Review: Dishonored (PS3)
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (6.27 GB)
Release Date: October 9, 2012 (US), October 12, 2012 (EU)
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Arkane Studios
Original MSRP: $59.99 (US)
ESRB Rating: M
Dishonored is also available on Xbox 360 and PC.
The PlayStation 3 version was used for this review.
Entering the world of Dishonored you’d be hard-pressed to overlook the similarities to BioShock—the team behind the game, Arkane Studios, previously worked on the 2010 sequel to one of 2008’s most highly rated games. A highly-detailed world full of colorful characters, first-person mechanics that include dual-wielding melee and ranged weapons, and use of colorful vials help further draw parallels to 2K’s hit franchise. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Irrational’s devs might be blushing at just how much the Bethesda-owned studio has carried over.
But don’t dismiss Dishonored for these quibbles. In fact, applaud it for them – with a stellar voice cast, a unique atmosphere, and an array of weapons, gadgets, and powers to upgrade to your heart’s content, Dishonored is one of my favorite games of 2012. And for those in the mood for a BioShock-meets-Assassin’s Creed game, wait no more: stealth action/RPG has a new standout this fall.
Co-directed by Raphaël Colantonio and Harvey Smith, a veteran game designer with a history that includes Wing Commander, System Shock, and Deus Ex, Dishonored is set in a world of gunpowder and magic. The moment you step foot into the city of Dunwall as Corvo Attano, Royal Protector of the Empress Jessamine Kaldwine, you cannot help but be drawn in by this land that seems so like ours, but absolutely foreign at the same time. Returning from a mission overseas on behalf of the empress, Corvo immediately finds himself at the center of an assassination plot that lands him in Coldridge Prison, awaiting execution for high crimes and treason. Set free by a cabal of loyalists who believe in your innocence and have need of your unique skills to put down the usurpers who framed you, Corvo’s occupation shifts from bodyguard to assassin—and you gain some other-worldly powers to carry out that vocation.
Empowered by an entity known as The Outsider, who serves as a mystical overseer throughout the game’s roughly 12-hour (depending on difficulty) campaign, you’re equipped with some wonderful and strange talents that make it easier to sneak through or cut a bloody swathe down the middle of Dunwall’s plague-infested streets. Always present is Corvo’s silent and swift assassin blade, sprung to action by a flick of the R1 trigger and quick to protect you from incoming attacks with R2. In your free hand, you’ll find any manner of device or mystical conjuring available to your whims. Mechanical weaponry runs the gamut of incendiary crossbow bolts, sleep darts, pistols, and grenades, while your Outsider abilities include commands such as Blink, a short-range form of teleportation; Possession, allowing you to control man or beast for a short amount of time; and Devouring Swarm, which is about as grisly as it sounds… especially as it involves summoning the city’s ever-present rats to do the deed. The L2 trigger gives you access to a ‘weapon’ wheel to switch between powers and secondary weapons, while L1 lets fly your chosen item. Additionally, up to four skills or weapons can be mapped to the directional buttons for quick access, as choosing L2 to access your wheel doesn’t pause the action so much as slows it to a crawl, and enemies can still detect you if you aren’t careful.
In 2012 it is not uncommon for a game to allow you to choose the path you wish to take; choosing to be the noble hero or the accursed villain is second nature to many gamers at this stage. Dishonored recognizes this, and still allows you the freedom to do things your own way. While playing through for review, I tried my best to engage enemies stealthily—press the Circle button and your character enters a low-impact crouch that hides your footsteps and decreases your profile. You’ll still be spotted if you break from cover, or if a nearby guard happens to turn a corner and look your way, but early on it’s the quietest way to get around without detection. Through each level there are multiple paths to achieving your objectives, found in your Notebook along with optional quest lines, upgrades, and your inventory by hitting Select. If you choose to slink through the alleys of the Distillery District on the way to the Golden Cat Bathhouse, you’ll find more than one route and more than one entrance point to access your target. Taking a more direct approach is equally valid, and you’ll find various methods of mayhem at your disposal.
The freedom provided by Arkane in the game’s mission structure also applies to the role-playing elements. Throughout each level there are items that can aide your character’s skill progression, both physically and supernaturally. Coins, valuables, trinkets, and more can be brought back to your base of operations and traded for weapon upgrades, ammunition, and gadgets; mystical Runes and Bone Charms are also scattered throughout the world—Runes used to upgrade your mystical skill tree, while Bone Charms provide temporary boosts or skill enhancements depending upon which you choose to equip, up to three at any given time. How you play the game will determine where your choice of upgrades will lie: for my stealth play through, choosing to upgrade my Boots—thus allowing me to walk, or even run, without making a sound—proved more cost effective than Pistol Accuracy.
One thing that I loved about Dishonored is that the controls just felt good. As a guy whose primary exposure to first-person gameplay was Portal 2, I never felt like I was fighting the game’s mechanics or camera to do something that I needed to do. Movement and view response is tight, and on the occasion I had to draw my sword and defend myself, the combat systems performed well. My secondary armament never felt over- or under-powered, and whether facing a Weeper or a Tallboy—the stilt-legged ‘Scout Walkers,’ to borrow a Star Wars reference—you have a fighting chance to walk away the victor or lie defeated depending upon how you approach their advances. If there’s one criticism of Dishonored to be had, it’s the formulaic nature of the chapter layout. Depending upon your preference, you know that each mission will either end with your victim murdered—by your hand, by another, or by their own if you play your cards right—or somehow neutralized nonviolently. The reason why this isn’t a major issue for me is that there are so many different ways that each outcome can be achieved, making the trial and error of the game so appealing to a gamer like me who enjoys options. In addition, climbing can sometimes be cumbersome, and getting in just the right position to quietly choke a guard or climb a chain can prove frustrating from time to time.
For those who enjoy ‘Joshing’ a game, there’s plenty to be done in Dishonored. Beyond the Rune and coins, a number of chapters have paintings to be collected, notes and books abound in every level to flesh out the history and narrative of the Empire of Isles, and Trophy hunters will surely be drawn back to tasks that include killing 6 enemies in 1 second with a crossbow or evading 5 alerted enemies without leaving the area. That said, a Platinum Trophy will prove difficult indeed; while there is no Trophy for completing each level of difficulty (you get a Gold trophy upon completion), expect long hours of replaying specific areas to completely avoid detection—a Silver Trophy for not being detected throughout the game, beyond the initial jailbreak sequence.
If you haven’t already guessed, the visual design of Dishonored is highly stylized. “Steampunk” is a word thrown around often when describing Dishonored, and it does seem like you’ve stepped into one of Guy Ritchie’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ films when you first walk off the boat into the palatial Dunwall Tower. From the rotting streets of Holger Square and the Distillery District to the privileged upper class rooms of the Golden Cat and Boyle Estate, there’s a distinct hybridization of Victorian and Industrial Era London taking place in Dishonored that makes its’ level design stand out from other semi-linear games on store shelves. The unique look of the game is one of Dishonored’s key draws, and, while not as graphically impressive as games like Skyrim or Mass Effect 3, Arkane’s design team has gone to great measures to imbue the Empire of Isles with a sense of existence—transporting the player to a world beyond our own understanding, and one you want to take your time to drink in and explore. Some textures may come off as flat, but you overlook them due to the style and detail given to your environment.
Not opting for photorealism, Arkane’s designers instead draw upon caricature to bring their characters to life. Aided by the motion capture studios of Quantic Dream, your primary and secondary characters each have a distinct look and personality made possible by not adhering to the ‘make them look as real as posisble’ mentality that some games find themselves mired in, occasionally to their detriment. Instead, Dishonored has a cast of vibrant characters that each walk, talk, and act in ways befitting their personality. High-classed aristocrats stand up straight and do not move out of the way for the common citizen, thugs swagger about without a care for who’s in their path, while those unfortunate victims of the Rat Plague for which Corvo was sent to investigate shamble along, coughing blood and breaking into sprints not unlike zombies in 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead should they see you skulking about. Not every character model is unique, and you’ll never catch a woman brush a strand of hair out of her face as the models themselves are somewhat static—until you lop off an Overseer’s head, or slip your blade between the shoulders of an unwitting assassin and watch blood pool around their bodies.
For a game that presents itself as a semi-open world with multiple options to choose, the linearity of some of the later levels becomes a bit disheartening. A friend who watched my late-game progress commented that the textures were a tad muddy, though he did digress that this may have been the design choice for that particular area. In my (repeated) deaths throughout review, the camera would occasionally spin erratically due to the physics engine overcompensating for my character’s sudden demise or untimely fall, though more often than not I’d just find myself collapsing to the street, my fight’s victor standing over me triumphantly. Only once did I notice a downed enemy clip through the environment, and once I lifted the character to move him from one place to another, this issue resolved itself. Frame rate proved steady throughout, with a single exception being an early point in the Flooded District. These issues aside, Dishonored is a solid game, with a panache that resounds from beginning to end and brings the city of Dunwall alive.
How do you bring a cast of diverse characters and a world of intrigue to life in a medium that’s becoming more and more used to these boxes being checked off on the back of the jewel case along with 720p and 3D-enabled? Bring together an all-star Hollywood lineup for even the most tangential characters, while making the environmental sounds and music seem just a bit off. The list of A- and B-list voice talent in this game is truly a marvel; led by the silver-tongued (and silver-haired) John Slattery (‘Mad Men’), the always-reliable Lena Headey (‘Game of Thrones’), and rising star Chloë Grace Moretz (‘Kick-Ass’), Dishonored even manages to surprise you by throwing in the likes of Susan Sarandon and Brad Dourif. Slattery’s performance especially garners note toward the game’s conclusion, and Sarandon’s Granny Rags—a tangential character at best, but one of the game’s most mysterious—draws comparisons to her turn as the evil Queen Narissa in Disney’s ‘Enchanted.’ But beyond the glitz of Tinsel Town this game’s voice acting is roundly impressive, among the primary and secondary cast especially. Less impressive is the repetitive nature of the tertiary character dialogue; I don’t know how often I heard “Do you want to go out for drinks after this” or “You think you might be promoted after last night’s events,” but I can say it was more than I would have liked. Aside from this point, there’s little to be disappointed in vocally, and I would make an effort to speak with each character whenever given the chance to hear what their next quip or remark would be.
Beyond vocal performance, a fictional world is defined by its’ audio style. The click of a boot heel on the cobblestone street, the clash of sword against sword, the chug and clack of a Tallboy patrolling the streets; Arkane has pulled no punches with the original and unusual sounds that make Dunwall a living, breathing city. Sword-play has been done again and again in games, and Dishonored has it down here. But it’s the more unique gadgetry and sorcery at your disposal that leave an impression long after you set the controller down. Everything from your sleep darts reloading and locking into firing position after you’ve put down a nearby guard to the characteristic whoosh of you Blinking from one vantage point to the next has a distinct cue that stands out from the next. The whisper of voices as you select to use Dark Vision to find where your next opponent lies had me drawing comparisons to ‘Lost’ while the mechanical whir of a nearby Arc Pylon beginning to activate would have me running the opposite direction at the sound. The strange-yet-familiar music that accompanies the game’s soundtrack help set the mood for your experience, and the mood is grim. At least until you’ve attracted the attention of nearby guards, at which point the pace picks up and lets you know you’re in for a fight.
This game is single player only.
I was disappointed when I heard that BioShock Infinite would be delayed until early 2013. The early previews of that game had me anticipating a world of possibilities, open to explore, and with powers and potions and gunpowder galore. Dishonored has quietly slipped into the first-person stealth-action genre and made me forget that disappointment. Dive right into the world presented by Arkane and Bethesda, you’ll find an ocean of gameplay possibilities that most games only tease you with. With a tight, cohesive (if not altogether original) story and some of the best gameplay mechanics I’ve handled in recent memory, I cannot recommend Dishonored highly enough. You’ll be happy you did, and if you’re like me, you’ll want to dive in a second time to see how it all could happen differently.
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