Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Release Date: October 9, 2012
This place reeks of death. A few yards in front of me, a guard whistles to himself while his buddies unload today’s victims into the river below. There are dozens of them floating there, all wrapped in burlap, all waterlogged. I wait for my chance. The second the whistler turns away, I blink behind him and stick my blade through his neck. He joins the rest of them in the river.
No one notices the splash. I blink up ahead behind my next target, bloody dagger in hand.
Welcome to Dishonored
The hardest thing about reviewing Dishonored is conveying exactly what the game is. The genres at play here are clear: stealth, action, and adventure — but even those descriptions will put the wrong idea in your head. There’s a reason names like Thief, Deus Ex, and System Shock come up any time Dishonored is discussed. They all share a rare kernel that is difficult to define, but impossible to miss when you see it. It boils down to freeform level design, highly simulated gameplay systems (A.I., physics, etc.) and detailed worlds rich with lore. Dishonored is no exception.
Dunwall, horrible as it is, is a place worth learning about.
You play Corvo Attano, bodyguard to the Empress of Dunwall. After failing to protect her from a supernatural assassin, you are accused of her murder and locked up in Dunwall prison to await execution. After breaking free, you team up with a covert group of revolutionaries hell-bent on overthrowing the Lord Regent, whose tyrannical reign has left Dunwall in tatters. From there the plot progresses pretty predictably, with the expected twists happening at the expected times. Fortunately, the other writing in the game is great. The journals and books found throughout Dunwall describe a fascinating and believable world, to the point that I kept wishing there were more of them. Dunwall, horrible as it is, is a place worth learning about.
And believe me, it is horrible. A plague that makes the Black Death look like the chicken pox has turned the city on its head. Lord Regent has imposed strict curfews and quarantine zones. Deadly rats swarm in the street like urban piranhas. Oh, and the plague victims…I don’t want to spoil their role, but trust me, they’re vomitously gross.
The beautiful art design of the buildings — equal parts Victorian and Orwellian — strikes a stark contrast with all this madness and suggests a city that was once truly great. The spires, balconies, and courtyards of Dunwall create the most memorable setting we’ve seen in gaming since Rapture. The graphics aren’t state-of-the-art (there are some lower resolution textures) but the visuals taken as a whole are fantastic.
But the real star of the show is the gameplay. Bethesda and Arkane have promised the freedom to play Dishonored any way we want, and lo they hath delivered. The stealth system is surprisingly fast-paced and vertical. As long as you stay outside of an enemy’s viewcone and don’t make any loud noises, you’re golden. Since you aren’t hiding in shadows a la Thief, you’ll need to blink from cover to cover rather than just finding a dark sweet spot and creeping around invisibly. The level design also provides a lot of opportunity for staying above the enemy’s sight via rooftops, pipes, or other elevated areas. It’s novel, fun, and empowering to creep around with such speed and agility.
The swordplay is some of the best in any first person game.
However, if you do make a mistake and find yourself in a pickle or just want to go in guns blazing from the get-go, the combat is just as viable as the stealth. The swordplay is some of the best in any first person game. You’ll quickly learn how to parry, lock blades, dodge hits, and go in for the strike. With some practice it becomes possible to take on a half-dozen enemies at once with just a sword, which is incredibly satisfying.
If fencing isn’t your thing, you also have an arsenal of spring razors (think half razor wire, half landmine), grenades, and several kinds of crossbow bolts, as well as deadly spells like Windblast and Devouring Swarm. But many players are going to want to forgo all of these things, because it is actually possible to play the entire game without killing anyone. There is a limit to 10 nonlethal crossbow darts, and it takes longer to choke someone out than it does to stick a knife through their neck (which means there is a greater chance of being seen) so this path is intentionally not for the casual player. But it is incredibly rewarding for those with the patience and skill to stick to it.
This flexibility even applies to your assassination targets, who don’t actually need to be assassinated at all. There are several ways to dispose of each of them, including some often horrific nonlethal ways. You’ll need to explore to find them, though.
Dishonored is a game in which you must explore the levels relentlessly, regardless of your playstyle.
Which brings up a very important point. Dishonored is a game in which you must explore the levels relentlessly, regardless of your playstyle. You can choose to just bomb from target to target if you really want to, but you’ll be left with the mistaken impression (as many have been) that Dishonored is a short game. It’s not. I spent 17 hours on my first playthrough and missed reams of content. You could easily spend 25 hours in Dishonored and not see everything there is to see. If you find yourself near the end of the game and notice that you’ve clocked under 10 hours, I’d really suggest going back and looking around a bit more. You’ll be amazed at what you’ve missed.
There is one particular section in Dishonored so enormous, detailed, and fascinating that I found myself backtracking and wandering around just to see what else I could dig up. I don’t want to ruin the surprise by describing this place, but know that I ended up spending a good 6 hours in it on my second playthrough. My only real gripe with Dishonored’s level design comes from the very last section of the game, which is head-scratchingly simple, rushed, and lacking in drama.
On the PC
Much attention was given to even the little details in Dishonored. Unlike past Arkane games Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, the controls in this game feel tight and tuned. The mouse doesn’t have a hint of “floatiness,” and Corvo’s movement is extremely fluid.
The only real gripe I have with the PC version is the lack of graphics options
The interface is completely customizable, and I really recommend fiddling with it early in the game until you find the right balance. I turned off everything except my health and mana bars (which I set to only appear when they go up or down) and found the game much stronger for it. You can always pop the waypoint markers back on for a second if you get hopelessly lost.
Dishonored runs at 100 fps+ on my upper-mid range machine. There are reports that the minimum PC specs are much higher than the game actually requires, so keep that in mind before opting out due to a slow rig. Bugs are extremely rare and generally minor (a clipping error here and there), which is almost shocking for a Bethesda-published title. The only real gripe I have with the PC version is the lack of graphics options, but it’s still excellently presented on the platform overall.
Dishonored Review Score: 9.3
Why so good? Dishonored provides a rich, detailed world, wonderful gameplay, and tons of options, and it does so with rare amounts of panache and polish. Every player will come out of Dishonored with their own unique war stories, and I can’t think of a higher praise for a video game than that.
Why so bad? The plot is predictable and the climax is, well, anticlimactic.