Developer / Publisher: Bethesda, Arkane Studios
Release Date: October 2012
Platform: PC, PS3, XBox 360 (reviewed on the PS3)
I never really recovered from the original two Thief games. To me they were the ultimate “Adventure-Adjacent” titles: Games that weren’t traditional adventures, but that still felt incredibly adventure-like.
I found that the “sneaking” gameplay featured in Thief and its first sequel really suited me. Combat was downplayed, or even nonexistent. I got to creep around a beautiful, creepy, and mysterious city, rich with lore. I got to quietly (and non-leathally) knock out guards, hide their sleeping bodies, and then steal the precious treasures my victims had been hired to protect.
I loved every minute of it. Like Thief, it’s a first-person game that emphasizes stealth over pure action.
Since then I have pounced on any game that I hoped could help me scratch that itch to sneak around on secret missions. I’ve played several of the Metal Gear Solids, the third Thief game, and all three Deus Ex games. All of them were fun, but none of them were as good as the original.
Bethesda’s Dishonored comes the closest of any of them to re-create the heady, irresistable thrill of sneaking carefully through dangerous environments.
Like the Thief games, Dishonored takes place in and around a large, corrupt city. The City of Dunwall, which is a sort of Edwardian Steampunk metropolis (not Victorian as so many reviewers mistakenly state, or worse, “Sixteenth Century” as X-Play claimed). Powered by whale oil and money, Dunwall is also beset by a devastating plague carried by the city’s rats.
The character you play is Corvo, bodyguard to the City’s benevolent Empress. When she’s assassinated, you’re (naturally) framed for her murder and thrown in prison.
Before you can be executed, a mysterious and unseen ally helps you make it out of your cell. Your next task is to escape the prison and make it to the rebel headquarters, where you begin to work for the patriots who want to bring the Empress’s assassin to justice.
All this is pretty standard stuff, you might be thinking. Fair enough. But where Dishonored really shines is in gameplay choices. The game consists of a series of missions, and you can accomplish those missions in any way you like. The city of Dunwall is a huge maze you have to navigate, all the while dodging guards (you’re a wanted man, after all), criminals, plague-carrying rats and dangerously infected plague victims.
Your missions also take you on a wonderful variety of locations, including a bordello, a guard complex, a vast, crumbling bridge, a highly-guarded tower, and many more.
The game gives you a host of physical and paranormal skills you can choose to develop. You can invest skill points into being more deadly with your daggers, or faster, or stronger. You can also invest in a host of supernatural powers: you can “blink” from one spot to another (great for avoiding guards!); you can slow down time; you can even briefly possess animals and (eventually) people.
Skill points are, of course, limited, so you have to think about your own playstyle and invest your points wisely.
There’s also a “Q”-type character who can help you upgrade your equipment and even sell you cool new toys to help you accomplish your slinky missions.
In addition to the choices you have for simply getting around and overcoming obstacles, you even have choices regarding your general approach to the mayhem you cause. If you want to be a slice-and-dice killing machine, you can do that, but it makes the game’s story even darker and the dangerous swarms of plague rats will increase. You can alternately decide not to kill at all.
Thief fan that I am, I decided to go the “no kill” route. The game even provides non-lethal methods for you to neutralize your assassination targets. I went through the entire game without purposely killing anyone. This kept the rat swarms to a minimum and led me toward the “lighter” game ending.
I’ve just described th two extremes: You can mix and match to your icy heart’s content.
The result of this is that no two gamers going through this game will have the same experience. It also means I could go back and play the game slice and dice style and have a utterly different experience from my first playthrough.
You even have choices regarding side missions. There are two underground factions in the city, and you can decide to help one, or the other, or even be a double agent.
The stealth and sneaking aspects of the game are simply outstanding. The maps are creepy and fascinating to explore.
The one area where the game is a bit lackluster is the voice acting. (Yeah, you knew I’d get to this, right?) Ironically, the game features a vocal performance by one of my all time-favorite performers: Susan Sarandon (in her video game debut!). Nevertheless, I found the overall performances to be surprisingly flat.
A friend of mine works in video game voice recording, and he told me that when a game has lots of “name” performers in it, the results are often ironically less stellar than when the cast consists mostly of hardcore voice performers. “Stars are always late,” he told me. “You have very little time with them, and it’s hard to direct them.” Considering the glittering names featured in this game – John Slattery, Lena Headly, Carrie Fisher, Brad Dourif, Chloë Grace Moretz, in addition to Sarandon – I wonder if Dishonored suffered that fate.
Still, the flat vocal performances do not spoil the many hours of dark, sinister fun that await you with Dishonored. This is the first game in a while to force me to regularly stay up until four in the morning in my attempts to finish a mission. In a video game, this is a quality problem.
Bethesda is a singular developer/publisher known for its ambitious and high-quality games. Its partner for this venture was French studio Arkane, known for one of my all-time favorite RPGs – Arx Fatalis—and the first Bioshock sequel. It’s quite a dream team, and the results do not disappoint.
Dishonored is gorgeous, dark, creepy, and thrilling. It’s also an original IP – NOT a sequel. It’s quite a piece of work and I recommend you play it. It’s a perfect outing for an adventure game lover who feels like stepping out of the genre for a little naughty fun.