Vengeance is yours
When you first step foot in the plague-ridden world of Dishonored, you’ll most likely notice a few elements you’re quite familiar with as a gamer. You’ll sneak around and knock some folks out, much like in Hitman. You’ll get swept up in a stellar plot of political intrigue and get asked to off a few unsavories as per Assassin’s Creed. You’ll upgrade your character via a solid array of mystical powers, à la Skyrim. And you’ll discover the joys of doing it over and over again, taking a different approach with each playthrough much like in Deus Ex. But then it’ll occur to you that, despite the numerous similarities the game shares with the aforementioned laundry list of interactive all-stars above, the way in which developer Arkane Studios managed to bring them all together in Dishonored gives the game a flavor all its own.
Take, for example, the streampunk-inspired backdrop of Dunwall itself. The city is conveyed via a series of missions that, while avoiding the precise definition of an open-world adventure, allow for an impressive level of exploration and expression that offer something more substantial than your standard action-adventure title. Rather than trudging through wave after wave of mindless enemies up to that final climax of some oversized, underdeveloped boss fight, working your way through the streets of this hauntingly crafted whaling burg is a challenge in and of itself, adding credence to the idea that getting there is half the fun.
And when it comes time to actually execute an antagonist, the same level of freedom and creativity is there, allowing you to choose between daring encounters with a host of fearless thugs via a blend of melee combat, projective weapons, and rune-fueled powerls. Or you can always opt for a careful avoidance of conflict up to the point of your assassination, which you can also skip via nonviolent means, allowing you to apply your own style to each hit.
Speaking of protagonist Corvo Atano’s powers, Dishonored builds on this idea of freedom by affording you the RPG-esque ability to custom-build your skillset, which can completely change the way you play yet again, as the game’s sandbox-obsessed mentality allows you to stop time to sneak past or stab unsuspecting enemies, teleport to avoid or flank foes, or possess others to bypass security or force characters into compromising situations that ultimately result in their undoing.
In this sense, Dishonored really shines, as it’s as much fun to replay missions to try to avoid detection or test your sword-fighting skills as it is to just dick around and see what’s possible. The “boss fights” themselves can often be a bit underwhelming, but once you figure out that Arkane’s aim wasn’t to overwhelm your twitch gaming skills with laborious bouts of pattern recognition, there’s an undeniable amount of artistry in their desire to get you to leverage your wits as much as your crossbow—and even more in how deftly they pulled it all off.
But as tempting as it is to revel in this sense of emergent bliss, there’s an equal amount of awe owed to Dishonored’s sense of character. Whether it’s the panicked, hopeless streets of Dunwall or the game’s deplorable cast of self-serving constituents, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more engrossing game world outside of BioShock’s Rapture, adding loads of weight to your open-ended actions while showing off the writers’ poetic appreciation for proper vengeance. The story certainly falters on occasion depending on the choices you’ve made, but uncovering all the possible permeations here makes it easy to forgive a plot hole or two.
And that’s the thing: Diving into Dishonored’s web of deadly decisions and justice served is such an absorbing journey into the future of what, why, and how we play that you can’t help but get lost in it. Dark, difficult, and deliberately ambiguous, Dishonored asks you to forget much of what you know about the modern blockbuster, tossing flashy gameplay sequences and heavily scripted moments to the wayside in favor of exploration, tension, and eventual triumph over foes who genuinely deserve a knife to the neck. It doesn’t quite fit into the boxes in which we like to place our gameplay experiences, but from where I’m sitting, that’s a large part of why it’s one of this year’s best.
SUMMARY: Dishonored shines as one of this generation’s most inspiring original efforts, offering up a fantastic blend of ideas and execution that’ll leave you begging for more.
- THE GOOD: Choice, choice, and more choice.
- THE BAD: Minor plot holes and the occasional glitch.
- THE UGLY: Being on the wrong side of Corvo’s s*** list.
Dishonored is available on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS3.