Review: Dishonored

Though it suffers from some of the common issues of first-person stealth games, Dishonored’s rich world and engaging gameplay make it well worth your time.

I’ve always found extremely frustrating the style of gameplay typically engendered by stealth elements. In games like Metal Gear Solid or Assassin’s Creed, no matter how hard I try, I find there’s a huge gap between the player I want to be and the player I actually am. The player I want to be is a cunning, graceful, and deadly phantom who strikes fear into the hearts of his enemies. The player I am is the guy who accidentally alerts the first guard he encounters and then is forced to clumsily mass-murder everyone in the room.

For stealth to work well, a game needs to be designed with clear, reliable mechanics paired with intuitive systems for player feedback, which is why the XBLA title Mark of the Ninja released earlier this year was such a phenomenal game. These requirements are also why I find first-person 3-D stealth games like Thief and Deus Ex to be problematic—in this setting it’s much harder to design good mechanics for visibility and to communicate when the player is hidden and what actions will cause them to be detected.

However, both Thief and Deus Ex are highly acclaimed works, because they create captivating worlds and then give us the breath of gameplay choices to interact with these worlds in a variety of interesting ways. Consequently, even though I suspected Dishonored might suffer many of the canonical pitfalls of first-person stealth games, I felt it only fair to give it the same chance to impress me with its world and the things I might do in it.

Let’s start with a bit of background: Dishonored is set in the fictional city-state of Dunwall, a industrial-era Victorian sort of place where everything is powered by magical whale oil. Unfortunately, all this blubber-driven technology has little effect on a devastating plague that is decimating the city, and things quickly go from bad to worse when the Empress of Dunwall is murdered and you, her personal bodyguard and occasional boy-toy, are blamed for it. Shortly before your impending execution, standard video game tropes finally work their magic a grant you a means to escape, new weapons and gadgets, and supernatural powers, i.e. everything you need to go on a murderous campaign to seek revenge on the people that ruined your life and betrayed your country.

Dunwall is like the England of Charles Dickens crossed with the England of Children of Men.

I won’t ruin the rest of the story except to say that there are a few plot twists, though I found them all to be fairly predictable. (And mind you, I’m the sort of person who rarely guesses plot twists beforehand.) However, what Dishonored lacks in story it more than compensates for in terms of ambiance and gameplay.

First, regarding ambiance: a lot of games do post-apocalyptic and pre-apocalyptic well, but rarely does one get a chance to enjoy straight-up apocalyptic. Dishonored does a great job of creating a city on the brink of total ruin, from the rat-infested slums to the lavish brothels and mansions where the aristocracy fortify themselves against the diseased masses. While other games might use such a setting as an opportunity for pointed social commentary, Dishonored seems content merely to use this world as a colorful backdrop for your personal quest for justice and revenge. This earnest portrayal, combined with well-written, superbly acted dialogue and a slightly stylized, hand-painted art style (think “disturbed Norman Rockwell“), make the world of Dishonored a very real and very fascinating place to inhabit.

After playing these kinds of games for a while, I find that I check my six a lot more often.

Second, regarding gameplay: as I’d originally feared, Dishonored makes a lot of missteps in their version of the traditional stealth mechanics. It’s often difficult to tell at a glance if you’re hidden or not, and the visual and audio cues that indicate an enemy has spotted you are subtle and easy to miss. More than a few times, while lying in wait to launch a devious attack on an unsuspecting guard, I was interrupted by being stabbed repeatedly in the back of the head by some guy I didn’t even know was there. If you’re trying to get through the missions clean, save frequently and be prepared to look at the loading screen a whole lot.

However, in many ways Dishonored is able to compensate for these issues by offering a diverse array of additional mechanics, allowing for the sort of player-choice-driven gameplay that made games like Thief and Deus Ex so successful. For example, imagine you’re trying to infiltrate a particular building with the intent of sending one of your former colleagues into forced retirement. You might choose to use your mystical dark powers to (a) possess a rat and crawl in through a broken vent, (b) teleport to a second story ledge and sneak in through an open window, or (c) freeze time and then plant an exploding razor mine on the chest of the guard at the front door. Dishonored also takes great pains to extend this level of player choice to each mission as a whole. Each target has a number of ways they can be dispatched, from a simple knife to the face, to creatively engineered “accidents”, to non-lethal (but often far more cruel) methods, which involve dropping the hammer of poetic justice on your adversaries by using the very things that made them powerful against them.

Here’s an example of some guards “troubleshooting” a security barrier you’ve tampered with.

In fact, games elements like these “non-lethal” objectives are indicative of how Dishonored manages to still be successful without “solving the stealth problem”. Even though I could have eschewed the temperamental stealth mechanics entirely and just cut a bloody swath through Dunwall head-on, the prospect of secretly getting my revenge without ever being seen or getting my hands dirty held a certain allure. (Also, there was the temptation of getting the “Ghost” achievement for not being detected or taking a life the entire game.) And for an imperceptive stealth-impaired klutz like myself, the fact that Dishonored managed to keep me happily skulking around rooftops for about 30 hours should be pretty high praise indeed.

What Do You Think?