G’day. Welcome back to The Lawless Perspective. If you don’t know the drill, this is a semi-regular column in which I offer a second opinion on recently released games. It’s a subjective analysis, based entirely on how I feel about the game in question, rather than an objective one and so I choose not to synthesise a score to summarise. With that out of the way, I’ll be looking, this time, at what is probably the most critically acclaimed new IP of the year: Dishonored. I know that I’m late to the party; I was originally intending to save my money for Hitman: Absolution, but as I stood looking at the shelf of games, the higher review scores of the former swayed me from my original course. Before beginning, a link back to Michael’s purchase-affirming 9/10 review and an obligatory spoiler warning.
Have no doubt that I feel as though Dishonored is a good game, and that this belief is shared by the rest of the team; the unanimous sanction of its inclusion for Game of the Year contention should be proof enough of that. It’s a brilliant new IP that shows a lot of promise in both its mechanics and story potential thanks to the incredible amount of lore that was packed into this inaugural outing. Played as either a stealth game or action game, it is so finely tuned that every fundamental aspect of it remains solid. In spite of all this, I just don’t “get” it.
What’s peculiar about that admission is that, on paper, there is only one aspect of the game to make me leery of it: the first person viewpoint. I’ve never been a fan of games that put you directly behind the eyes of the protagonist, but the likes of Bioshock, Resistance 3, Mirror’s Edge, Skyrim and Fallout 3 all enabled me to get past that issue, and Dishonored is more in the vein of these than other, blander uses of the perspective. In any case, that is not from whence my dissatisfaction springs. I like options. I like being able to incapacitate enemies as opposed to simply killing them. I like being able to sneak past guards like a shadow in the night with their being none the wiser to my presence. I like being able to use magic to circumvent direct combat. I like collectibles that matter in the grander scheme of the game. I like fresh, unique and fleshed-out settings. I like an ensemble cast of characters that can laden you with side quests. I like lore. The inclusion of every one of these things in Dishonored should prompt me not only to like it, but to love it. Yet it doesn’t. Instead, having sunk something like 15 hours into the experience, I walk away unfulfilled and with a sense of disappointment. It’s almost singularly difficult to pinpoint why this is but, since it is the case, I have elected to write this belated post-mortem in exploration of the fact.
One of the more likely reasons is that Dishonored is designed, first and foremost, around gameplay. For most gamers that would be an illogical conclusion to draw, but I have always held story and narrative in extremely high regard, using it as one of the key barometers in my feelings about any product. And while Arkane Studios have crafted a wondrously involving city and world, the plot and characters aren’t nearly as compelling or interesting as implied by their prominence in the narrative. The biggest problem stems from Corvo’s role as a silent protagonist. This form of characterisation can work in the right circumstances by allowing the player to implant their own personality upon them, but it’s a rather poor choice here in light of the black-and-white morality system and the very visible fact that Corvo is a puppet. Every action that he takes is reactionary, coming at the behest of the ancillary characters, headed by the Loyalist faction.
This is a motley collection of individuals, headed by Lord Pendleton and Admiral Havelock, that sprung up following the assassination of the Empress Jessamine Kaldwin and the abduction of her daughter, Emily; acts for which Corvo is framed and which set the events of the game in motion. The Loyalists aid in springing our protagonist from prison on the eve of his execution, and thus begins a rather short mission of revenge, the ultimate goal of which is the reclamation of Princess Emily Kaldwin to thus bring about the end of the Interregnum. Hardly a new idea, but one that can be home to interesting developments if tackled properly. Unfortunately, the characters comprising the Loyalist faction are, for the most part, single-minded and unlikeable, amounting to a disconnection from them. And the supposed twist that the developers have implemented as the kick-off for the third act is ridiculously predictable.
It really is sad that the game suffers from these glaring flaws in light of the backdrop. Dunwall City is not a vibrant locale. Instead, it has both a lived-in dinginess and sense of abandonment. Some may consider this lack of panache a bad thing, but it grants weight to the setting and helps to emphasise the story’s proclamation of a plague outbreak that has decimated the population. What this ultimately means is that there are very few friendly characters to be found when on a mission, making side quests a rare thing and hostile NPCs extremely prevalent. In a way it purifies the production by putting the focus firmly on the dichotomy of the core gameplay and doing away with much of the RPG-esque waffling that has slowly become ubiquitous.
What Dishonored does retain is a purchase/upgrade mechanic similar to that found in most action games, though it features a more logical implementation than your gaining and spending an esoteric form of experience points. Your weaponry is upgraded by visiting Piero, a merchant/inventor and spending the money that you find dotted throughout the levels. Besides the upgrades, he also offers extra grenades and ammunition, with an inventory that can be expanded by finding Blueprints. Magical enhancements are made available via Runes, which are spread sparingly throughout the levels and are located with the assistance of a mechanical heart given to Corvo by the supernatural being called The Outsider. This also aids in the finding of Bone Charms, which offer passive boosts to your skillset.
Unfortunately, in spite of three different forms of upgrades, the game never really provides enough for you to tailor the play style entirely to your own preferences. A part of the reasoning for this is that the effects of the improvements are almost negligible when in practice. Another is that only one of the magical abilities is compulsory and the game had to be designed to accommodate the possibility of it being the only one that is purchased and thus meaning that many of the others are useless unless you make it a point to use them. That being said, most of those abilities are functional for both stealth and combat-oriented ends, so it does have the potential for a more open-ended adventure.
This is tempered, however, by the intended method of play. Although it is more than possible to tear through the guards and destroy all opposition, Dishonored is a stealth game by conscious design and a much better experience when played in such a manner. Combat is cumbersome and the enemies quickly swarm to your location on your being discovered, leading to a bloodbath or, far more often, your swift demise as you succumb to the numbers game. Escape is always a possibility in such situations, but that’s often easier said than done.
Besides these gripes, stealth is very clearly preferred based on the enemy AI which remains blissfully ignorant of your presence unless you make the mistake of stepping into their direct line of sight. Never mind that the boundaries of their patrols are strictly enforced and they rarely, if ever, bother to take note of their surroundings. These are all issues typical of stealth games, as they are designed with the intention of being playable rather than overly realistic. It is a flaw in its own right, but when compounded with a deficiency of any kind of difficulty progression, it turns the experience into one that is extremely pedestrian. By the halfway point, you realise that the actions you are performing are by-the-numbers; the purported depth is an illusion and that all you have is Hobson’s choice.
There is a considerable amount to be negative about in Arkane’s implementation of key advertised features, but it is easy to see why it has been so widely acclaimed since its release. What I see in Dishonored is a solidly functional game that has been universally overrated. What I also see is something that was similarly present in Sleeping Dogs, Assassin’s Creed, Binary Domain and Mirror’s Edge: untapped potential. With Bethesda already going on the record as saying that they now see as Dishonored as a bankable franchise, there are very good odds that we’ll see a sequel that cleans up the issues that I’ve put forward in this article and perhaps then I will be able to love it.