As a PC gamer, it’s quite easy to list off the best games of all time. And while there will always be a debate about ranking (Half Life 2 is way overrated!), the games themselves are almost universally agreed upon. Among them are Deus Ex, Thief and Bioshock. Now what if a game came along and combined almost all of the best elements of those three games, placed the action in one of the most compelling settings ever seen, and delivered the experience in a near flawless way? My guess is if you fancy yourself a true PC gamer and you’ve read this far, Dishonored is already in your Steam shopping cart. And it should be.
You play as Corvo Attano, a one-time royal bodyguard turned assassin on a mission of both vengeance and political intrigue. The story, while probably the weakest aspect of the game, is still fairly engaging and offers a few (admittedly predictable) twists and turns. It’s not so much the overarching story that’s impressive, but the smaller, character-driven moments that really sell the narrative. Between the comprehensive (for an action game) dialogue, the mind-reading ability you get early on, and the multitude of written notes and books lying around, pretty much every major and minor character has a decent amount of development and texture. In fact, the only character that never gets any lines is your own. But if you think that means Corvo has no impact on the world around him, you are dead (pun intended) wrong.
Taking a page (or maybe whole chapters) from games like Deus Ex and The Witcher, the decisions, small and large, that you make as Corvo will have profound effects on how the story plays out. The main manifestation of this is in the chaos level of the world. With a deadly plague hanging over the city, Corvo must choose whether to kill every one standing in his way, or tranquilize/choke out his enemies. Likewise, for each main assassination target, there is the straightforward “kill them all”, Spartacus approach or the more devilish non-lethal tact that leaves the victims alive but exiled or defamed. The outcome of these and many other decisions result in the plague worsening or subsiding, differing numbers of guards and defensive obstacles, and even dynamically altered character interactions. These changes usually aren’t just cosmetic, but actually modify how the levels play out. The benefits are two-fold: not only is the immersion high since your actions actually mean something, but replaying the game in its entirety is more palatable since much of the experience will be different the second time through, including the ending.
Dishonored also borrows from great oldies like Thief and Deus Ex in the gameplay department. Played entirely from the first person perspective, Corvo can either be a stealth assassin, a magic wielding swashbuckler, a gadget tossing infiltrator, or a mix-and-match combination of all of the above. Along the way you will find runes, which are used to access your dark magic and bone charms which give you fun buffs like faster choke-out and mana replenishment from drinking water. The magic abilities you can unlock include summoning rat swarms (rats are a big deal because of the plague), stopping time, seeing through walls, turning your enemies into ash (thus removing the need to hide bodies), and teleportation(!), to name a few. No clichéd fireballs, no boring stat buffing spells (aside from one passive health increase), almost everything is unique, interesting, and most importantly, blends in seamlessly with the setting. This isn’t the same old D&D magic, this is dirty, dark, necromantic, Dishonored magic. All in all, everything works as a stealth/action/exploration game should, as guards will notice bodies you leave lying around, alarms will raise when you act clumsily, and the more patient and thoughtful you are, the more badass you will feel. Oh and also…no bosses! I can’t emphasize that enough.
I want to take some time out to talk about something that is rarely done well in games: setting. Every once in a while, a visionary will come along and give us a completely new, utterly believable, fully realized world to discover. The Star Wars galaxy, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Bioshock’s Rapture, Blade Runner’s dystopian L.A.- these are just a few examples of universes that change the creative landscape for all future media and ones which lesser artists crudely imitate afterwards. Now, the city of Dunwall, with its early 20th century, post-steampunk aesthetic and mythology, coupled with the extreme attention to detail with which developer Arkane Studios lovingly adorned the environments, may perhaps join that esteemed collection. Everything feels lived-in and old, as though despite the fact that there are metal bunkers and electric gismos everywhere, you can still feel the age of the city with a vague intuitive memory of a time when Dunwall was still using horse-and-carriages. It’s a world that, despite plague, depression, despair and cruelty, I wanted to explore and soak in as much as possible. Like Rapture, the city instantly and continuously delivers a message as you play: This city was great once, and perhaps, could be again. Even the health and mana potions have setting-specific reasons for existing, which is just one example of dozens where the little details add up to something special. In the long list of things that Dishonored does well, the creation of Dunwall is probably at the top.
Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect game (if there even were such a thing). Towards the end of my first big mission, after meticulously choking out every guard and swiping every coin I could find, I decided it was time to attack the final target. I perched myself on a shadowy ledge and waited as my prey walked into the room. As soon as the door opened, he yelled for the alarm and ran out of the room in a panic. “Strange,” I thought, “I’m pretty sure he can’t see me from here.” I tried again, observing from a different spot with the same result. Finally I tried walking into the room to trigger the entrance script and then immediately left the room and ran down the hall, ensuring that he couldn’t possibly spot me. No luck. It seems there was a bug in the script that automatically (and mistakenly) kicked in his “I see an assassin” routine and there was no way around it. I could either simply kill him (ruining my chance for a non-violent playthrough) or restart the whole level. Anal idiot that I am, I decided to restart and repeat the last two hours of gameplay. Instances like this were very rare, and I’m sure they will get patched up sooner or later, but they were noticeably present and undeniably frustrating when I hit them.
My only other complaint regards something that I can’t believe was overlooked in a game this detailed: bodies, both dead and unconscious, will disappear from the world shortly after you move them. Not all bodies, mind you, just around two thirds of them, at random. I can only assume this is a console hardware consideration, or perhaps a limitation of the game engine, but in a game where hiding bodies from patrolling guards is a major part of the challenge, it’s baffling that Arkane doesn’t seem to care when it’s so obviously flawed. Honestly though, these two shortcomings barely register in my memory, post-game afterglow.
Dishonored is one of those games that, immediately after the credits finish rolling, I want to click New Game and start all over again with a different approach. Needless to say, that reaction is rare for me, as most of my games go unfinished, hovering around the 80% complete mark. Other than the rare scripting bugs I ran into, there isn’t one aspect of this game that I can’t recommend. My hope is that since Arkane now has all of the hard work done of creating art assets and establishing the universe and mythology, we won’t have to wait too long for a sequel. Dishonored is an instant classic.
Final Score: 9.2/10