that doesn’t look more than 15 feet above you but you can jump to a ledge that is easily 3X that distance in front of you. It’s a very minor issue, and one that can be easily forgotten with a Blink/melee takedown of a towering Tallboy.
The other notable issue I’ve had during my time with the game is that enemy AI seems to be a bit inconsistent. This seems to be a problem with most games that feature a stealth slant, where one minute the AI feels like they are on top of things and are rightfully concerned and curious, and the next they have zero reaction to stuff that’s happening right in front of them. Or four guys will run straight into an Arc Pylon (disintegration beam/gate) while one guy stands back and watches as friend after friend gets blasted to ash. The guards do team up well in regular combat scenarios though, and will use different tactics to keep you on your toes. Some have guns, some chuck grenades and even bricks, they’ll dodge your sword strikes and counter your attacks, and will kick your ass if you’re not on top of things, even on the default difficulty.
Even if you didn’t know that Arkane Studios was comprised of folks whose resumes include such acclaimed series as BioShock, Half-Life, Thief, and Deus Ex, you would be hard pressed to not immediately think of these franchises after taking one look at Dishonored in action, and rightfully so. And while it has a few quirks here and there, Dishonored delivers on almost every admirably/crazily ambitious promise made by its creators. Its impeccably crafted gameplay and exquisitely haunting and detailed world stand in loving tribute to all of the iconic and acclaimed franchises that inspired it, and yet it still has a soul and style all its own. So if you feel like getting lost in a hypnotic world and engaging in a healthy amount of sword/magic-based badassery, do the honorable thing, and play this game immediately.
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Editor's Note: Dishonored was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy of the game; however, we also played the PS3 version, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.