Dishonored has set some high expectations for itself. With references in its marketing to games such as Bioshock and Thief, combined with the backing of Bethesda Softworks, the build up to the game’s release has brought with it massive expectations. While Dishonored falls short of its own lofty goals, it’s still a good game and a worthy addition to any gamer’s collection.
Dishonored tells the story of Corvo, the Royal Protector of the Empress of the plague-stricken city of Dunwall. Betrayed early on and left for dead, Corvo is aided by a group sympathetic to his plight and is put to use as an assassin in order to seek revenge on those who betrayed him. The story Dishonored tells is interesting but not very deep. Thematically, there simply isn’t much here. There’s plenty of intrigue for sure, but the story never resonates with the player in any real way. I felt no emotional connection to any of the characters, and the game’s lore (told through books and audio logs) didn’t grab my attention.
In some ways, Dishonored starts too soon and ends too late. Players are not given a chance to connect with the Empress and her daughter, Emily (outside of a game of hide and seek cleverly disguised as a tutorial), before being thrown into the deep end, and the story has at least one false ending. The story beats aren’t set to a constant rhythm, making the narrative progression lurch forward in small bursts as a result. Big story moments happen suddenly and without the proper build up, robbing the game of a proper rising tension and catharsis.
This is forgivable, though, because the gameplay does grab one’s attention. Using Bioshock-esque dual-wielding of weapons and powers, Corvo has immeasurable ways to combat opponents, be it using a sword and a gun (my preferred way), a crossbow, or any one of a number of deadly traps or explosives. There’s also a magic system, wherein Corvo is able to obtain powers such as teleporting, possession, and the ability to slow time. The combination of powers available make the game’s stealth-focused gameplay fresh and interesting, as players will be able to use tactics previously unavailable in stealth games, whether it’s teleporting from cover to cover or possessing a rat in order to steal keys and access hidden parts of levels.
The plague and the rats are a big part of Dishonored’s story and gameplay. By killing enemies (as opposed to sneaking around them or knocking them out) you build up Chaos, and this in turn influences both the direction of the story and proliferation of the plague-carrying rats. Killing more enemies will also result in more Weepers, the game’s zombie-like infected humans. However, the choices are limited and the changes to the game and how it plays aren’t apparent the first time through Dishonored’s roughly 10-hour playtime.
Luckily, the game’s open mission structure lends itself to multiple playthroughs. Each mission in Dishonored is located in a closed-off hub, where Corvo must make his way to his target, completing missions and avoiding guards along the way. There are typically a handful of ways to reach each target, and there are also some ways to eliminate your targets without ever having to even see them. Characters spared from death in one mission might come into play in the next, offering their support to kidnap targets and take them out instead of you having to do the legwork. It’s a case of the game’s promise being fulfilled, as one can clearly see how the mission may have gone differently without this assistance. It’s possible to do a straightforward attack and take out the required target, but players will find exploration and fulfilling sidequests rewarding, despite their basic structure being roughly the same throughout the game.
However, this hub style makes the game feel smaller than it should. The different sections are clearly partitioned (either with a scenic boatride at the beginning and end of a mission or a load between sub-areas), and you spend the early part of the game revisiting the same area and meeting the same characters. The enemy AI isn’t great, and for all of the strategic possibilities of battle, I found myself relying on my pistol/sword combination to take out enemies that all ran in a straight line toward me, without squad tactics or defined combat roles (save for one group that I will not spoil). The quest design too is lackluster, as most of the quests are simplistic requests to either kill someone or retrieve some item.
Dishonored wraps all of this up in a painterly style that I’m torn on. The models look nice with their exaggerated hands and feet, and the steampunk/industrial art style is visually appealing, but there’s a lack of detail in many of the textures. Initially I thought Dishonored suffered from a bug that plagued Skyrim in which the textures would not load properly if the game was installed to the Xbox 360′s hard drive, but it doesn’t. The texture work is that bad. The environments suffer the most, which becomes apparent the more you scrutinize the world. It’s as if the game is made up of painted models, but the person painting them missed some spots. There isn’t much variety to the environments, either. The game has a uniform aesthetic that permeates the entirety of it. Each lavish mansion looks like the previous one, and every distillery or warehouse feels similar to the one prior to it. Once you’ve played through the introduction and the first proper mission of Dishonored, you’ll have seen much of what the game has to offer visually. The effects are gorgeous, however, with tremendous water and a cool particle effect for gunshots and explosions (they look like a bunch of leaves), along with lovely lighting, including breathtaking sunsets.
The sound work in Dishonored is top notch. Featuring voices such as Susan Sarandon, Game of Thrones’ Lena Hadley, and others, the voice acting is uniformly excellent. The soundtrack fills in the gaps, including a Dark Knight-esque violin buildup when in danger. It’s effective and adds a subtle but tangible tension to the game’s more harrowing situations. I encountered a strange bug near the end of the game, though, where the sound effects started to pop and skip. It went away after about an hour, but it was a definite annoyance.
Although Dishonored ultimately falls short of its potential as a game of the year candidate, it’s a worthy game. The lackluster combat AI is made up for by the openness of the mission areas, but neither the characters nor the gameplay ever reach the dazzling heights of the games in Dishonored’s lineage. It’s not the powerhouse I hoped it would be, but rests solidly above average.
A copy of Dishonored for the Xbox 360 was provided to us by Bethesda Softworks for the purposes of this review