Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform: PC, PS3, 360
Release Date: October 9, 2012
This review is based on the PC version of the game
In a world of recycled dystopian futures and alien invasions, Dishonored dares to try something a little different. Early reports were overwhelmingly positive, which usually signifies that either the game in question is mimicking all the right top-quality products, or it's coasting along on a wave of hype generated by a hardworking PR company. That's the cynical gamer's thought process anyway, and one that seems to be correct most of the time.
Dishonored is genuinely good, thankfully, but not because it's groundbreaking. It's good because it expertly cobbles together aspects of successful releases and weaves them into a comfortable blanket that resembles the fantastic stealth stylings of Thief more than any Assassin's Creed or BioShock nod.
But you wouldn't know it's that good based on the plot threads woven around the banal beginning. It's a textbook case of framing the protagonist that livens up down the road, but disappoints early on with its sameness and niggling familiarity. Step into the boots of the Lord Protector, Corvo, who falls victim to a nasty crime while meeting with the Empress, the charge he's meant to keep safe. A rather peculiar group appears, both murdering the Empress and abducting Princess Emily, who would be next in line for the throne.
In typical melodramatic fashion, when the guards finally arrive on the scene (with Corvo knocked out, of course) the slain Empress and Corvo at the scene has "guilty" written all over it. You're now Public Enemy #1, and taken into custody so that the new regime has a fall guy for their plans to come together. It's laughably overdone, but it serves its purpose as a backdrop for all the sneaking around you'll be employing for the better part of the game -- or slaughtering everyone Hitman-style until the target makes themselves known. Whatever works.
After the powers that be toss Corvo into prison you're forced to make your great escape to meet up with a band of rebels who plan on thwarting the current regime's plans with your help. They're primed and ready to aid you in your quest to rescue Princess Emily and clear your name.
From there, you're tasked with becoming the new assassin-for-hire amongst your "saviors," accepting jobs that will aid the resistance in gaining a foothold in rising to power. Missions range from assassinating cruel guards, infiltrating sewers, or seeking out targets who may or may not deserve a swift death -- there are plenty of areas you'll find where a death may feel wrongful or somehow go against what you might find "acceptable limits" -- for example, early on in the game during your first assassination attempt you happen upon a young woman who just knows a particular soldier is going to be poisoned by your target. Neither of the characters are savory by any means, but you have the choice to spare this young man and claim your target. Or you can take the lives of both and see what happens from there.
There's something to be said about a game that allows you to make decisions such as these, and it's fulfilling to take these lives into your own hands whether by assignment or not. These decisions are easy to make on the fly, but carry a satisfying weight -- something you probably felt back when you harvested Little Sisters in Bioshock or tried hard to determine who you should side with in Heavy Rain.
In true stealth fashion, you've got plenty of tools at your disposal with which you may dispatch those who would get in your way -- tools ranging from normal, everyday weapons such as swords or crossbows to the more plasmid-like system that allows, through the discovery of runes and other artifacts, superpowers and various other abilities that may be added to your arsenal. For instance, the supernatural Blink ability allows you to fast travel from point A to point B (a very short distance) by vanishing and reappearing -- extremely useful for surprising the guards of Dunwall who would have your head for conspiring with the dwindling population of Loyalists in dire need of your assistance. None of them seem all that trustworthy, but that's beside the point.
You've also got the Heart that whispers cryptic messages and aids you in locating objectives or runes that unlock both active and passive abilities. Many are indispensable tools for conquering your enemies, especially Dark Vision, which grants you the invaluable advantage of seeing the guards' line of sight through walls and other impedances.
Possession is especially useful as you can imagine, allowing you to possess any person or animal for a fixed period of time, and the gruesome Devouring Swarm, where a ravenous wave of rats materialize to consume your enemy, is a wicked sight to behold. These abilities and the others unveiled across the course of the game are easily some of the most fun you'll have as Corvo, and serve to enhance what could easily have been another derivative arsenal. These tools are a blast to employ, and add a sense of mysticism to the strangeness that already permeates Dunwall.
It's up to you to control Corvo's growth and skill proficiencies, so your abilities and enhancements are interchangeable. Corvo is, essentially, a moldable assassin who may be tailored to fit your play style.
The game, in turn, can be played to suit your needs as well. You can opt to trail your targets in the shadows, craftily plotting their demise, or go in guns blazing to ensure each and every target is eliminated. There are multiple paths you may take to see your assignments through, so in a way you choose your own difficulty: coast through and annihilate everyone or go on a murderous killing spree. It's up to you how you want to approach your newfound role, but be aware the world of Dishonored will alter according to the choices you make. If you blow through Dunwall like a deadly tornado, the ending outcome will be tailored to your actions, with the world around you closing off paths and making things overall much more austere than if you had chosen to walk the stealthier path. You are given the final word on how you will progress, but be prepared to live with the consequences.
That's what made Dishonored stand out for me when it very easily could have vanished in a sea of sameness. It doesn't completely revolutionize player choice, but it does a decent job of establishing a world in which you may play as you see fit.
Expanding on the already excellent gameplay foundation is the star-studded voice cast and lovingly-crafted environments. Dishonored boasts a cast with recognizable voices from the entertainment industry: Carrie Fisher, John Slattery, Susan Sarandon, and more -- and as such, there's less of an opportunity for "Nolan North syndrome" to arise, where you swear you've heard every single character's voice elsewhere several hundred times before. You'll recognize these actors, but hearing them lend their talents to new roles is especially exhilarating. The intricacies of Dunwall and character designs are top-notch as well, adopting a more stylized stance rather than opting to go the "realistic" route, which in the end gives the game a much more satisfying, neo-Steampunk feel than overtly realistic character designs ever could have.
Dishonored takes liberties with its story, characters, weapons, and gameplay paths, and in the end comes out a champ. It wastes no time with unheard of mechanics or ideas but combines the best of all worlds to offer a polished (even if samey) narrative with striking art direction, a memorable score, and an engaging stealth narrative that stands tall even amongst the other strong IPs out there. Is this the beginning of a renaissance for new ideas and locations in gaming? If so, we're already hungry for more.
+ Excellent cast of voice actors
+ Exciting new IP with fully-realized world
+ Insanely fun tools and arsenal of supernatural abilities
+ Familiar, polished elements
- Can be short if you decide to blow through killing anyone and everyone
- Back story is dated and overdone
Overall Score: 8 (out of 10)
Dishonored is a fantastic new IP that deserves your time and attention.