Something about revenge being a dish best served cold…
Setting foot into the fictional world of Dishonoured for the first time is much like being transported inside a living oil painting. Visual director, Viktor Antonov’s steampunk city of Dunwall is a brightly coloured mish-mash of swirling blues, deep reds and autumn yellows that are in stark contrast to the games dark, bloody tale of betrayal set in a city wracked by plague; a city where the citizens, under threat of execution, adhere to a dusk-till-dawn curfew enforced by a fascist aristocracy; one that plunges to shuddering depths of corruption and cruelty to further their cause, or indeed their survival in what is ultimately a dying world.
During your time in Dunwell you’ll meet a whole selection of characters as equally colourful and dark as the city itself. From the thugs of ‘Bottle Street Gang’ who’s penchant for brutality is only matched by their greed, to ‘Weepers’ – those who have been infected with the plague, crying tears of blood as their pain and anguish turn them into savages. Then there’s the eccentric ‘Granny Rags’, who politely asks of you to dispose of ‘certain individuals’ in a collection of gruesome ways and, most sinister of all, the chief villains in our tale who make up the newly founded Government, who themselves are calculating, ambitious and unquestionably ruthless.
However, Corvo Attano is a man not to be trifled with and so driving your assassins’ blade into the hearts of these archetypal movie villains – the very same Royal consorts who murdered the Empress of Dunwall and kidnapped her daughter in a cleverly planned coup which saw Corvo framed for the crime – has never been quite as satisfying as it is here in Dishonoured.
Breaking out of jail with the help of a group simply known as The Loyalists, whose ultimate goal is to overthrow the totalitarian regime and reinstate the princess as rightful heir to the throne, Corvo sets out to clear his name, find the princess and restore order to Dunwall.
How you go about this is entirely up to you and you alone. Will you be the unseen assassin who kills only those who betrayed the Empire in a bid to clear ones name? A brutal killer who strikes down all who stand in his path in a personal quest for revenge? Or obedient servant to the throne who will do what must be done to restore order, but with the clear knowledge that he must uphold the good name of the true Empress at all costs?
The choice is completely yours and this is what makes Dishonoured utterly compelling in that your actions truly have consequence and not just with regards to your character, but on Dunwall itself. For example, while you may very well succeed in restoring the Empire and placing the rightful heir on the throne, choosing the path of uncompromising killer to achieve you goal will forever see the world as a much darker, more ominous place for all who dwell there. Choosing a more righteous path will have the opposite effect. A straight forward enough premise and one we’ve seen before, granted, but rarely has it been as well implemented than in Arkane Studios’ Dishonoured. More importantly, it succeeds in breathing life into a génre that has largely been forgotten of recent – the stealth game.
What’s particularly exciting is that without meticulous planning on your part your chosen path can change in a heartbeat; like when silently moving through a mansion the innocent maid I accidentally stumbled across,(while in the process of retrieving an important quest item), came to an untimely demise for fear of her alerting the guards. A regrettable scenario yes, but ultimately in the bigger picture of events one that had to be played out before I unceremoniously dumped her lifeless corpse out of sight in a water closet.
If you’re thinking that Dishonoured sounds much like Eidos Montreal’s Thief series, then in many respects you’d be right. Like Thief, Dishonoured predominantly works on a linear pathway, but it’s how you approach each goal that gives the game its sense of scope and freedom. For every sewer you can make your way through, there’s an open window you can clamber into, or a ledge to traverse. Each avenue not only presents a different way with which to move from A to B, but also invites numerous ways with which to dispatch foes, (should you choose to), and complete your objective.
Also, given that Arkane Studio worked on Bioshock 2, Corvo’s supernatural abilities instantly remind one of ‘Plasmids’, although they play a far more integral part in how you move about the city. With ‘Blink’, Corvo can teleport a short distance allowing him to reach areas too far to jump over, or scale ledges normally too high to climb. The ability also makes for some brutal, but highly entertaining ways of dispatching ones foes; as you might expect seeing the look of shock in your victim’s eyes as you suddenly appear before them and slice open their jugular never grows old and in time it becomes second nature. Other powers allow you to summon a swarm of carnivorous rats, possess living creatures for a short period, slow down time for the perfect multi-kill, or simply see through walls and observe enemy movements.
All of these abilities and powers are unlocked and upgraded through the use of ‘Runes’ which are scattered throughout the city. The more runes you have, and depending on how you wish to spend them, the more powerful your allotted abilities become. To help you hunt down and locate each Rune strewn about Dunwall you have with you a ‘living heart’, a sort of sentient being that beats faster as a Rune comes within close proximity of your current position. Rather unsettlingly, this strange device whispers to you all kinds of bizarre ramblings; some helpful, others just plain creepy.
It is entirely possible to proceed through the game pistol blazing and sword swinging, but in all honesty it defeats the entire point of what’s on offer. It’s worth bearing in mind though; adopting an all-out approach will see you die far more often than is actually necessary as Arkane have chosen not to equip you with a regenerative health or mana bar. Instead, elixir vials are scattered about the place to replenish these valuable resources, but they’re not in great abundance and so you’ll often be reluctant to go in guns blazing, or constantly use your abilities to get the upper hand, as powerful as they may be.
Ultimately, the best experience to be had from Dishonoured is in utilising a little patience; planning your way forward with careful forethought as opposed to going all Rambo – that’s not to say that whipping out your pistol and proceeding to blast an enemy’s head off when faced with a tight situation should ever be ignored, and at times it may even be your only viable means of escape. It’s in having these numerous options, allowing the player the freedom to make their own choices, to carve out their own path, one with real consequence, which truly sets Dishonoured from the rest of the pack.
So while it can be agreed that Arkane Studios have clearly lifted ideas from other, accomplished titles they’ve had the foresight not to just repackage, then resell them as we’ve seen far too often this generation. Instead, what we have is a series of ideas that have been cast into the proverbial cooking pot, given a stir and then all the unwanted fat carefully drained away before serving up something that’s genuinely new and exciting while simultaneously being comfortably familiar.
With its extraordinary art direction, complex level design, its storylines and tightly woven gameplay, Dishonoured will not only be one of the finest games you’ll play this year, but this generation.