Dishonored is one of those games where you cannot help but be reminded of various critically acclaimed games from the last 15 years. It’s actually not a coincidence especially when it’s being developed by Arkane Studios, a company that is credited with Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic. The project has also brought design talent that has worked on Deus Ex, Thief, and Half-Life 2.
It doesn’t take long to see hints of those and other games in Dishonored. This is certainly not a bad thing, though, especially after having seen to game’s latest build in action.
The title Dishonored is derived from the backstory of Corvo, the game’s protagonist. As a bodyguard, he was tasked with protecting the empress of Dunwall. Through unforeseen circumstances, the empress is killed and Corvo has been framed as her killer. Worse yet, Dunwall, the game’s setting, is in the middle of a plague and the regime that replaced the empress is led by tyrant known as Lord Regent.
The studio has very promising intentions to make Dishonored one of those rare story-driven games with immensely strong replay value, with a focus on player creativity. While the game is mission-based and not an open-world, the studio has designed each mission to be a small open world in itself, in the sense that there’ll be myriad approaches to completing an assignment. Dishonored also enhances its replay value by preventing the player from earning all of Corvo’s powers in a single playthrough.
It’s not simply choosing to go all-stealth or being out in the open. I could see many gamers playing with a mix of both styles. In the mission that Arkane showcased, we find Corvo on an assassination mission at The Golden Cat, a posh burlesque parlor. His target: two corrupt members of parliament known as the Pendleton Twins.
To emphasize the multi-path design of Dishonored’s missions, Arkane went through the same mission twice, playing in a different style each time. Even though each mission has a primary objective, it’s still a very non-linear experience. How to get to your goal matters, whether to took to the streets out in the open or traversed rooftops, whether you chose to act lethally or non-lethally. It should also be noted that you can beat the game without killing anyone.
If you are going for the no-kill experience, it will be in your best interest to gather as much information as possible while in the field. How much or how little information you collect will also determine your goals beyond your main objective. Eavesdropping on conversations from adjacent rooms could reveal the location of a target, but the folks at Arkane also said that such a tactic isn’t mandatory. There’s added depth in that the locations of your main target in a given map will be randomized with each subsequent playthrough.
They showed that one way you could infiltrate The Golden Cat is by taking possession of a fish and making your way through the building’s plumbing. It’s a power that can be put to great use from a stealth standpoint if you consider that you can also possess a guard and walk in plain sight.
Arkane Studios has spent a lot of time honing Dishonored’s stealth mechanic into an analog system where multiple variables come into play, such as lighting, NPC alertness, sound, and distance to characters. It’s not a matter of ‘either they see you or they don’t.’ It should be added that non-alert NPCs have a squashed field of vision, so you won’t be spotted by ground floor guards while you’re walking on rafters.
An ability that will surely be a favorite among many is the short distance teleporting power. If you’re sneaking behind column after column, you don’t have to move or act based on a guard’s patrol pattern; just teleport from one column to another. This ability also has its advantages if you’re the type who likes to traverse rooftops. With enough practice, teleporting (with some platforming) from ground level to the top of a building can be a quick process.
This ability underscores what I hope will be one of Dishonored’s strengths, how it can be argued that Corvo’s potential skill set makes him his own sandbox. Teleport is obviously useful for sneaking, as well as a way to briefly regroup during combat. Yet imagine how helpful it can be when say, cushioning the impact from a fall?
The demo illustrated this as Corvo jumped off a rooftop. Teleport isn’t affected by gravity, so all the player has to do is to teleport Corvo a couple feet off the ground, which kills the momentum of the fall. Dishonored feels like the type of game that rewards gamers who are able to think three or more steps ahead. An even more impressive way to land that jump would be to simply possess an NPC before impact.
Think about the possibilities when you can use multiple powers at the same time, especially when one of those powers is the ability to briefly stop time around Corvo. By stopping time, the player can fatally shoot a number of enemies uninterrupted. If you use your imagination, you can pair that ability with Possession. Imagine stopping time as someone is firing a gun, then possess the shooter, and move the shooter to the path of the very bullet he fired. If Bethesda really wants to make an impression at E3, that’s one scene worth showing.
For as powerful as the Possession ability is, there is the drawback that if your possessed character is killed, then so is Corvo. It’s the price one pays when you can possess something like a rat and use it to generate a diversionary reaction from guards and bystanders.
Stylistically, Arkane Studios brings up steampunk as the main visual influence, but they’re also determined to give Dishonored a look all its own. It’s a world not oversaturated with the bolts and brass that is often associated with steampunk. As other influences, they cite the “Miyazaki Effect” of making things painterly with the textures, while adding a polished layer of shine and sparkle on top of those textures. And as you can already tell from screenshots and trailers, Arkane is also foregoing photo realistic character designs in favor of a more exaggerated look, not unlike the characters in Bethesda’s Brink.
Those who have been following the art design work of Viktor Antonov will easily recognize his visual style in Dishonored. It was mostly due to his work in Half-Life 2 that Arkane sought to have a similar world but through a neo-Victorian lens. In fact, they showed one area that could have easily been mistaken as something from the Half-Life universe: a desolate part of Dunwall rampant with urban decay, patrolled by guards walking on combat-ready stilts, armed with incendiary arrows.
Arkane has also put a lot of thought in how a city’s main industry is a reflection of how that city looks and exists. In Dunwall’s case, the city thrived on refining whale oil with a sense of ecological recklessness not that all different from the industrial revolution. From one perspective, there are positive contradictions at play in many levels of Dishonored’s design.
The studio clarified that the game is not based in London nor is it a London from a different time or reality. This city of Dunwall is both familiar yet exotic. There’s so much groundedness and believability yet there’s also a strong supernatural element beyond Corvo’s powers, namely the involvement of The Outsider. This entity is considered to be a god and devil rolled into one, and grants Corvo these powers to see how he will use these abilities, especially when there’s a strong possibility he’ll meet similarly endowed characters.
This is related to Dishonored morality-based outcomes, both related to gameplay and how the narrative unfolds. It’s a world where some NPCs will have different opinions on how you accomplished a mission, especially on how merciful or merciless you were. It’ll be a wide range of attitudes, but it won’t be in your face, so you don’t have to worry about the city folk getting too preachy.
Furthermore, additional goals in a mission can be unlocked depending on who you talk to near the homebase. One such assignment--should you choose to accept it--involves a humble request from a woman asking you to not kill someone at the next mission location. This speaks to Arkane’s ambitions to make Dunwall one heck of an organically woven city.
Dishonored is due out later this year on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.