When we last truly heard from Arkane Studios, it was 2006 and they had just brought us Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, a first person action title that contained an inspired mix of stealth and action gameplay that, though visionary, still remained a little rough around the edges. In the 6 years since, other than some level-design work on Bioshock 2, Arkane had been slowly toiling away from prying eyes; like mad wizards kept under lock and key lest their ambitious conglomeration of magic be disturbed. You see wizards have told me, during late night meetings along the river, that the most important element of magic is balance. The fact that these Wizards turned out to be homeless people -and the magic turned out to be whiskey- doesn't dilute this point. As Arkane Studios toiled under a blanket of secrecy, it was this central element they were trying to get right. Perilously molding and cajoling divergent elements into a satisfactory brew, and attempting to do so where many other games have often failed before. With the release of Dishonored, they succeeded.
You are Corvo. The empress has been killed in your presence, and you have been blamed for the murder. Known as the 'Lords Protector' in your previous life, you are now a man on the run from those you once served. Political machinations have been seeded with occult idolatry in a rat plagued city, and as the gears of change grind closed, you have been caught in the cogs. The story of Dishonored is one of Machiavellian political intrigue and swashbuckling revenge that goes far beyond simply being a placeholder for the action. It's a nicely layered story with entertaining characters and enough twists and dark brooding corners to keep it interesting from beginning to end. Almost all the characters you come across are memorable in some way and this is especially due to the fantastic writing and voice acting throughout. Dishonored's dialogue is easily some of the best I've seen this year, and never comes off as too dramatic or dry for its own good. Even just common banter within the game hits the right notes as NPC's react to each other in various ways that make it seem as if you are truly in a living, breathing world. One that contains subplots you're not necessarily involved with, but exist to round out the overarching atmosphere.
Dialogue and voice acting is one thing, but it can't exist within a vacuum. Luckily the world within Dishonored is one of the most finely crafted I've seen. A sort of steampunk/Burton-eque/Oliver amalgamation, it is one simply dripping with style. Its twisted visages playing well off the somewhat cartoony nature of the character models also ads a charm to the gloom that tends to brighten the mood in unexpected ways. The graphics themselves are all textured in a fine watercolor palette. And though this stylistic approach can sometimes lead to some fairly dull textures on the Xbox 360 version I played, it uniformly creates a world that looks unlike anything we've seen yet.
The world is also fleshed out in the myriad of books and manuscripts littered throughout the levels in classic Elder Scrolls fashion. From the history of the industrial city of Dunwall, where the game takes place, to letters from NPC's and songs of the time, the books are certainly worth the read as they also feature that fantastic writing which makes the dialogue work so well. There are a lot of them, however, but luckily the game saves the entries in your log for later reading.
As is to be expected, this world is a dangerous place for Corvo, who must fight or sneak his way through in his search for vengeance, and this is where the symmetry of Dishonored's mechanics really start to come into play. You simply cannot talk about Dishonored without talking about it holistically. It is not just a world, with the player doing actions within it. The world of Dishonored is catered specifically to the myriad of actions you may employ. And I use the word catered loosely since it all feels so wonderfully organic that you never really get the sense that you are in a custom made play-space, but rather that you are just in 'a space' and it is your abilities which are fleshing it out around you.
Much is made about Dishonored's stealth and combat mechanics, but it can't be overstated enough just how well these two different play-styles are merged. Corvo's stealth abilities are unmatched when employed in tandem with the verticality of the world. And most often, you will spend your time running, leaping and blinking -the ability to quickly move to another location- around the rooftops of Dunwall, taking out enemies silently with knife and bolt. Adversely, Corvo is no pushover when it comes to face-to-face violence either, meaning that an alarm sounding or being spotted does not necessarily warrant a reload before you're quickly taken out by a guard. Corvo is certainly not Garrett from the Thief series, and this ability to dual-wield these two mechanics makes being Corvo feel like a Screaming-Metal-Leopard of Death and Destruction (bands are free to use this).
One final note must be made about the melee combat. Even though the game is in first person, the melee combat is fantastic, and leagues ahead of what we've seen in most other titles that have tried it. Simplicity and enemy reaction are the two things that Arkane Studios really got right here. Block, riposte and slash. That's it. But within that great fighting is born, especially when enemies actually react to being hit. You won't be wildly swinging at the air a'la Skyrim here. Corvo will take a fair amount of damage from being hit so the melee combat is slow, strategic and exceptionally rewarding when done right.
Corvo also has a litany of special abilities that are upgraded by finding Runes that are strewn about the levels. You find these with the aid of a Mechanical Heart that pumps faster and brighter the closer you are to an artifact. This system works much like finding diamonds with the blinking radio in Far Cry 2 and is a necessity since seeking this out will also often times reveal hidden areas within the levels. The abilities run the gamut of both stealth and fighting enhancements and most are so useful that I often times found myself switching between them quiet often. Four of your favorites can be mapped to the D-pad but I found myself going into my main abilities wheel quite a bit.
Runes aren't the only thing you'll find hidden throughout the levels. There are Bone Charms, which can be equipped and give perks to the player, cash and loot you can steel (used for upgrading your weapons) , NPC's to talk to, side objectives that can be discovered and safes that can be opened if you find the combination. Each level is a virtual stew of side objectives and secrets that can be easily missed if you simply go for the main objective and nothing else. In fact, Dishonored can easily be a 6-8 hour game if you rush through the single-player story, when in fact much of the game is almost hidden from initial view. Really take the time to explore the world and its contents, and that number is easily doubled. When you do finally finish with a mission, your score will be tallied on how many objectives -and side objectives- you completed, how much money you found, how many people you killed or didn't kill, and how many bodies (or body parts) were discovered. These last two are then combined with how many times you were seen -as well as other things you might have done to scare people- and tallied into a final Chaos rating.
The Chaos rating is how the game keeps track of just how much outright interaction you're having with the world. Start killing a lot of people, showing yourself and basically being a terror, and the world will react accordingly. More guards, and stronger guards, will appear to protect your assassination targets and the world will become infested with more Weepers; zombie-like citizens who have become inundated with the Plague. Kill a lot of people and your NPC friends will start reacting to you differently. They'll see you as bloodthirsty, ruthless and hesitate before getting close to you. Needless to say, the game certainly offers the more interesting outcomes -and sometimes the better rewards- to those who choose the nonlethal way of doing things. This doesn't mean there's necessarily a 'right' way to play Dishonored, but the game certainly seems to like to be played nonlethally. Even so, I found myself using a balanced approach depending on what felt right at the moment.
At the end of each mission your boated back to your main hideout for story before being sent out on the next one, and this is probably my only sticking point with Dishonored. It's an exceptionally linear game which means there's no going back to an area to tie up loose ends you might have missed. Didn't do a side objective? It counts against your score and the only thing you can do is replay that entire mission again, even if that side objective doesn't seem completely related to the reason you're there in the first place. It makes sense from a narrative standpoint for this to be the case, but I would have liked the freedom of having of a hub area from which I had the option to explore different parts of the city. It also would have gone a long way to making the city seem much more open to the player. Still though, this is a small complaint. All it means is that once you've entered a mission, be prepared to be in that area for awhile before returning home and upgrading your gear.
You can also replay missions from the start screen in any order -providing you already did them once in the main story- to try and do those nonlethal or no-alarm runs. Or to get those few Bone Charms you missed the first time through. Dishonored lends itself to re-playability since the myriad of different options and abilities practically ensures that no missions will ever go the same way twice. Even within the missions themselves I kept on reloading small sections because, 'I just know I can do that better.” For instance, at one point I came upon a gazebo that had an enemy watchman and a civilian maid talking within. I wanted to dispatch the solider but leave the maid intact so as to not raise my chaos score. It took about 5 tries but finally I was able to sneak up behind them and with two quick movements, hit the maid with a sleeping dart from my crossbow and slit the watchman's throat while he was still in his state of surprise. I then threw the body of the watchman over the wall and into the ocean, and lay the sleeping maid into a bed of flowers. An angel of death...and life.
Dishonored is one of those games we have been hyped about for months, and now finally arriving, has blown through my expectations and entered the stratosphere of game of the year material. It's ability to take divergent mechanics and balance them so effectively speaks to a design that is almost unmatched in its flawlessness. In one movement, it has taken a high place amongst both stealth and action games alike, and will be the prime contender for both of those genres for some time to come. Parishioners of stealth games like Thief and Deus Ex, especially, would be doing a disservice to their fandom if they were to pass this one by. And they especially can exalt in the fact that Arkane Studios has arrived to push the genre even further.
(Phenomenal - A fantastic experience that surpasses almost all expectations.)