Dunwall is a city in turmoil as the highest levels in this society are driven by corruption, greed and opulence, while the lower struggles to survive amidst a savage plague that’s gradually purging the city of all life. Key to the potential liberation of Dunwall is the throats of high-profile individuals that mean to change nothing, but indulge in everything. It can’t last you note – something must give. Dishonored sees gamers taking the role of Corvo. Framed for the assassination of the Empress and the abduction of her daughter, players must escape prison, join a growing resistance to the oppression and set about seeking revenge. While it might sound a little straight forward, Dishonored is nothing of the sort.
One of the most impressive elements about Dishonored is the sense of atmosphere there is around every corner. Rats are a growing infestation in the city, there’s decay and lethargy in the air, the streets are damp, murky and wrotten, opulent buildings are decorated with exquisite and lush fabrics and decorations – the whole thing feels palpable and rather believable in its own context. In fact, that’s really were the magic starts with the Dishonored experience as the characters and surroundings found within are, at times, breathtaking to say the least. Revisiting previously explored regions through specific missions proves to be anything but a chore with the evolving narrative changing and manipulating previously explored areas. For example, if an area falls deeper into the grip of the plague, previously accessible regions within a level might be completely shutoff to the player now. Suddenly the characters you spoke to in the past are gone, character that you might have connected with will see their doors bolted shut and the area is silent. Stark moments like this are coupled with the towering smokestacks, the morbidly obese factories and the smothering propaganda that litters the streets. Ths art direction, thanks to City 17 designer Viktor Antonov, is impeccable.
The plague, while a troubling element to the residents of Dunwall, can also prove to be an ally ultimately. Quite early in the game, Corvo is granted the ability to wield magic and while there might not be the greatest number of potential “spells” to cast, there is an incredible sense of ownership over what you can unlock and then use. Unlocks can be aquired though the collection of runes that are scattered throughout the campaign. By collecting runes, players can then pick and choose what spells and abilities to unlock. Essentially, this unlocking system caters to what type of assassin/gamer you truely are. Take for example a spell that sees you send a ravenous plague of rats at a chosen victim – this army of rats will consume anything in their path. The perks of such magic offer up a silent kill, without a body to trace. The downside of such decisions is that other enemies could potentially hear the screams of the intended victim – and before you know it, the region is on a higher alert than before. You can of course choose to use the “blink” power which will see you warped to your chosen location. Moving around the world using blink can prove to be a delight, but it can also prove to be frustrating and even fatal ability in certain circumstances. Responsive yes, but choosing a ledge to flee to can sometimes require a moment or two of meticulous aiming. This of course, when under attack or pressure, can prove to be a negative experience.
All powers can of course be upgraded and extended beyond their original reach with further upgrades increasing the distance you can blink for example. Arguably the one power that will see you through the most is the “Dark Vision”. Dark Vision will essentially grant you the ability to see NPCs through walls, see their field of view and ultimately allow you to make a smarter decision. Another power you’ll find useful is “The Heart”. A mysterious object, the heart will, when used, spill out unknown details about characters and the enviornments – a sad, poetic and inciteful object that extends the mental energy you invest in some of the various characters and locations around Dunwall
Decisions aren’t simply restricted to how you kill though, as your approach to the kill is just as important. Quite a number of levels, or assassination missions in this case, offer you a high degree of freedom to find what works for you. While there’s a clear boundry between the game world and beyond, each level offers an abundance of detail, freedom and opportunity that will leave you everywhere from the windy rooftops to the murky and disease-ridden sewers. Fancy blasting your way through the front door – in a hellish assault on your target? Go right ahead. Fancy possessing a fish to find an alternative route into a location? You can do that too. There’s a lengthy stream of combinations, through use of power and abilities, that the player can juggle together to create a rich and rewarding sandbox experience. Using such powers will cost you mana though, and thankfully, it’s rare to find yourself completly short on supply. Mana top-ups are scattered throughout the levels wich means that the gamers that heavily rely on such powers – the stealthier of us, can continue to do so. Health and magic won’t regenerate in this world as Dishonored refuses to nurse you from start to finish. Instead, the game will beg the player to participate with patience, respect and reserve.
Magic aside though, Corvo proves to be a formidable opponent with the basic tools at hand. There’s a sword to master, a flintlock pistol at your disposal – which sounds like a cannon when fired, as well as a crossbow that can be equipped with sleeping darts/standard metal bolts. These serve as the basic assault tools with traditional grenades, spring traps, landmines and more available to purchase from various shop keeps/black market traders scattered around various locations.
Dishonored’s fundamental concept of a single player experience only is a welcome one in the age of co-op/multiplayer outings, but it’s one that comes with a worrying lack of replayability. If you spend the length of the game collecting runes, and enjoying upgrades in due course, the final curtain might prove to be a literal conclusion for your playthough as you might have mastered everything you could have – thus ending what was something rather special. That said, the game will also offer achievements and trophies to those that wish to punish their patience a little by asking you to complete missions without killing a person, or even complete a mission without being spotted. For the extra-hardcore fans out there, there’s also a single reward for completing the entire game without killing anyone – a contemporary way of extending Dishonored’s shelflife, but a flawed one at best.
Dishonored is a stand-out experience – there’s no doubting that. Fears of replayability set aside, it offers a robust, original and rewarding experience that very few games can offer. If this generation of games is indeed coming to an end, Dishonored is a prime example of how to go out with a bang.
A perfect way to bookend one of the most exciting generations the industry has had to offer.
TGL SCORE 9/10
Format: PC, Xbox 360 (version tested), PlayStation 3
Developer: Arkane Studios
Release Date: Out Now