It has been a bit of a dry spell for fans of the sneaker genre. The last major sneaker title (of which I am aware, at least) was Deus Ex: Human Revolution in August 2011. Granted, this dry spell is not as long as the lead-up to DX:HR (by my count, the previous major title would have been Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory in 2005 or so), but having my appetite whetted by DX:HR was enough to make me take note of the absence of other titles.
Before anyone decides to point it out, I do not count any of the Assassin’s Creed titles, nor either Fallout game in the genre. While they contained stealth elements, but there is no way to complete any of those games in a “leave no trace” manner. Nor do I include any of the Splinter Cell titles after Chaos Theory. With SC: Double Agent and SC: Conviction, Ubisoft threw in the proverbial towel, turning the series into something more resembling a run-and-gun shooter than a sneaker (don’t even get me started on the forthcoming Blacklist). This doesn’t mean that they aren’t good games (they are very good games), but they don’t rise to the stealth level needed to qualify as a true sneaker in my mind. OK, Double Agent came awfully close, but I’m still miffed. I am probably doing it a disservice, but it’s my blog and I’ll whine if I want to. Enter Dishonored, by Arkane Studios under Bethesda’s publication banner to fill the void.
Keeping in mind the constraints of the genre, Dishonored is not an RPG and it is not an open world game. The game moves linearly from mission to mission. Within each mission, the world is open enough for you to take multiple approaches to completing your objectives, but you will be limited to only those areas that are mission-related. Once you have done everything that requires a particular area, it becomes inaccessible, so there can be no back-tracking for loot except while that particular mission is active.
There are RPG elements to the game in that you can choose your approach (stealth, complete mayhem or something between) and you can also choose the direction along which your character’s abilities develop. But at the end of the day, it’s a linear game and your character remains fairly static. This is not to downplay the excellence of the game, but merely to forewarn that if you go in thinking Dovahkiin or Lone Wanderer, you’re going to be sadly disappointed. If you go in thinking Garret, Sam Fisher, or Adam Jensen, you’ll be much nearer the mark.
The Short Version:
- Gameplay: excellent
- Graphics: very good – iffy on low-end machines, though
- Sound: very good – environment and music are excellent; voicing is a bit “meh” in places
- Story: good (not grading down for this – it’s a mission-based sneaker) – see my 10/23 post for updated comments on this
- Replayability: very good, within limits
- Overall: 8.5 out of 10
The Long Version (Spoiler Warning)
The game takes place in the industrial city of Dunwall, the capital of a kingdom called The Isles. Having discovered the almost limitless energy to be found in whale oil
You are Corvo Attano, Lord Protector of the Empress Jessamin Caldwin. After being framed for her assassination and escaping from prison, it falls to you to rescue the Empress’ daughter and to exact retribution from the people behind the assassination.
In keeping with the developers’ plan for multiple approaches to each mission, you have a wide variety of tools at your disposal, each lending themselves to one or more styles of play. Your weapons are fairly straightforward. You have a sword, pistol (upgradeable), and crossbow (upgradeable). You have some magic powers at your disposal, but you choose which ones to use and develop. A more stealth-oriented character might take the sneakier powers like Possession and Shadow Kill. A more run-and-gun player might take Blood Thirsty and Vitality. Like DX:HR, you can emphasize the skills and weaponry that match your playing style.
The user interface is clean and easy to navigate and you don’t have much in the way of inventory to manage. Major kudos to the development team on this one. Loot doesn’t pile up and you’ll never have to sort through fifteen different kinds of arrows to find the ones you want. The crossbow has only three kinds of ammunition; the pistol has only one unless you buy upgrades. The only information that is consistently on the HUD is your health, mana/magic reserves and remaining ammo (if you have a weapon equipped). All in all, very clean.
You will not be able to upgrade to upgrade all of the powers at your disposal. Doing so requires 55-60 Runes and there are only 39 available in the game. This means that you need to decide relatively early in the game the approach that you want to take and then focus on those powers, pretty much to the exclusion of the others. If you’re one of those players who wants to max out everything, you’re going to be out of luck. On the other hand, it does provide incentive to play through the game a few times and take a different approach each time.
Movement and mantling are very smooth. There are a few spots that feel a bit contrived, but the world has a very natural feel to it. It’s fairly obvious where the developers decided “you don’t need to go there,” but I found a few things (like street lamps) where I was pleasantly surprised to be able to use them as landing/launch pads for the Blink power. I only encountered one point where I got physically stuck, but was eventually able to wiggle loose without having to reload. Cover is plentiful, although the fact that NPCs seldom look up made many sections feel a bit too easy.
I’m still trying to decide whether the Blink (short teleportation) power is a bit overpowered, but considering its necessity for moving through your missions, I’ll just go with saying that I think it can be abused if you’re so inclined. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something to watch out for if you tend to notice or be bothered by these things.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that ammo (especially the non-lethal kind) is very limited. While your single merchant (two in a couple of missions) has an inexhaustible supply of it, the coins with which to purchase are limited and you can only carry a very limited amount. No digging into the backpack and pulling out a quiver with over 1000 arrows in it or accumulating a zillion coins. You must conserve your resources and spend wisely. It works very well.
One item that caused me a few headaches early on was the hotkey system. I could never figure out why I’d load my crossbow with sleep darts, but would find it loaded with regular darts the next time I pulled it out. I should have followed my own advice and read the freakin’ manual or paid more attention to the annoying little tutorials that kept popping up throughout the first couple or three missions. At any rate, the explanation for why it was happening was there, but I simply failed to read it. So don’t be so quick to escape out of those little tutorial notices and you’ll save yourself a bunch of headaches later.
The game’s pacing is pretty decent, allowing you plenty of time to plan and execute your approaches to each mission. PC players have a decently large supply of save slots to work with. I can’t speak to the console versions, but assume slots are limited as with most games. Like a few other games, you have two autosave slots that just overwrite each other every so often and one quicksave slot that are built in. That second autosave has saved my bacon on more than one occasion, so I’m hoping this becomes something of a standard feature across games. It’s probably a bit much to expect, but a guy can hope.
Aside from a few niggling little issues that I brought on myself, all I can think of in the area of gameplay is “Wow! They got it right from the get-go!”. Everything was very well thought out and skillfully implemented, so saying anything less than “Excellent” on gameplay would be a grave disservice to the game. Even a complete newbie should be able to pick it up and run with it.
I’m beginning to think that graphics have less to do with textures and meshes and more to do with the underlying engine. Artistically, Dishonored is marvelous. Dank, dirty, and messy, Dunwall is wonderfully depicted as everything you’d expect from a plague-ridden industrialized city in the Victorian era. I’m not overly fond of the way many of the characters render in-world, but it was an artistic decision that bears only passing resemblance to anything true-to-life and I can live with and respect that decision. It works very well.
Lip-synching leaves some to be desired. This, too, may have been a design decision since the game was released in different languages and one animation could serve for all language versions. It might also be a limitation of the Unreal engine. I leave such musings to the experts, but it sometimes looks like a badly dubbed Japanese movie and is a bit off-putting. It’s nothing outrageous, but it’s immersion-breaking at times.
I’m running the game on high graphics settings with nary a frame skip in sight (GTX 550 Ti coupled with an older Phenom II processor and 6GB of RAM). I strongly suspect that those with older graphics cards will not be able to play without much chugging and will probably need to tone down the graphics settings quite a bit. I note that the minimum specs call for a GTX 460 and a 3GHz dual-core with 4GB, so that assessment of older hardware is likely overly optimistic, but one can hope.
On a related note, a couple of engine issues cropped up. One is occasional instances of weirdly colored shadow areas, especially on NPCs. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s very noticeable when it does. Since I’ve seen the same thing in the Mass Effect games, especially ME2 and ME3, I suspect this is something engine-related rather than game-related and am not going to lay this at the developer’s doorstep.
The other involves collision issues. Rather than describe the issue, a picture is better.
In an early exploration session, I jumped off this chain into the basement of the Hounds Pit. Somehow the chain managed to stick in the wall. It has never reset to its original position. It clinks and clatters incessantly and I can see it trying to break free of the wall when I use Darkvision. Fortunately this happened after I had acquired the Blink power or I’d have been stuck down there since the stuck chain doesn’t reach far enough down for me to jump up and grab it. Again, this is one of those RTFM moments and I’m fairly sure that I dropped off of the chain and jumped off it at the same time. It’s one or the other, folks, not both.
I also encountered one significant NPC clipping instance when I caught Piero standing in the middle of his table (that’s “in” the middle, not “on” the middle); legs sticking out below the table, torso sticking out above it. I haven’t seen it with any other NPCs in any other setting, so perhaps it was an isolated instance. Overall, though, the game is pretty clean graphically.
The sound of the game is awesome. Ambient environmental sounds are clear, but not intrusive and the music fits exceptionally well. It meshes so well, in fact, that there are often moments when I have to stop and consciously listen to make sure that there actually is background music. Major kudos to Daniel Licht for that work. If you’re hoping for some grand theme like “Dovahkiin” that will spawn a few dozen fan music videos, you won’t find it. But it is so solidly done and holds the mood of the game so well that I honestly can’t imagine the game with a different soundtrack.
Voicing, on the other hand, is kind of a hit or miss proposition. Don’t get me wrong. All of the voice actors did a credible job and these are all pros, so I’m sure they delivered what the sound director wanted. But what the sound director wanted came across as quite flat at odd times. Bits and pieces of dialogue that I thought should have been more emotionally powerful come through as more of an “oh, by the way, the High Overseer is a wretched man” kind of thing. John Slattery gives an excellent performance as Admiral Havelok and I immediately recognized Piero as being Brad Dourif. Such an odd thing to remember an actor from two movies and one TV episode, each separated by about 10 years. A powerful performer, without doubt, but I digress (again). Susan Sarandon’s performance of Granny Rags is one of the high points of the game and will probably be one of the more memorable characters after this game is gathering dust on your shelf somewhere. Perhaps it’s just that everyone is a bit (or more than a bit) unhinged, that the occasional flatness just doesn’t seem that out of place.
Those who have read my other reviews will know that when it comes to games, I want story. I want character development. I want to immerse myself in the writer’s imaginations and see where it leads. I want epic heroes clashing with equally epic evil for the future of the world. Dishonored doesn’t go there. This is a mission-based sneaker, so the original premise is about all of the story there is. There is never any doubt that you’re going to get revenge on the folks who done you wrong. The only open question is how many bodies you’re going to leave in your wake as you do it.
What there is, though, is a very detailed alternate world. It doesn’t have a ton of lore and history, so it you must fill in that setting from your own imagination, which just makes your relationship with Dunwall that much more personal. But there are poignant diaries, notes and letters laying about for you to read and get a feel for the people of the city as they try to cope with the rat plague, all the while being totally oblivious (or perhaps indifferent) to the events that drive Corvo. All in all it’s a world that you’ll want to immerse yourself in and it’s one where the conflicting hopes and despair of the victims is so thick that you can almost touch it.
Interestingly, there is a “Downloadable Content” button on the main screen, even though there is no DLC out there. But the existence of the button means that somewhere along the line, Arkane Studios is going to add to the world. Whether that will be in the form of more missions in Dunwall, missions in some other city of the Isles, or something different remains to be seen. But if the basic game is an indicator of what’s coming, you’ll definitely want to be checking that DLC button at some point.
Because of the linear nature of mission-based games, it might seem that the replay factor is fairly low. Once you’ve been through it a couple of times, going back through with fresh eyes is almost impossible. But the development team did a good enough job of shorting you when it comes to powers and upgrades that there is a fair amount of replay value to be hade. More, perhaps, when we see what any DLC might have to offer. I do not see this game as on a par with other Bethesda titles which might suck hundreds of hours of your time and have you still finding new stuff. Nor do I see it in the same light as the original Deus Ex, but it’s headed in that direction.
But as something to spend a few hours running through individual missions, there is enough in the game to make you want to come back at least a few more times just to try something different and probably more so when we see what DLC is on tap. Whether that’s worth the $60 price tag is something only you can answer, but the bang-for-the-buck is definitely there.