Arkane Studios’ Dishonored has been riding high on gamers’ most wanted lists for some time now, with Electronic Theatre’s most recent hands-on time with the videogame proving the open-ended nature of the gameplay was particularly inviting. But a quick hour on one specific area chosen for the specific purpose of showing off a videogame does not offer a full enough picture. It’s until the final product arrived in our office that Electronic Theatre had the chance to truly examine Dishonored, and see whether the development team could live up to the grand promises made.
Playing as Corvo Attano, you enter a world riddled by a plague that takes the downtrodden even further down the sociological ladder, right to the bottom of the pile were all they can do is live off the scraps that they can steal, or the weak that they can beat down. In order to find aid Corvo is sent abroad by his Empress, but upon his return all does not go well. Upon informing the Empress of the intentions of other civilisations, which do not work in Dunwall’s favour, the palace is assaulted by an unknown enemy. Teleporting into the small space seemingly from nowhere you are taken by surprise, and trapped by a magical force while the perpetrators assassinate the Empress and kidnap her daughter, Lady Emily, disappearing into nothing just as they arrived. You are held accountable.
Six months later the time of your execution arrives. Coldrige Prison clearly isn’t the most hospitable of resting places, and quickly you learn that the wrongdoing was on behalf of your keepers. A conspiracy in which you are about to take the fall; that is, of course, unless you take matters into your own hands.
It’s long been said that Dishonored is an open videogame, designed to establish a set of equations and offer the tools to solve them but leaving it entirely up to the player to decide when and how. This is evidenced in the very first active mission, your escape from death row, as while you may not be under the same amount of pressure as you will later on in the videogame, you will still find that taking things steadily is generally more beneficial than going balls-out action hero on the officers of the wall. First instances only ever offer the slightest hint of what lies beyond, but already we see opportunities for combat facing-off against taking your time, eliminating foes one-by-one as all other remain unaware of your presence, and yet here in this Coldridge Prison the options are limited to climbing a wall or simply walking up the stairs. Later in the videogame – when more options are available – things become considerably more interesting, as these simple principles become rules to live (or die) by.
The elegant design of the videogame is first proven by its optional quests. Though linear in intent, there is much of Dishonored that is open to player interpretation. Methods and actions – or reactions – are one thing, but it’s easy to find brand new opportunities paths away from the beaten track too. These are noted as optional objectives, and can be either handed directly to you or discovered with a little investigative play. In the opening moments of the videogame one such option falls before you as Lady Emily, a young girl and clearly a friend of Corvo, is delighted to see you return to Dunwall, and should you react to her with the same enthusiasm she will ask you to join her in a game of hide and seek. Doing so will simply deliver the stealth tutorial instructions, but it remains an acute example of how reaction is just as important as action in Dishonored, and not just in the case of your trigger finger.
The world itself has clearly taken a great deal of inspiration from BioShock – not a bad thing in any respect – with Dunwall providing as compelling a venue as Rapture, though for very different reasons. The world feels like a living entity, as if it would exist whether you were there or not, with everything having a rightful place: food is stored on shelves, weaponry is kept out of reach and locked doors are locked for a reason, with only the respective authority figure or personal having the key required to access the location. There’s a reason and a rhyme to everything in Dishonored’s Stanislavski inspired world, and it’s all the better for it.
In terms of functionality the world offers the Hound’s Pit Pub as the hub for your adventure. Closed for business but still operating as a resistance hideout, the pub is a safe zone in which the player progresses the story and takes on new missions.
While the combat mentioned earlier is one part of the Dishonored experience, arguably more important are the magical abilities at Corvo’s disposal. Your firearm and sword are a quick end to a bad attempt (or a breaking point for an aggressive one) whereas your magic provides further opportunities to conceal your actions. A small selection of magical abilities is available to purchase when collecting the appropriate number of runes (located throughout the levels through the use of a heart which indicates their direction) which when used appropriately can aid your progression significantly. When not used appropriately, they can be devastating to all concerned, friend or foe.
Ranging from offering the ability to see through walls to allowing the player to posses any living creature, the first few magical powers you will come across are a joy to use and grant you more options to plan your stealthy approach. However, there also comes the abilities to bend time and call upon a devastating rat swarm, which clearly have more dastardly implications from the offset. All of these magic powers are limited in use by a mana meter, however they are not limited in the option to combine their effects. Players can readily cast one spell followed by a second, providing yet further options for experimentation with each of Dishonored’s cleverly crafted set pieces.
From a technical standpoint Dishonored as a true showcase of just what is possible on current-generation hardware, and that there is still plenty of room to manoeuvre and produce even finer looking titles. The exaggerated style of human features recalls illustrations from Rold Dahl novels and the sheer quantity of high quality characters marks Dishonored out as an aggressive push forward for interactive storytelling. It’s true that some textures are somewhat bland and many areas may feel a little empty, but the latter is undoubtedly a case of design decisions taking priority over immediate appearances. The voice acting is also of the highest standard imaginable, with a cast of internationally famous actors delivering leading roles and yet never seemingly out of place.
Before beginning the videogame the player is informed that optimal performance comes from installing Dishonored onto the console hard disk drive (HDD), and for once this isn’t just cautionary fluff. There’s a noticeable difference in loading times between the installed version and that running from the disc alone, so you’d be wise to clear that recommended 5GB of space before beginning, lest you find yourself dealing with loading screens for far longer than was intended.
Bethesda Softworks has developed a reputation for delivering some of the finest westernised role-playing games (RPGs) on current-generation systems, and their role in bringing Dishonored to market has not gone unnoticed. There are many techniques included in the design that borrow from The Elder Scrolls series, and yet Dishonored stands on it’s own two feet as a shining example of just what is possible in the interactive entertainment medium with the right combination of imagination and budget. While there are a few moments in which Dishonored stumbles, the extensive campaign lasting well over twenty hours for those gamers who check every nook-and-cranny is never less than engrossing for its entire duration. Simply put, Dishonored isn’t just a leading title in the race for the best videogame experience of 2012, it’s a contender for the best videogame made for current-generation hardware.