Many games make the promise that you can "play your own way", but Dishonored goes further than most. Not only does it give you a genuine choice between stealth and all-out action, but missions can be completed in very diverse ways such that they are immediately replayable. All this is delivered in a superbly crafted environment with outstanding writing and (for the most part) dialogue delivered with exceptional voice acting by the likes of Brad Dourif.
You play as Corvo Attano in first-person perspective. Corvo is formerly Royal Protector of the Empress in the imperial capital, Dunwall. The Empress has been assassinated and Corvo has been framed for her murder, which is particularly harsh given his loyalty to her and her daughter, Emily. Imprisoned, Corvo is assisted to escape by a group of Loyalists who deploy him to eliminate the corrupt regime that has risen after the death of the Empress, and he also receives aid from The Outsider, a supernatural agent who endows him with special powers. This gives him the tools to pursue the game's byline, "Revenge solves everything".
The most immediate and impressive aspect of Dishonored is the milieu that provides not only a backdrop, but a deep context for the action. Dunwall is the centre of an Empire comprised of various islands, and it is most like a type of alternative late-Victorian London, something like Guy Ritchie’s home for Sherlock Holmes. This city is an industrial powerhouse with attendant social problems of poverty and an extravagantly wealthy upper class. Dunwall is palpably Dickensian and social realist, with injustice counter-poised with deeply human characterisation. However, it also evokes Jules Verne, with amazing Tesla-esque technology and subversive supernaturalism hiding just below the dirty bricks and crumbling mortar of the buildings.
However, other influences are evident too. The rat-infested streets and plague-dead piles of bodies are distinctly medieval, and the shambling Weepers (late-stage plague victims) are straight from a Zombie near-apocalypse. The building interiors of the despotic Overseers (especially their centre of control, Dunwall Tower) are imposingly Stalinist, while the Boyle mansion, scene of an aristocratic party, are sumptuously Georgian, with an eighteenth-century splendour. It's almost passé to say that the that steel railcars and Corvo’s improvised mask are steampunk, because this label does little to suggest the wildly postmodern assemblage of elements present here. It is in the utterly unique combination of familiar components that the innovative genius of this world can be seen.
The environment is deepened with outstanding writing. The assassination-frame-revenge plot with betrayal aplenty is a little formulaic, but it is in the detail that Dishonored's writing excels. The world is littered with books and notes which elaborate the game’s mythology. Unlike the reams of superfluous text that are mostly annoying in Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age, these snippets integrate with a world that we care about because it is a little more recognisable. Moreover, the writing in these pieces is superb: each one captures different voices: a religious fanatic rants, a grieving wife or mother laments, an evangelising scientist records, a world-weary sailor narrates. I found myself eagerly opening each item to savour the elaboration of the story world, something that I rarely do.
Actually, Dishonored has given me a very first-time experience in gaming, by making me actually care about the consequences of my moral choices. This is way beyond the moral gauge of inFamous or even the story-bound choices of Skyrim. Usually my stealth skills fail me and I resort to killing but on this occasion Emily, the sweet little Empress-to-be, asked if I had killed, and how many, before turning away, disappointed, disillusioned. Usually these attempts at moral proselytism leave me cold, but this actually had a real effect on me, leaving me with a lingering regret and vague sense of guilt. It was partly the fact that Emily was a child just getting over her mother's murder; it was partly the close relationship that the game had established between Emily and Corvo; but mostly it was the fact that I had been given a genuine choice to eliminate the target non-lethally, and I chose the path more slippery with blood.
Despite the environment and moral choices, gameplay is the real star of this show. Many games superficially give players a choice between stealth and action but ultimately require one over the other. In contrast, Dishonored offers comparably sophisticated mechanics for both stealth and fighting, and both are equally applicable to any mission objectives. There is usually another character who will offer to take care of the situation for you in exchange for another task. There is always a non-lethal option and, as developers have famously claimed prior to release, it is possible to complete the game without killing a single person. Your choices have consequences too: Killing more people creates a darker conclusion and generates more Weepers.
If you choose the stealth route, there are many powers at your disposal. Corvo’s bread-and-butter is Blink, a short teleportation ability that allows for instant and undetectable traversal. Dark Vision allows you to see enemies through walls and their fields of vision, while Possession allows you to take over the bodies of animals and humans to infiltrate areas or bypass opponents.
If you’re a bit more – shall we say – dynamic, Vitality boosts your health, Bend Time allows you to slow or even stop your enemies, Blood Thirsty gives you adrenaline to build up to brutal finishing moves, and Devouring Swarm calls up a plague of rats to kill your enemies and strip theirs corpses down to nothing. Speaking of corpses: if picking up bodies and throwing them off a bridge sounds like too much hard work, you might like Shadow Kill, which turns your victims to ash.
Many skills can be used for both approaches to missions. For example, Blink also has important combat applications, and Windblast will not only knock your enemies back Fus-Ro-Dah style, it can blow out candles or flames to deepen shadows for you to hide in. The creative possibilities are endless: for example, using Blink after jumping off a cliff is an excellent way to break your fall; and while Windblast can be used to direct projectiles back at enemies, combining it with Bend Time can make the timing a bit easier. All these potential combinations make for exciting emergent gameplay, as you can really create your own responses to situations you find yourself in. Famously, playtesters were inventing new approaches and combinations which left the developers agog. Light RPG elements allow you to upgrade weapons or powers to shape your abilities in the direction you desire.
Of course, no game is perfect, and this one has small room for improvement. Although I am not one to insist on multiplayer in every game, a sequel could really make a lot of cooperative potential, something we have hardly seen properly done in a stealth game. There are slight glitches, such as the whale oil refiller not working in Piero’s lab, or corpses getting caught by their foot in a railing when being disposed of. Finally, while Dunwall is incredibly dense and atmospheric, the environments could feel a little more expansive and varied. These are very minor quibbles though, for such an exceptional game.
After E3, Dishonored was my Game of Show, but in a pre-Christmas release window so crowded with huge potential it is difficult to say whether it will take Game of the Year. It is almost certainly the most outstanding new IP of the year: with a fascinating milieu, solid narrative and wildly fun emergent gameplay, this game is unmissable. If this is the standard of gaming we will see for this (perhaps) final Christmas release for this generation, it's very promising indeed.
Chad Habel likes long walks on an irradiated beach, and surviving deadly test chambers. His favourite dish is hadouken stirfry, and his Achilles Heel is gibbing headshots. In an alternate reality he works at a University.