Whatever you do… blink.
Dishonored is the latest game by Arkane, the developers of the criminally overlooked Arx Fatalis, and published by Bethesda, who is quickly becoming one of the big superpowers of gaming alongside EA and Activision. As a new IP it is firmly in the spotlight despite its inspirations being clear for all to see. Dishonored is essentially a mashup of Deus Ex, Thief and Bioshock. But is it as good as any of those?
The strangest thing I’ve found with Dishonored in my playthroughs is that you need discipline. To enjoy the game, you can’t really just try to ‘win’, you need to set yourself goals and work on them. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to about the game has suggested turning the objective marker off. This isn’t because it’s obtrusive, or ugly, but because if you just follow that you’ll miss out on 90% of what the game has to offer.
Dishonored takes place in a steampunk version of a city much like Victorian London, much like Thief. The games crowning achievement is the realisation of this city. The game is far from open world, with each mission taking place in a tiny (and I mean tiny) section of the city, but within that tiny section everything is fully realised and interesting. I’ve often written about the value of games that attempt very little but get it exactly right, and how much I love them, Dishonored is one such game. The develoepers could easily have attempted larger settings and levels, but then they never would have been able to realise them so fully. Every building has interesting rooms and routes around it. You get a delicious set of tools and magical powers to help your movement, and you can go wherever you want. Heading off the beaten track towards your objective you’ll find mini viginettes and stories, items and bonuses, sometimes just wonderful images. All of these are worth your time but all of them are incredibly easy to miss. It’s worth just spending time in the levels, observing characters from afar. Little touches like the fact when you zoom in (a feature of your mask, you don’t need a weapon to do it) you can hear people far away goes to show how much the developers wanted you to pay attention.
An undocumented (as far as I know) feature of the heart item lets you point it at people and activate it to hear information about them or what they’re thinking. None of this is really helpful or progresses the plot, but it absorbs you into the world and changes the way you feel about playing. You might find out a guard does charity work, or is sadistic. You might find out someone you thought was evil actually has a heart of gold. It adds so much but is an incredibly simple feature.
There are lots of issues with the game. Different sub-areas are gated off by loading screens, and this breaks the immersion completely. Guard AI is insane as they can’t see you at all if you are leaning and will often ignore you when you’re standing more than 20ft away from them, but occasionally when you throw a bottle they will spot you immediately. Combat is also less fluid than Arkane would have liked and while the gadgets you use are satisfying, it’s far too easy to abuse the immense power you are given so fights feel anticlimactic and simple even on harder difficulties. There are also a number of bugs and glitches to do with achievements and physics that can spoil your fun.
The graphics are a mixed bag with a beautiful art style but terribly low res textures in places. Water effects are also a little hit and miss and many items look completely out of place in the world, such as climbable chains. The lack of interactive objects in the world is also an issue considering how immersive the game can be at time. You can only pick up very specific items and there are few things you can play with or manipulate anywhere else. No windows to open, doors aren’t physical objects that can swing and chandaliers appear to be static. All of these things are bugbears but they really do detract from the experience and while the world can look beautiful at times, the lack of movement or interaction can completely ruin the effect.
The story is passable but nothing that you’ll remember and due to the freedom given to the player you can ruin the mood of nearly every scene. More than once I ended what was meant to be a climactic encounter before it began with a crossbow bolt from an open window or a rooftop rafter.
Dishonored is a fantastic achievement. The agency granted to the player is impressive and the world is a wonderful place to explore. But unfortunately the game can feel shallow and frustrating and I worry that this is the bitter taste that will be left in my mind when I am completely finished. The game isn’t as memorably as it could have been, but there’s hope for a sequel and this will definitely be a franchise to watch as it grows and develops.