Dishonored is like Thief and Bioshock and Deus Ex and Mirrors Edge. Dishonored is like Batman and Leon and The Matrix and The Count of Monte Cristo. Dishonored is where you become a steampunk wizard or a man that throws glasses into peoples faces or a silent assassin or a man that chokes people unconscious only to drown them into infested bodies of water.
Dishonored is a 2003, fall-of-society stealth game with open areas to be picked through and systems to be exploited, but all the while providing a post-Mirrors Edge attitude to movement and physicality. Dishonored is about you being massively over powered but not being good enough for it to matter. Dishonored is flawed and sometimes broken and always incredibly complicated.
Lets try and take a step back. You play as Corvo, a man out for revenge after being framed for a murder of an Empress. His backstory is seeded throughout the game, partly because it’s a far more interesting way to be told a story, and partly because it’s impossible to provide any exposition on who he is. He is you. He is your murderer or he is your passificm or he is your forgivingness.
Corvo is made into an assassin with an exceptional toolkit. A sword, a gun, a crossbow, some different types of arrow, a couple of traps, and then you meet “The Outsider” – a black magic, ancient spirit wizard man – who gives you abilities to break all the rules of stealth games. “Blink” – flash step teleporting. Slow time, which can even stop time. Possess animals and later, humans. Super jump. Disintegrate people on stealth kills. Summon a small horde of rats to eat people.
So, want to get on that rooftop? Super jump and blink to the ledge. Need to get rid of that well-lit guard? Possess him, take him into the darkness and kill him there. Got a big, well lit and guarded area to cross? Stop time and do successive blinks to cover it without anyone noticing. Dishonored will let you chain stuff together pretty much as quickly as you can, so, you are hugely overpowered, but you need to know how to use the power and be skillful enough to pull it off. Failing to make a jump and landing right in front of a few guards can be serious trouble for your fragile, very-human body.
Your goal is to rescue a little girl, and to do that you’re going to have to go through some people and some henchmen. Would you like to murder them, Corvo? Are you going to let them live? Who are you? Are you just going to kill the people who betrayed you, or is anyone complicit in the new regime prime for killing? Dishonored will let you choose your path (both morally and logistically) to the extent that a completely no-kills playthrough is possible with only the lightest smattering of necessary violence.
Other games have done this before, of course, but there’s little direct punishment here or a particularly “right” way to do it. Just like in Bioshock, Deus Ex, Vampire Bloodlines and similar, repercussions for how you behave in the environment are a slow build. If you behave like a monster, you will be recognised as a monster. Unfortunately, “little punishment” is not the same as “no punishment” – difficulty ramps up slightly through proxy if you cause a large amount of “chaos” throughout, and the way it’s implemented (more rats and pseudo-zombies – the worst things to deal with in the game) feels artificial.
It’s a silly choice, and one that’s missing a trick. If I’m doing lots of murders, it could lead to guards being better armed or more willing to stick together. This makes it harder, but also more satisfying for me to continue and also makes the game feel more reactionary. Conversely, if I’m not murdering people and am going pure stealth, guards could be acting more sporadically – wandering around in disrupted patterns out of boredom, making my stealth run harder and more rewarding. But, no, just more or less rats and zombies.
Guards on the whole are a touch towards disappointing in that the AI is predictable, but predictably bad. They shout “hey!” when they haven’t seen anything. They go hunting for an intruder in their immediate vicinity if an explosion some way off. They mention a “prowler” even if you haven’t been spotted. And then they switch between half blind to seeing you through the slightest gap through a glass door.
While absolutely far off from a “this stopped my enjoyment” – it’s just a shame. What Dishonored does incredibly well, generally, is set up a simulated environment then give you a set of tools, an objective, and then let you get on with it with “anything goes”. And it works. It works brilliantly. It just means that whenever anything goes towards breaking that simulation, it’s disappointing.
The thing is, it’s easy to point out strings of problems once you start. The story is predictable and uncompelling. Concepts that are meant to be hard hitting are ripped from Bioshock 2 (including, if I’m not mistaken, a bunch of sound files too). You have to hunt around levels for trophies to unlock abilities, which is distracting and can ruin pacing. Some areas feel overly long, especially the sewer crawl that I thought everyone agreed was not ok? But.
It’s much much easier to pick at problems with Dishonored that it is to understand why it works. And it does work. I think it’s because of two core concepts that Arkane have completely understood.
The first is that your primary weapon is always your sword. It means that whatever else you’re doing, or whatever else you think you’re meant to be doing two things are true: you are an assassin who first and foremost uses a silent weapon; your objective is dispatching a bad man. In that sense, Dishonored is a pure roleplaying game: you are playing the role of an assassin but you’re totally free to interpret that role as you see fit.
The second is that The Outsider is as much of a character as a meta description of the game. He gives you a set of toys and then stands back and watches, only popping in now and again to comment that he’s watching you with keen interest. He doesn’t care about what you do, or how you behave, he only wants it to be interesting. That is Dishonored.
Sandbox has turned into a bit of a generic word lately, but Dishonored returns to a proper one. You have an area to play in and some tools and nothing else matters. You never feel restricted, there is no parent telling you to stop throwing sand into that other kids face. If you can think of it, you can do it. Play. It’s a pedigree of all its influences, bred into a modern version of the traditional stealth sandbox. Dishonored is brilliant, flawed, and, essential.