I know it’s not creative to gush about Dishonored anymore, but I like to think that I’m simply fashionably late to the party, slipping in with a pilfered invitation. Still knee deep in Darksiders II when it came out, I chose to wait on the new stealth-action hybrid by Arkane, hoping on the bandwagon once the price dropped.
Now that I have had a chance to walk a mile in Corvo’s blood soaked shoes, I can see what all the fuss is about. Dishonored is a finely crafted game that might be up there with The Walking Dead and Deus Ex: Human Revolution as one of the most important games of the generation. I’ve played it for about 2 hours and am currently somewhere near the beginning of the first actual mission, but already I’ve been impressed beyond measure by how effortlessly Arkane has managed to cater to my own unique playstyle while seemingly supporting a wide range of others.
In short, Arkane has entrusted me with the world of Dunwall, to do with it what I will.
If you haven’t already been invited to the party, the story of Dishonored starts out simply enough. You play Corvo, the bodyguard to the Empress Jessamine Kaldwin . Shortly after the requisite bloodless tutorial sequence, mysterious assassins arrive and murder her, stealing away with her daughter Emily, and vanishing just in time for Corvo to take all the heat. Branded a murderer and traitor, you’re cast into the royal dungeons and left to rot for six months.
It’s then that a group of Loyalists, sure of Corvo’s innocence and the corruption of the new government, spring you from imprisonment. With their help, Corvo is given a chance to get his revenge, find the missing Emily, and overthrow the corrupt regime that wants him dead. A strange being known as The Outsider also expresses interest in Corvo’s fate, giving him strange powers to help in his bloody task.
The story itself, thus far, isn’t anything special. It’s your basic revenge plot that’s been done to death. What’s unique is the setting of Dunwall itself, a dystopian hybrid of Half-Life 2’s City 17 and Bioshock’s steampunk city of Rapture. Menacing warnings echo through the streets at all hours, punctuated by the hiss of sinister steam powered machines. The downtrodden citizens of Dunwall’s neighborhoods are covered in soot, stepping over the piles of plagued corpses that choke the streets. Rats, the method by which the plague is decimating the city, scurry about like a moving metaphor for the city’s people.
While it lacks the literary punch of Andrew Ryan’s false utopia, Dunwall is still a very cool place to stalk about. The industrial nature of the place makes for plenty of vents and chimneys to climb on, adding to the sense of freedom that Dishonored encourages. The constant threat of disease and decay keep the setting firmly rooted as a Dickensian nightmare, the first level featuring a group of soldiers casually tossing mummy-wrapped corpses into the ocean. The theme of consumption is never more clear than when one of Dunwall’s massive whaling ships floats by, a once majestic beast splayed open on its deck. While the greater context of these animals hasn’t been made clear yet, I anticipate there’s more there than meets the eye.
It’s not these little details that make the setting so great though, it’s the attitude by which Arkane approaches it. When Dishonored first came out, initial reports came back suggesting that the game could be beaten in under four hours. Then the first reviews landed, claiming instead that one could easily pry 20-25 hours from the game if you took your time with the experience.
The key to this difference is the first magical ability The Outsider grants Corvo: Blink. Blink allows you to teleport short distances, allowing you to bypass entire portions of levels if you feel like it. It’s here where the genius of the game comes into play. Blink operates entirely on the honor system. Arkane gives the player a lot of power with it, power to handily break their carefully crafted game without even realizing it.
Or the power to fully experience it. It’s up to you.
Therein lies the genius. Arkane trusts you implicitly, trusts you to take care of the city of Dunwall. It’s the polar opposite of the Call of Duty objective marker driven roller-coaster ride. Sure there’s still an objective marker, and sure you could still blink your way straight to it, assassinate your target, and go home – but why? Instead, Arkane asks, why don’t you stop and help this crazy lady or climb through this conveniently open window? It’s an exquisitely crafted playground of death, built just for you.
Similar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored rewards the inquisitive player with a richer and more vibrant experience. When I first arrived at the Loyalist headquarters, I was told to go through the front doors and speak with the leader of the resistance group. Instead, I chose to walk around a bit, exploring the area and looking for out of the way secrets. A ventilation shaft caught my attention, which l climbed up to an open window, which in turn led me to my room. From there I descended the structure down to the bottom level, approaching my target from there.
I could almost hear the spectral voice of the designers in my ear: “That’s okay man, you can totally do that. Matter of fact, we want you to do that. If you don’t want to do it though, that’s cool too. We made this for you, do what you want with it.” In an era where the minutely tailored cinematic experience is slowly becoming the norm, it’s refreshing to see a game like Dishonored still being made, a game that’s about the collaboration between player and designer.
I just hope that, like many games before it, linearity doesn’t creep into Dishonored like the plague that’s destroying Dunwall.