Choice. It is the basis of all human free will. The ability to choose between two or more variables at any given time, and with the addition of thought, it is what separates man from some of the wilder things on this planet.
In Dishonored, developer Arkane Studios has created a game both bound, and freed, by the illusion of choice, and it is up to the player to decide what kind of game they are playing. Yes, Dishonored is a stealth-based actioner like Thief or Metal Gear Solid, and yes, Dishonored is a first person shooter like BioShock or Borderlands, and yes, Dishonored is an RPG, with deep customization and player selected skill trees like the Elder Scrolls or Fallout sagas, and yes, Dishonored is an assassination simulation like Assassin’s Creed and yes, Dishonored is a gory revenge story complete with over the top characters that deserve to be violently dispatched for the crimes they have committed. Dishonored is all of these things, and it is up to the player to decide how they want to play through their experience. That is the beauty of the game.
Dishonored is the story of Corvo Attano, the personal bodyguard of Empress Jassamine Kaldwin who rules over the Victorian, steampunk-esque city of Dunwall. The game begins with the Empress’ assassination, the kidnapping of her young daughter, and the subsequent framing of Corvo for masterminding it all. Shadow allies to the throne, Led by Admiral Havelock, sensing a greater conspiracy, break Corvo out of prison and charge him with seeking revenge for the crimes committed against the Empire. By any means necessary. They give him weapons and safe haven, and a mysterious entity known only as The Outsider gives Corvo otherworldly powers, and then he is set free to create havoc.
Much like the story itself, the game is just one big set up. No, it’s not sandbox, like a GTA or Red Dead Redemption, but it has all of the elements of “play as you want.” Each of Dishonored’s nine or so chapters begin with a simple task, which more often than not means you are to kill someone. So, Samuel the ferryman, drops me off into an area and how I accomplish my goals is completely up to me. That’s a different kind of sandbox, but it’s still a sandbox.
The level designs allow for multiple access points into and out of buildings and structures, and there is no right way, or wrong way to get from point A to point B. The correct way is the way that I choose, as long as the goal is achieved. It’s almost too much power in how the game is played.
In an early mission, I am tasked to go to a popular bathhouse and assassinate a pair of brothers who helped conspire to kill the Empress, and who give the Lord Regent political clout. My goal was to kill them. Simple enough, right?
Luckily, the developers have given Corvo a palette of incredible gifts and powers to help him achieve our goals. I can use “blink” which allows me to teleport short distances, and I can use “dark vision” to allow me to see through walls. I can possess small animals, and later humans, to travel undiscovered or to help in my task to kill. I can even command a swarm of plague-infected rats to do my bidding. And these are just a few of the gifts that Corvo has. On the weapons front, Corvo is armed with a crossbow that can be upgraded throughout, and a pistol, as well as a blade, grenades, and steel traps.
Using any combination of the above at my disposal, I at first snuck into the bathhouse by possessing a fish and swimming through a hole in a sluice gate. I then quietly made my way to the top floor of the bathhouse and then jumped, climbed and blinked from ledge to ledge and balcony to balcony, going into each room from the top down and killing everything and anything that I could. I particularly like blinking behind guards and cutting their throats. I was a force of hell in that bathhouse, and I killed them all. Every. Single. One of them. This is how I choose to play. I’m a bad ass. I’m a killer. I’m angry that my Empress was killed and that I was framed. I sneak around some, sure, but I kill anything in a uniform and I take pleasure in achieving my goals.
It is my choice. And it is why I love this game.
Arkane, and publisher Bethesda Softworks, have really created a masterful game experience; one that, as I explained above, cannot easily be classified. Each player will have a different experience. Heck, each play-through will be different, as certain variables come into play. You see, the more “Chaos” that Corvo causes, the more Dunwall suffers. As I kill people, the plague-carrying rats have a food source (the dead bodies), and with food, they breed, and as the game progresses, there are more people inflicted by the plague, which turns them into zombie-like monsters called Weepers. So, as I’m relishing in killing the people that took my beloved Empress from me, I’m actually hurting the realm. We’ll call that choice with consequence.
The controls are well mapped and using selection wheels and the direction pad to map out four powers/weapons at a time, controlling Corvo quickly becomes second nature, especially when you are blinking all over the place, stabbing, shooting, and setting up traps before anyone even knows you are in the area. It works splendidly.
The art direction in Dishonored is brilliant. Setting the story in Dunwall and using classic steampunk elements, Arkane Studios has created a timeless world. Historically, it could be the mid-to-late 19th century, but certain industrial advances, as well as the advent of magic, lead to a more ambiguous setting. It is sci-fi, and old world, and fiction, and fact all rolled into one. And the character models are very well done. Each of the games major players has a stylish painted quality that isn’t too cartoony, or too serious. It works in a game where violent death is sure to befall most people (if you choose to go that route).
The music, sound effects and voice acting are all very well done. The music doesn’t force itself to center stage, and you barely even know it’s there unless you make a point to listen for it. The sound design is top notch and the voice acting by renowned actors like Brad Dourif, Chloe Grace Moretz, Carrie Fisher, and Susan Sarandon lend a level of realism to the large cast.
Now, I’ve said a lot about death and killing and how I am playing the game, but it is very possible to go through the entire game without taking a single life yourself. In fact, Arkane has created multiple endings depending on your level of stealth versus carnage. This gives Dishonored a wealth of replayability. I am the Angel of Death, this time. But in my next play through, I will be all Solid Snake, blinking in and out of sight, using shadows and alternate routes, and accomplishing my goals undiscovered. Frankly, I can’t wait.
If there is a downside to Dishonored, it is in the greater story. Yes, I’m thrilled at the openness of the game, and the myriad choices, and the ability to play it my way, but when it’s all said and done, Dishonored feels like the first part, a preamble perhaps, to a much larger work. This, being a brand new IP, could easily become the next great franchise. Not just in video games, but tie-in novels, board games, toys, and even movies and TV.
I’m sure Bethesda understands this, but this is one game that the sequel will be even better, with a deeper story. Don’t get me wrong, I love the mythos created here, right down to the whole, everything runs on Whale Oil story, but there is so much more than can be done with the narrative, including more consequences and differing outcomes to the choices the player makes.
I’m not saying the story itself is weak or bad, I just wish there was more to it. It’s not enough to hurt the game this time out, but I can’t help but wonder if Arkane could have done what BioWare failed to do with the Mass Effect series and create a game with true choices (not a “one or the other” choice) and true then offer true consequences.
There is a much larger world out there beyond Dunwall and no amount of in-game book collecting can fill in the entire story. The task falls on Arkane Studios, and once they can pack a deeper story to go along with the great gameplay, Dishonored will become the next great game franchise.
Regardless, Dishonored is still an amazing game, and one that should not be missed. If you don’t like FPS, then play as a stealth game. If you don’t like that, play it as an action game. Or an RPG. It’s your choice. This is truly a game that has something for everyone. The amount of freedom and choices mean that you will never have the same experience and what is one game can easily be seen as three or four, depending on your perspective. And your choice.
Shop for Dishonored on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 or the PC for a discounted price at Amazon.com (October 9, 2012 release date).