02 November 2012

Dishonored (PC game review)

Ever since the first preview videos for this game appeared I was both thrilled and worried at the same time. This was supposed to be a game about an assassin’s revenge upon those who had wronged him, promise of almost limitless possibilities to complete your missions and a rich story of betreyal and revenge. Among the game mechanics showcased and pushed in all promotion videos were the powers that the main character can use - such as stop time and possess other people for a short while. All of this was presented in an appealing way - but something was bothering me while watching all those videos and I could not pinpoint exactly what. Until I played through the game.

Let's start from the beginning, your character Corvo is the bodyguard of the Empress in a fictional European styled 19th century country. The game is set in a world with lots of technological wonders and the lazy description would be to say that it is "steampunk", or at least leans towards that type of look and atmosphere. When the game begins you have been abroad looking to find a solution and cure to the "rat-plague" that have struck the city of Dunwall. You meet up with the Empress and deliver the bad news that there is no cure and the city has to fend for itself as no outside help is coming. Shortly after delivering this letter a group of mysterious figures teleport themselves in front of you and stab the empress to death and then escape making it look as if you had killed the empress yourself.

Thus begins your "Dishonored" journey of revenge. Thrown in jail and tortured, you are sprung free and manage to escape shortly prior to your planned execution. Rescued by the aid of a group of loyalists who now plan to avenge the empress and right some wrongs and helping you by clearing your name - though of course YOU will be doing all the work. And that work involves assassinations of prime suspects of a power play conspiracy in Dunwall.



Each mission from now on is about Corvo infiltrating (or blasting his way) into a well protected area and assassinate (or neutralize in a non-violent way) a person tied to the murder conspiracy of the Empress.

Some very hamfisted things happen very early on. First you are introduced to the ridiculously bad stealth mechanic which is based around you half-crouching behind objects and look around corners. For those looking for a proper stealth mode like in Splinter Cell, Thief or any other stealth oriented game- you will be very disappointed. You can’t hide in the shadows and the AI has to help you hide by acting all retarded with guards pretty much making eye contact with you looking around a corner and not really react...

The second thing that happens early on is the game trying to explain all the powers you will soon be using. This really random gift that Corvo will be able to use throughout the game is presented using  a dream sequence where Corvo is visited by someone (who looks like Johnny Depp from "Dark Shadows"), called the Outsider who just hands you the ability to teleport and unlocks in your (subconcious I guess?) a skill tree of half a dozen of powers ranging from possession, turning killed people into ash, being able to stop time etc.

No real effort is put into explaining why YOU get these powers, and truly no one in the game questions your abilities even when you perform it in front of their eyes. This Outsider also gives Corvo a human heart enhanced with mechanical parts and which is able to "tell secrets" about places and people - but which is primarily used for finding "Runes" that act as a currency to unlock further powers, and "Bone charms" which convey various bonus perks to your character while worn. This is all very contrived and is pretty much pulled out of a hat for no reason other than the game designers wanted to have these features in the game but were unable to actually work them into the context of your character, the world or the story in any less jarring way.

It doesn't help when all of these runes and bone charms are hidden in really "gamey" places on each level turning half of your gameplay experience into a treasure hunt taking away the focus from the assassinations. This whole "Outsider" thing gets even more confusing since there are references to this being in books and by character discussions, and by him appearing in front of Corvo during the game MULTIPLE TIMES commenting meaningless crap that has nothing to do with your performed actions. What is the deal with this attention seeking demon dude, doesn't he have anything else to do but follow your character and make pointless comments about human nature that add nothing to the story or don't give an insight into whether you are doing "good" or "wrong"?

The game flirts heavily with "Thief" in a couple of terms, among them you being able to collect valuable loot such as paintings, statues and money during your little assassination adventures and trade their moneys worth for gear and tech upgrades. But, in Thief you were chased and called out on your stealing if caught, in Dishonored no one really gives a shit if you steal their belongings in front of their eyes. During one assassination mission in particular you visit a masquerade and can freely move about a large mansion taking stuff and even removing the purse from characters hips with no repercussions save for a "please stop that". Amazing, considering there is a ton of guards around. Details that lack attention such as this that pile up in Dishonored.

The game relies upon you playing "stealth mode" for three reasons. One, almost everyone panics when they see you. This is especially true in areas where it matters the most - near your targets. You can't masquerade around like in Hitman using disguise. Second, stealth makes the game last roughly 16 hours (4 hours of save/re-load/trial&error included). Three playing like a hidden ninja is slightly more fun.


But there is no reward for going easy on the world, no real reward for not murdering every living soul, and no real reward for using a non violent solution for the target of your assassination. Going through a map like Jack the Ripper pumped up on crystal meth does not affect either the way the "plot" plays out, neither does it change the way your allies look at you or make the next mission any different. That is until the very last mission, where the game throws you a bone and have a single character acknowledge you being a psychopath and have the final showdown be a tad different. I played the game two times on both ends of the spectrum just to see if the talk of "changing the world with my action" was actually true. It certainly was not, or at the very least extremely exagerated.

It's not like in Hitman: Blood Money, where going apeshit made things a lot more difficult down the road and reduced your pay - you having to use your earned money to cover your tracks. Or like in Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, where going berserk too many times had you killed. This is just lazy all around. At the same time the game is packed with powers and weapons that just scream to be used, playing like a ninja makes you unable to use more than a fraction of what the game has to offer. The weapons and powers offer a bit of fun though significantly reduce the difficulty level and game length. The whole thing is just badly designed.


The game also flaunts that there are a multitude of ways to reach your target and resolve your mission, that too is only half true. First of all, everything depends on your currently available obtained and upgraded powers. There is never a point where you can truly take every route to your target at any one point in the game. The same can be said for a game like Deus Ex: Human revolution which offered several ways of approach but they all depended on what your character was kitted towards (stealth, computers, brute strength). However Deus Ex did not brag about the endless options and ways to reach your target like Dishonored did prior to release. Neither was it presented under the pretense that everything was possible and you can do things however you want. In Dishonored, if you don't invest in "possession" you pretty much exclude 30% of the available routes. The game also for some reason won't allow you to go back and replay missions when you have completed the game and let you play with all the gear and powers, instead you are always limited to what you can have at that point in the story. This reduces the replay value to some extent as you won't be able to try out all the available things unless you replay the game from scratch.

The game includes pretty interesting locations and somewhat good atmosphere but invests extremely little time and effort in actually telling any story, explore characters, your background or anything that would make you invest in what's going on. All you do is "go there, kill him because he betrayed you - don't you feel angry at him?" when it is the first time you have ever seen the character you are supposed to kill. At some point you read or hear what a character did to wrong you, but the problem is YOU as a PLAYER did not experience it, so you don't invest any emotion into the revenge. Killing off the "bad guys" can give you a few seconds of violent satisfaction - but don't matter in the long run. You don't feel like you actually achieved something. It is no different from slicing the neck of a guard, and the slicing and violence in this game is one of few good things (even though bodies disappear and you can ruin it for yourself if you accidently buy the skill that turns victims to ash).

The same lack of emotion is tied to the Empress, and the daughter of the Empress, Emily, which the game is trying very hard to use as some sort of "emotional anchor" but falls flat because we know nothing about the little girl or her relation to Corvo. They share one scene where the shitty stealth is introduced at the very beginning of the game and we are supposed to see this elaborate bond between the two of them after that.


The art direction of characters leans towards the cartoony, that doesn't bother me too much though. What does bother me is the blatantly "inspired" by Half Life 2 details of the world that feel out of place. Guards on walkers patrolling the streets. None of the high tech elements of this game feel authentic in relation to the world and the weak attempts at explaining them are as half hearted as attempts to explain anything else in this game.

This game lacks a good story, good characters and decent replay value. It has a very weak "Stealth" mode element, and tacked on superpowers when in reality much of the game would have been a lot more interesting using the regular weapons.  While interesting the environments are all very small and very linear, the different approaches and ways of reaching your target are in reality not that mind-blowing when you look at them with a sober eye. There is no point of actually exploring the world because it is so confined and linear, which is a great shame because it feels like a waste of good locations (just as in the Metro 2033 game).

But the worst thing is the lack of consequence. For all the talks about "changing the city with your actions", and making life&death decisions with each assassination target - at the end of the day nothing makes any real difference. The ending is either "very good, or a bit darker" depending on your playstyle. They don't even bother to mention what impact your individual choices made, like in the Fallout games where at least they acknowledge the consequence of your actions. What happened to that you who you decided to spare, or what consequence did it have where you killed every person from a family instead of just that one marked target? I thought the ending of Deus Ex: Human revolution was tacky and ignored all of your choices, but at least it was deeper and explained a little bit about the world and where the science and human nature of that world in the game was going. There is also a mysterious lack of ambient sounds and a good soundtrack in this game that could have made the whole experience more immersive. The few pieces that are in this game are extremely forgettable. Even games that I don't like, like Bioshock (because of the crap run-and-gun combat that belonged in Unreal: Arena rather than an atmospheric game like Bioshock). Bioshock managed to create amazing atmosphere with evocative music and ambient sounds during those few moments without whacky enemies running around in your face.

This is a game that has a lot of good ideas, but which is very disjointed and all over the place - not excelling at anything. I think it could have been really good if it actually allowed the player to move through the city of Dunwall like in the Thief games. This would also allow the consequence of your actions and your status as a fugitive to play a larger role. It should have dropped the superpowers completely as they just don't make sense and make the game too easy regardless of difficulty (many of the powers are also completely useless within the context of the game and problems you face). While not being a disaster, I just don't think this game is better than a 6/10. I really can't understand all the 9/10 that critics gave it. Are people really that starved for anything that isn't another Call of Duty title that they will slap a high score onto anything that wants to appear cool and original even though it's not really that good? It's not nearly as entertaining as it should or could be and it doesn't fully embrace the stealth aspects.

For a more satisfying stealth oriented experience go play Thief III: Deadly Shadows, Hitman: Blood Money, Deus Ex: Human Revolution or any of the Splinter Cell games. Those games also have a much more immersive story and better gameplay.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for the detailed review. I was curious after seeing the trailer, but dubious about the game generally. I think I'll give it a miss...

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  2. Jim, you can always satisfy your curiosity once it drops in price later down the road.

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  3. Wow you seemed to have the opposite gameplay experience to me. I thourouly enjoyed it. My biggest issue was that the game didnt give you enough room to grow, your powers could have been much more fun had you got access to a city filled with life rather then the mostly abandoned back alleys you get to play in.

    I felt the combat to be very well polished, and had skyrim had similar mechanics id have had a much higher opinion of that game.

    The Stealth rout really was too easy, I finished the game very quickly my first play through which is the opposite of thief games where being stealthy requires much more patience and effort.

    But the real fun is when your lopping off heads and using your powers in combat. Honestly id recommend to most not trying to ghost your way through, in that sense its a letdown.

    I belive the only thing the violent approach actually effects is the number of weepers and rats around the city. I did notice more guards fighting the weepers my second time through. It would have been nice in an open world setting if stores would shut down due to plauge, riots started against the rich and areas sinking or comming out of poverty depending on your actions but its their first time into the franchise, and with its success id put money on there being a second attempt, maybe with more effect on the enviroment.

    As for the outside and the "steam punk" setting, I loved both. I get the feeling the outsider is a god who wants to do a social experiment. he has the ability to grant a man almost unlimited power, he gives it to a man who could destroy everything he loves or rescue it. The outsider is the bored kid with the magnifying glass and an ant farm, he just wants to see what happens when he stirs up the hive. Hes not good or evil.

    Overall I felt the game was enjoyable, but not open enough to really feel as powerful as you could have been. At-least the assassinations aren't like assassins creed that claimed to have multiple approaches and all ended up exactly the same with 5 mins of unskipable dialogue after each one.

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    Replies
    1. I replayed it with a violent (homicidal maniac) approach and found it to be a tad more fun and maybe even more satisfying - which I don't think was the intention of the developers. I would have wished for something more along the lines of Thief series. I would also have enjoyed the missions more if they were a bit more detailed like in the Hitman series with various disguises and such.

      Yeah the empty back alley locations didn't really do much fo me either, it would have been a lot more fun to roam freely in a densely populated city creating chaos or blending in. I just found the level design to rarely if ever really engross me :-/

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