11 Preview + Interview: Dishonored

This is the most exciting game of E3 for me (big call I know). Dishonored came out of the blue somewhat; with all of the Elder Scrolls activity going on we might have guessed that Bethesda had enough to do, but apparently not. It combines a series of elements such as a deep and vibrant milieu with flexible gameplay and an engaging narrative such that it seems to both bring something new as well as draw on the best of gaming at the moment. In their closed-door demo, Harvey Smith and Raf Colantonio called this their “dream project”, and I think it’s mine too.

You play as Corvo Atano, a once-legendary bodyguard for the Empress, who has been framed for her assassination having watched her die in his arms. He is therefore an outcast, and wears a suitably cool Steampunky mask. Freed by an unknown benefactor, Atano sets out to exact revenge against the Lord Regent who framed him, incidentally exacting a social justice against the bourgeois oppressors of the city.

For a little more back-story, here’s Ricardo Bare, Lead Designer on Dishonored:

One of the most exciting aspects of Dishonored is the general milieu, which can be called part steampunk, part alternative history, and part sci-fi/fantasy. Much of the action takes place in Dunwall, designed by Victor Antonov, the art director of Half-life 2, and therefore creator of City 17. Dunwall exudes a Dickensian squalor, with grand architecture and shiny new transport systems right next to dark shadows and deep poverty.

The gameplay of Dishonored is profoundly synthetic, and might best be considered a first-person stealth/action game in the tradition of Arkane Studios. Here the influence of Harvey Smith (Thief: Deadly Shadows and the Deux Ex franchise) and Raf Colantonio (Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic) is most keenly felt. Dishonored is designed to be played however you like: some missions lend themselves to Assassins’ creed-esque takeouts (aerial assassinations seem to be highly featured), while other scenes call for run –n-gun (well, run-n-musket) or close-quarters swordplay. Non-lethal takedowns are a feature. In fact, the hands-off demo shown at E3 played exactly the same level in both stealth and assault modes, and both were equally viable.

This dual-core gameplay is enabled by a variety of supernatural powers which can be used for different outcomes. A transport ability allows you to quickly close a gap to melee attack enemies or assassinate them, while time-control gives you the capacity to not only wipe out a group quicky (bullet-time style) but also to alter the environment, such as placing enemies in front of their own just-fired bullets. Most interestingly, it is possible to occupy the bodies of a variety of animals in the gameworld, notably the multitudes of rats but also eventually humans, to either reconnoitre an area for infiltration or to distract or attack enemies outright. The flexibility of these supernatural abilities will be a gameplay element to watch out for, and they provided unlimited entertainment in the hands-on demo. I died four times and played through the exact same sequence in completely different ways, and in the “Golden Cat” sequence we were shown there is no less than eight different ways to infiltrate the target building.

[img_big]center,8351,2012-03-19/arriving_at_golden_cat.jpg,Don’t pay this guy[/img_big]

The sheer variety of skills open to the player is just phenomenal, and even though the protagonist was overpowered for the purposes of demonstration (in real life you’ll need to build up skills), the ultimate objective of the gameplay design is staggering. Some skills focus on stealth, allowing you to see through walls and identify enemies’ lines of sight, quickly and invisibly traverse short differences or possess a rat or fish to infiltrate spaces, or even break a fall from a height. Some skills are direct weapon skills; a flintlock pistol is slow but powerful; a crossbow has normal, incendiary and paralysis bolts; and there are both proximity and normal grenades. Finally, some skills have environmental unique abilities such as blowing a huge gust of wind or summoning a horde of rats to kill an enemy and carry of the corpse wholesale. The combinations of these skills allow huge creativity and account for the incredible flexibility of the gameplay mechanics.

In fact, this flexibility is designed to suffuse the whole world, and Dishonored has even been referred to as an open-world simulation. This means that all the elements of the world are present before you enter it: those thugs attacking that lady weren’t just generated when you entered the street, and if you had have killed them earlier in the game they never would have attacked her. This goes well beyond the procedural generation of enemies and tasks, even if “simulation” might be too strong a word for a game so heavily influenced by speculative fiction tropes.

(Note: mature warning on the following video.)

I think E3 has revealed me as a total nut for gameplay innovation, which is why I feel that Dishonored may be my Game of Show, even before the final day. It’s slated for release around October the 11th, depending on where you live, and the variety of pre-order bonuses should get everyone interested.

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