Thursday Review: Dishonored

I went into Dishonored with high expectations, and found them matched. However, I discovered quickly that while I truly enjoyed the game, it ran into some pretty major issues before too long in. Quite frankly, when I made it through the first three levels, I was thinking “This game reminds me a lot of Deus Ex, in a good way.” and by the time I got to the last my thoughts had been shifted to “Well, some of these textures do look like they’re from 2000″.

One of my favorite things about Dishonored was the freedom of movement; I’ve played plenty of Arkane’s games, including the very well done Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, and enjoyed a lot of them. They really do a good job at fleshing out the environments, and creating a living, breathing, deep world for the player to experience. You get an item, an altered heart that whispers secrets when used, that is actually really cool and adds a ton to the early experience.

Unfortunately, this is the same sort of thing that gets the game into trouble; it constantly wants to tell the player things. If I had a crossbow bolt for every time I was reminded of my choices throughout the game, I’d be able to stealthily assassinate every inhabitant of Dunwall. In addition, because you can use the heart on plot-important characters, you can easily spoil every plot twist and surprise, not that the overt foreshadowing in other areas doesn’t do that just as easily.

The moral choice system essentially amounts to killing everyone or killing nobody, which is a little interesting since it overlooks the fact that players may approach the game entirely different. I approached Corvo as a ruthless executioner, destroying those who had trampled the oppressed and committed crimes under the banner of their influence, and it got me the horrible ending even though I chose to be merciful to every non-combatant, several enemies, and even an assassin leader (whom the heart told me had no desire to kill), but was ruthlessly effective at taking down the more corrupt members of society, such as nobles feuding for power and the guards who killed and committed atrocities for no good reason.

And, for bonus points, the choices I made didn’t really matter-I made one friend into an enemy throughout the course of the game, and while he’d been friendly to me up until the final encounter he proceeded to utterly and entirely demolish Corvo for his actions, something which both was jarring because of the fact that just minutes before he’d been smiling and encouraging Corvo, even saving his life, and the fact that I then felt condemned for choosing to be a combat-heavy player. I recognize that Dishonored was supposed to be a stealth game, and for the most part I played it as such, but it didn’t feel right to be penalized for filling an anti-heroic archetype that Corvo basically is described as, especially since Corvo does pretty much everything he does for the sake of protecting Emily rather than out of self-interest, and the fact that the options to not kill people are often little better (branding the High Overseer as an excommunicate is perhaps just, but surrendering an unconscious noblewoman to an obsessive admirer is perhaps more reprehensible than crashing the party with blade drawn). In addition, despite being a game with a “moral choice” system, the end result is killing everyone or not killing everyone, and the changes are pretty much nothing as far as I can tell, since the game still gives me a favorable, even hopeful epilogue.

Getting into the gameplay, one has to remember that despite the fact that it bears all the trappings of a modern first-person-shooter it is, indeed, a stealth based game, and is not about combat. The stealth and exploration is highly rewarding, though the user interface for stealth is lacking, relying heavily upon players realizing Corvo’s position with the only real assistance being a warning meter when enemies have noticed or are about to notice Corvo. Movement feels fast and fluid, however, and leaping from building to building is satisfying and exciting. Some of the level design in the later stages, however, tends to force the player into claustrophobic areas that really force stealth, but make it so easy that it’s hardly a bother.

Combat is even more iffy. It’s near impossible to tell what will silently eliminate a guard, and if you accidentally slip off the “knock unconscious” button you’ll wind up with a shouting, screaming, hostile opponent who has brought all his friends’ attention down on you. It feels very flighty, with foes dodging out of the way of melee attacks instead of blocking, and when you do block or meet an enemy attack, a quick-time event follows that disrupts the flow of combat. On the borderline between combat and stealth is the use of ranged weapons; other than the pistol these can usually be stealthy (or at least not reveal your position), and are handled in a way that I really don’t like. The crosshairs turn red when you highlight a target, but the exact mechanism for doing so seems to depend on a variety of things (including zoom level) and doesn’t always reflect a hit, meaning that you can have the standard white crosshair while lining up a perfect shot. The actual implementation of combat feels very much like Skyrim’s, but with the downside being that as it is a lot more flighty you’re more likely to waste ammunition by accidentally firing a weapon. Usually, instead of actually doing combat, I’d just jump around and try to get a jump assassinate on my enemies (even tallboys), which had the upside of taking me out of the range of their blades and letting me move pretty freely. Combat felt like a place where the opportunity to have a non-finite source of nonlethal damage would’ve really reinforced the bloodthirsty killer versus merciful saint idea that seems to have pervaded the “moral choice” system, and it would’ve been nice to have a nonlethal weapon that prevented me from using some of the more cheesy tactics.

Powers are, in my opinion, more annoying than beneficial. Other than Blink, there wasn’t anything I really needed. I used Possession once or twice to bypass difficult or obscure platforming segments, and I stopped time once to access a cache of ammunition past some traps that would’ve killed me otherwise. The through-walls vision and rat horde attacks were not terribly useful; the first really killed the sense of exploration, and the second went unused for the whole game. The passive abilities were much more helpful, though I found that the Adrenaline power could be blinding at inopportune moments.

So, in short, while Dishonored is a decent game, it fails to innovate. It had a lot of potential, but fell short in the later game and did not meaningfully deliver on the potential for choice. With a rich setting, but surprisingly little player agency for the number of important people who can be killed or disappeared over the course of the game, it feels like everything the player does comes after the fact, like all the people that Corvo deals with have already fallen from grace and power, so he’s not changing world affairs so much as mopping up after them.

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