Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Dishonored

The Title Screen

Introduction
Released in 2012, Dishonored is a stealth-action game by Arkane Studios for Xbox, PlayStation and PC. Set in the first person perspective, it features a singleplayer campaign with more content coming in 2013 DLC.

Disclaimer: A mature game featuring fairly graphic violence, sexual themes/references and occasional strong language. This review will not feature inappropriate content, but may make references to it.


The First Thing
I appreciate time spent on good menus especially as a menu is rarely revisited. Dishonored shows considerable effort in this area, especially with regard to the PC version. Keys can be rebound, graphics can be customised and aim assist/acceleration/FOV can be adjusted. There are also many game related settings to tailor the experience to the player's individual taste. Nicely laid out, smooth animations and the same art style as the main game; the menu creates an impression of quality - which is continued in the in-game menu as well.


Plot & Devices
The land of Pandyssia is starting to fall apart due to a deadly plague. Returning from a mission abroad the Empress's Protector, Corvo Attano (you), returns home to relay his news. But tragedy strikes when the Empress is slain by magical assassins and her young daughter Emily is kidnapped in front of Corvo. Blamed for the murder and awaiting execution six months later, Corvo is set free by a mysterious group of individuals calling themselves the Loyalists who wish to return the rightful heiress to the throne. Endowed with magical powers from a mysterious being known as 'The Outsider', Corvo must become an assassin himself to uncover the truth behind the murder, the plagued rats sweeping the city and the location of Emily.

Corvo and Emily

The story begins very in medias res, and the player will just have to catch up. Corvo has a history, relationships and past which is alluded to. Plot is advanced primarily through in-game events and conversations; participated in or overheard. Cutscenes are few and far between, in favour of scripted dialogue where the player can not move. There are many notes and books to be found which all help flesh out the world and characters. Audio machines can be found occasionally which play a 'log', to further understand the setting and character motivations.

Corvo is presented as a silent protagonist but the player is sometimes faced with conversational choices that will have an impact on events. Although the game is set in a large world, the story is narrowly focused on Corvo, the people involved in the plot (and his rescuers) and Emily.


The Game
Dishonored feels the spiritual successor to the Thief franchise: first person, set in a steampunk-esque world, sneaking around and moving bodies, stealing everything that is not nailed down etc. The basic gameplay formula is: travel from hub to city, travel through streets to the mission area, perform mission, return to hub. Missions usually centre around a key person but it is important to remember that at no point is killing required. Just because you are sent to kill, does not mean you have to. It does not have a morality system per se, but actions have consequences and there is a 'good' and 'bad' ending derived from the amount of "chaos" you have created.

Planning is everything for a Ghost

The non-hub areas are open to the extent they reasonably can be and provide quite a few ways to reach objectives. Do you kill everyone or sneak in? Do you possess a rat and scurry in, or do you help a stranger who gives you a key? The surrounding area may feature someone who can provide help, but who often requires a favour first. There are not a great number of options available, but enough to provide different players with different experiences and enough to encourage a second run through to explore other possibilities and outcomes. There are often many items that can be stolen and are instantly converted into gold, that can be used on purchasing items or upgrades from the hub. There is no lockpicking mechanic; locked doors only open with keys.

For combat the player chooses from the tools offered. In his right hand, Corvo always carries a sword for deflecting incoming sword thrusts and inflicting lethal attacks on enemies. If an enemy is unsuspecting, an instant fatal attack will be performed. However, the player can opt to perform a non-lethal attack, rendering the target unconscious. Corvo has a health meter which red elixirs will restore, and attacks are quite harmful so avoidance is key. The left hand is for powers or gadgets. Gadgets include: pistol, crossbow (with normal/sleeping darts), spring razor trap and grenades and are for ranged or area damage. The Crossbow sleeping darts will render an unaware enemy unconscious instantaneously, or an aggressive enemy quickly. The left hand can also hold a fake heart used to find hidden upgrade Runes and Bone Charms (as well as whisper bleak messages to the player). Bone Charms provide more passive bonuses and the player can equip a maximum of six, if upgraded.

The Powers

Corvo's magical powers require the mana resource. The available abilities are: teleporting short distances, seeing through walls, slowing/freezing time, enemy and rat possession, summoning wind or swarms of rats. Powers with small mana cost, like teleporting, will regenerate that cost over a few seconds. However if a second ability is cast during the recharging, then that mana is spent. This makes teleporting an often used ability, but multiple re-uses for emergencies only. High cost abilities such as freeze time do not recharge much, as constant use would render gameplay trivial. Each magic power has two ranks and runes are used to unlock or upgrade them. There are also other four talents that provide passive benefits. There is a maximum number of mana or health elixirs Corvo can carry.

Stealth is core to the gameplay. There is no light/darkness mechanic often found in other stealth games, instead Dishonored opts for line of sight determining detection; if an enemy can see you, they can see you. But if you are above, below or behind an object then they can not. This 'Line of Sight' mechanic is only horizontal and enemies very rarely look up or down, which can seem a little unrealistic but no less so than hiding in shadows and being 'invisible'. Enemies will react to sounds and Corvo can crouch to move slowly and silently. The teleporting magic power is instantaneous and soundless; providing many stealth opportunities. Enemies have patrol paths, but do not always rigidly stick to them. Dead or unconscious bodies can be picked up and moved as their discovery will raise the alarm - it is possible to teleport whilst holding a body.

Observing enemies from above is a common strategy

As mentioned above, this is a good PC version. The graphics options are pretty complete, all keys rebindable, and the mouse implementation is top notch; which is good as this is a first person game. I found the controls perfect and responsive throughout. The graphics are of reasonable fidelity and I had a near constant 60FPS - except briefly at the start of each level as all textures were loaded. The mediocre graphical fidelity is hidden behind a very specific art style. Dishonored tries to emulate a watercolour-painting in its look that for the most part works quite well with the theme and era. However, character models look a bit strange, and certain areas look a bit washed out/faded. The sound effects are good, and the soundtrack is not particularly noteworthy - except when encountering packs of rats. Voice acting is of questionable quality, which is surprising given the named actors who voiced some of the characters.


Wrap up & Negatives
Dishonored definitely gives off mixed messages. It is caught between trying to offer enticement to being stealthy, and rewards for those who just want to kill everything. Most upgrades and powers are related to killing, and Corvo 'always' has his sword displayed - but completing each level presents a tally of deaths and stealthing success. The pseudo moral choice aspect is also confusing, and tempts to play without killing just to get the "good" evening. The game should just have one ending, and people should play how they feel like playing and not for some vague morality system alluded to in the loading screens.

End of level statistics recap

The gameplay is also a little inconsistent at times. Once or twice the enemy AI behaved a erratically,  demonstrating awareness they should not have. Sometimes placing a body on the ground makes a noise, sometimes it doesn't - and you can't really choose where to lay the body either; just the vague area below you. I never found throwing items to be an effective distraction either as they just came for me, and not where the sound happened.

Characterisation is a bit weak most of the time, despite having some 'real' actors for the voices. People seem a little clich├ęd, with no subtlety. Dialogue unrelated to the mission is quite unvaried, leading to the player overhearing many "Arrow in the Knee" moments. Having a silent protagonist was a mistake given that he's already well known, has a backstory and makes dialogue choices throughout the game. It just feels as if you are playing an exceptionally skilful, yet incredibly shy person.

In my opinion the gameplay could have benefited from a map, just to check locations and plan routes; perhaps also with slightly more complex levels. Block and Strangle being the same keybind was a little annoying too, as often I sneaked up behind people and "blocked" instead of trying to subdue them.


Personally
I am not sure how I feel about Dishonored. I did have a lot of fun as it appeals to the side of me that loves stealth, magical powers, exploring rooms to find hidden items, thinking tactically about how to approach objectives, etc. On the other hand, the story really did not pull me in and none of the characters felt emotionally engaging. It is hard to weigh up morality of sparing/killing a character when you really don't care either way.

This sort of game brings out my obsessive side, and took me twelve hours to complete. I always feel the most skilful approach is silent and kill-less, so I reloaded frequently to do it perfectly - but this was my own standard, rather than the games (although to be honest, perfect play is sort of encouraged). If I hadn't explored and attempted no-kill/ghost runs, it would have been much shorter. It is only nine missions and there is plenty of returning to previous areas. Those with a completionist mentality will find things to do however, with each mission offering hidden items and the opportunity for a no-kill/ghost run.

It's a good game, but with more content and a less clunky story it would have been great. I do not feel it brings anything particularly 'new', but is still a polished and enjoyable stealth-action experience. High up on the best games of the year lists, but not top. Killer rats will never seem the same though, that's for sure...



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