Identity – the bane of every assassin
Identity – the bane of every assassin. Remain unseen and you’re a deadly killer; become too recognisable and you’re out of employment, sitting in the job-centre for an everyday 9 to 5 flipping burgers at a fast food stand. For a game that encourages shadow stalking, sticking you behind a badass metal mask at every available opportunity, Dishonored has absolutely no problem establishing its own instantly recognisable identity, all whilst retaining a stealthy edge. In a time when fresh IP is a rarity – no, a luxury – Dishonored shines.
But despite its freshness, comparisons to familiar names are immediate. Dishonored plays somewhat like Mirror’s Edge, with its first person jumping, climbing and bounding across rooftops. There are stealthy splashes of Thief, and a sinister atmosphere that’s entirely reminiscent of BioShock. RPG-style levelling and a concise loot system also enforce stronger visions of Rapture’s underwater corridors, but the gameplay execution is so fresh and precise that you never feel you’re treading over covered ground.
You are the man behind the mask, Corvo – faithful servant of the city of Dunwall, loyal bodyguard to the Empress and her young daughter, Emily. As Lord Protector, you are the Empress’ first line of defence, and you’re one of the most deadly men in the entire city. However, you’ve just been framed for the Empress’s murder, which changes things a little. Disgraced, you’re made an enemy of the state by the tyrannous Lord Regent; a radical, wealth-obsessed maniac who’s comparable to a propagandist caricature of David Cameron drawn by an impressively artistic Labour MP.
After springing from prison you set up base at the Hounds Pit Pub, joining with a band of Loyalists who are fervently opposed to the Lord Regent’s rule. From here you devise plans to slowly bring the world down from around his ears. But the Loyalists aren’t your only companions through Dishonored’s 15-hour story. You’re regularly visited by the Outsider, a supernatural being who gives you magical abilities and an ominous beating heart that you can equip to highlight magical runes, the currency for upgrading your powers, and bone charms, which grant passive abilities.
Dishonored’s nine missions are all heavily open-ended, and exploring the city is an unrivalled delight. This heavily corrupt, plague-infested hellhole isn’t likely to make the front page of any holiday brochures – it feels like Sin City meets steampunk – but it encompasses an entirely jilted sense of beauty that completely offsets the dark tone flowing through Dishonored’s veins. For all the bubonic disease, sunlight bathes the streets and architecture to create a sumptuous and stylised game world that’s hard to look away from.
It is as diverse as it is cohesive, too. The wealthy districts and various houses of nobility display a sense of class, decadence and style, with colour becoming more vivid and vibrant. Meanwhile, the flooded financial region and decaying underbelly of sewers portray the city at its utter worst. A brown, putrid green colour palette starts to take over and the claustrophobic atmosphere closes in around your ears. Hulking metal trains drop the dead into quarantine ditches by the dozen, zombie-like plague victims – or Weepers – stumble the streets attacking anyone still alive, and the rats scurry in swarms, violently consuming dead bodies and gnawing at the ankles of the living whilst they still stumble across the cobblestones.
In guarded areas, deadly Walls of Light incinerate anyone foolish enough to step into their blinding rays, and mechanical Tall Boys patrol the streets with a watchful eye over their surroundings below. It feels like a city-wide prison, and it’s Dishonored’s crowning achievement.
Every area you visit is packed full of alternate routes, and the maze-like structure feels so dense that you’re always thinking about where to go next and, more importantly, how to get there. While you can just dart from objective to objective, you’re continually encouraged to wander off the beaten track, and doing so rewards you with extra gold, hidden trinkets and secondary optional objectives that can completely alter how a mission turns out. Only by going back and repeating missions – which you can do from the main menu – highlights how subtly dynamic Dishonored is.
But for all its freedom and supernatural eeriness, Dishonored’s plot feels oddly paced, at times even one-dimensional – as if you’re simply following an assassination bucket list. There are a few twists and turns that attempt to throw you a curveball, but the main “surprises” feel predictable due to the by-the-numbers vibe that still lingers from the first half. Even the presence of the supernatural Outsider doesn’t manage to catapult the story into the grand ethereal light it so desperately searches for. By the closing stages, the story has prematurely climaxed, and the Outsider is revealed to be little more than a glorified narrator.
However, as a mute, mostly faceless character, Corvo is an impressively strong lead. He acts as a blank canvas for your decisions to paint colour onto. His interminable silence is your voice; your opportunity to react in a way you deem suitable for the situation.
The characters and environment around you make your actions feel all the more important, but some pale in comparison to the rich game world. Young Emily is the most integral of them all, and she serves as a walking moral compass for you to assess yourself against. Play as a righteous, merciful assassin and she looks up to you, pledging to continue your way of peace when she is finally on the throne. Do bad and she spirals into darkness, like a kid who’s listened to too much My Chemical Romance and overdosed on Slender Man mythology. She’ll draw you haunting pictures of her in power, slaughtering innocents, and tell you how she smells the blood on you when you return from a mission. It’s menacingly dark, but entirely engrossing to actively shape her persona.
Dishonored succeeds in making stealth a fun and viable way to play, even if you’re not stereotypically good at stealth games.
Adaptation in combat is key, and there’s a constant toss-up between lethal and non-lethal methods of neutralisation. With a deadly short blade locked to your right hand, your left hand swaps between magical abilities, ranged weapons and grenades. Lethal melee take-downs result in a gory animation that spurts gallons of blood across the walls and floor. Non-lethal takedowns cue a suitably less violent animation, and you just chokehold your enemies until they’re snoozing like babies, but your mercifulness is rewarded in the long run.
Out of stealth, if a few guards see you, melee combat is serviceable but considerably less satisfying. Your blows are noticeably less impactful, and lack clunk when you connect with your enemies. You can feasibly just hack away at the right trigger, occasionally blocking against a few swings that come your way, until everyone lies dead in a pool of blood. Whilst this quenches your blood lust, it breaks the illusion of precision that every other aspect of play creates.
Your ranged weapons let you rain death on your enemies without being close enough to lick their elbows. The crossbow has multiple types of ammunition; standard bolts for lethal takedowns, sleep darts for non-lethal and incendiary bolts for extra spicy destruction. Standard bolts and sleep darts are silent, providing the perfect way to pick off a couple of enemies before moving into an enclosed space. As for the pistol, think of it as a deafeningly loud last resort that blows away anyone who’s unfortunate enough to have it aimed at them. It’s not sneaky, is what we’re saying here.
Improvements to all of your equipment can be done back at base at the Hounds Pit. Here, tech-proficient Loyalist Piero will upgrade your sword, crossbow and pistol with various add-ons to aid you better in battle. Your ammo and bolt pouches can be expanded to hold more ammunition, and you can buy potions, grenades and other traps providing you have enough gold.
Thanks to the Outsider, you’ve also got a little something else under your sleeve, which gives you a supernatural edge over your opponents. The go-to power is your ability to Blink, which teleports you onto any surface or ledge in an instant. It’s perfect when traversing high-up areas, jumping between buildings, or when you need to escape a particularly tricky situation.
Other powers include the ability to see through walls handy for exploring interiors; the ability to unleash a swarm of rats for brutally gory rodent murder; and the power to slow, and eventually completely freeze, time – our personal favourite. You can also possess rats and fish, using their tiny disease-ridden little bodies to infiltrate vents and underwater passages that your human body could never hope to fit through. All Corvo’s personal abilities can be put to use in a multitude of different ways, and it’s extremely satisfying to experiment with your powers until you really get to grips with using them in an expert way.
Corvo’s personal abilities are upgradeable at any time, but you need a certain amount of runes to afford the level up. Investing in each power is a real commitment, and you’ll feel incredibly adept with your personal skill set by the end of the game.
Dishonored doesn’t perfect everything, but it provides enough fresh ideas that you’ll overlook a few missteps entirely. Dunwall is a fabulous artistic achievement, and the characters that inhabit its stinking streets react to you so naturally that you feel directly involved in their lives. This is the kind of game that anyone with a passing interest in visual storytelling just has to get involved with.
Dishonored basks in artistic brilliance. Dunwall unravels at your feet, reacting organically to your in-game actions in a way that you feel rooted in its rich lore. Stealth has never been so satisfying as it is in Dishonored. One of 2012’s finest.