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FIRST LOOK: Dishonored

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Posted on September 5, 2011 AT 05:18am

A whale of a tale

I’ve seen Dishonored a few times in the last month, beginning with its live-demo reveal at QuakeCon and a few weeks later at GamesCom, where my expectations were entirely different and in some ways a bit cynical.  Would I react as generously on multiple viewings, still as impressed as I was on first viewing, still comparing its impact to the first time I saw Bioshock: Infinite?

Bioshock: Infinite looks incredible.  I’ve watched the demo a couple times, you’ve likely seen the demo, I showed friends the demo to the words of “See, see, videogames really can do something different!”  If I had the Dishonored footage to show, I’d do the same.  The game looks great.

I like comparing these two games because they operate on a similar high concept: create a world that looks and feels new, create gameplay that offers choice and narrative consequence, reach for something more substantial as an experience. Plenty of games like to say that, Dishonored makes me feel like it’s not a bulletpoint.

“This is really our passion,” says co-creative director Harvey Smith. “We’re not just videogame guys.”

That may come off as a bulletpoint expression, but you sense what Smith is saying as he continues to detail his ambition for Dishonored—and for games as a progressive experience. “I don’t want to come off as too critical, but the truth is I’ve just given up on a lot of games,” he says.  “I know we can do better than this.”

Pointing to Bioshock with deep respect and as one source of inspiration, Smith certainly has my attention with his methods, but hey, it’s the game that will finally do the talking, and we have to back up a bit—Dishonored is just a demo for now.

But what makes it exciting on paper does matter to a respectable degree. “We love atmospherics,” says Smith. “We are absolute fans of exploration and extra space, space not dedicated to the primary path. That’s why there are all these extra building to go into, subthreads and side plots and things like that.”

That’s the kid of game I want to play, even if it does end up being merely another familiar yet competent effort from the genre template. Interestingly, I first hear the “genre” descriptor from co-director Raf Colantonio, who calls it “first-person immersive” action. Another good bulletpoint that actually does say something that kind of sucks. “Like I said before, these games really are rare,” says Colantonio.

The setting in the game, distinctly guided by former Half-Life 2 art director Viktor Antonov, carries an elegant Victorian vibe, rearranged by a story-book brush stroke that further enhances the atmospheric quality Smith speaks of. We come to a whaling town, whittled down by a plague and turned into a place of desperation. On an assassination mission, you come across a conversation in a room you’re spying on, where a person of obvious fortunate class rants that his profits will be tripled by the plague. The scene is established in a way that hints at a subtext that will hopefully bring some density to the narrative. And showcasing a path of action elements, you can blast down the door, bend time, and ensure those words are that fine gent’s last.

There is a choice to play as precise surgeon or wanton destroyer. You can seek revenge or choose a more forgiving tact in the way you approach playing out the story of a supernatural assassin, who is wrongly accused of murder. Watching the character decide on a brutal kill is quite impressive as a knife into the side of a neck is disturbingly animated. Animation is another high point in the early look at the game, with subtle touches like hands steadying the character on a fall further communicating the “immersion” that exists as one of Dishonored’s tenants.

PARTING SHOT: Dishonored seems to be paying attention to the little things, and it’s the little things that always add up in the best games in the end.  It’s obviously tracking truly distinct ground with its presentation, but will the gameplay inevitably follow suit?

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