Dishonored: A Review by Comparisons
I’m going to put this right out there: Playing Dishonored over the last week has been one of the most gratifying gaming experiences in recent memory. So much so that I’ve been all but ignoring the new XCOM game (also good), and plenty of other games that are excellent in their own rights, and haven’t regretted their absence in the slightest. This is in part because it feels so fresh, so new, so vibrant, and in part because it’s also been an exercise in nostalgia.
When it comes to reviews, I’m not usually a fan of game-to-game comparisons. For one, they seem like a weak approach to explaining a game’s appeal (or lack thereof), since the comparison often comes at the expense of any actual expression. For another, too often the threads of connection are tenuous and frayed, or to a game I haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing, or, perhaps, to one that I didn’t comprehend the merit of. So let me assure you that I have tried very, very hard to figure out a way to talk about Dishonored without at least mentioning the games that it is emulating, copying, or bettering. Tried and failed.
See, in an industry filled with grinning suits and safe bets and a well-entrenched hype engine, Dishonored feels like a fulfilled promise, or at least a reasonable attempt at one. So let’s talk about its heritage. Not its exact heritage, since I’m not a professional at this, but the heritage that was on my mind as I skulked from one end of the half-mystical city of Dunwall to the other.
Though first, let’s talk a bit about Dishonored on its own.
The game begins with you, Corvo Attano, Lord Protector (read: hand-picked bodyguard) to the Empress, returning from a long and fruitless voyage to find a cure for the Rat Plague. The capital city of Dunwall is rotten with this sickness, with all the gang profiteering, looting, homemade remedies, upended social life, and military crackdowns that go along with it. You meet a handful of people in blurring succession — the grumpy Renaissance Man, the uptight Spymaster, the dour Abbey headmaster — and meet with both the Empress and her daughter Emily. These last two are assuredly Good People. The Empress is concerned about her citizens, and not only because their illness means the city is being blockaded. She seems like one of those rare worthwhile autocrats, and her daughter is clever and sweet and looks up to you with such innocence and trust that only the coldest specimens could deflect the paternal feelings that Dishonored so clearly wants from you.
Unfortunately, some mysteriously-gifted assassins abruptly end the Empress’s life and disappear with Emily, leaving you to take the blame. Which you do, for six months, in a cold and nasty prison, under the meticulous attentions of the royal torturer.
On the eve of your execution, you escape, meet up with a band of conspirators who hope to find Lady Emily and put her back on the throne, and are visited by The Outsider. This last is a mysterious and otherworldly figure who seems motivated out of amusement. He grants you magical powers, such as the ability to teleport forward a short distance or summon a boil of rats out of nowhere, and sets you loose.
“Revenge Solves Everything,” the game’s tagline tells you. That might as well be written with a question mark, because for much of the game you’ll be determining just how much vengeance you’re hungry for. You’re an assassin, searching for Emily as you dispose of the pretenders that have seized power, but paradoxically you don’t have to extinguish a single soul. Yeah, it’s one of those games. Much like…
Deus Ex (2000)
One of the best compliments I can lay at Dishonored’s feet is that it exists in a decidedly post-Deus Ex world. It acknowledges the existence of that masterpiece that many still consider to be the seminal work of choice-based gameplay, and does so in a time when so many games still occupy the drab-hued rawk’n’biceps world of military shooters. It shouldn’t be out of the norm for a game to offer players fundamental choices about how to play, or consequences to their actions, or even eccentric and wonderful worlds to explore, but for some reason, it is. There are exceptions, naturally, but they are surprisingly few and far between, at least in the AAA industry.
Dishonored honors (ugh, that sounded intentional) the premise of Deus Ex. It lets you surmount its challenges in a variety of ways, and I daresay many of its tools are even more interesting than the ones Deus Ex offered. Instead of a choice between lockpicks, multitools, and hacking, Dishonored has teleportation, possession of animals or even enemies, and daring acrobatics. You don’t just pick between guns, but between flammable darts and rat swarms and wind gusts and spring-loaded landmines. There are choices to be made, almost always many ways to go about making them, and a wider world to read and hear about. It permits that same ponderous gameplay that Deus Ex excelled at — at any given moment, Corvo will possibly be within an hour of the level’s exit, but there is so much to explore, to take in, that it’s easy to lose oneself to abandoned apartments filled with discarded journals and theater plays and incidental stories, or hunting for runes or bone charms to enhance your power, or toying with ways to traverse the urban landscape. The first proper mission could have easily taken me forty minutes, but because of the wealth of things to see, documents to read, and people to meet, it took me the better part of four hours to complete the first time.
In a sense, it’s more Deus Ex-ish than the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution. DX:HR was a good game, one that I enjoyed significantly, but where it succeeded in providing solid gameplay and talking seriously about human augmentation, it lost a bit of soul to dry reading, boss fights, boring secret bases, and inconsistent oceanic superstructures. Deus Ex was slapdash and insane, every possible conspiracy and anti-government rumor crowded into a blender and set to “high,” but there was a sort of mad babbling consistency to it. Dishonored is similar: the blend is equal parts Victorian sensibility, Industrial Revolution grit, whaling shanties, and oppressive imperial governments, and it’s somehow unified in that.
BioShock series (2007, 2010)
Although it’s trendy to dislike BioShock these days (almost as trendy as it was to debate Objectivism back when it was popular), it pulled off some solid tricks, a few of which have carried over into Dishonored.
The first is sort of a mixed bag. Unlike Deus Ex, BioShock had no inventory, at least not in the grid-based bring-what-you-want sense. Instead, every item had its own limit, so your hapless protagonist might be carrying 300 rounds and a machinegun he would never use, but he couldn’t cram more than 20 tripwire bolts into his pack (I know these aren’t exact amounts, and I staunchly refuse to look it up). Nevermind that the original Deus Ex also did this when it came to ammunition, it still forced you to choose between which weapons and items to haul along on your conspiracy-solving. BioShock and Dishonored opt for a different system. You bring everything along, at least everything useful. While it does do away with some of the fun factor of Deus Ex, like that time I tried playing through the entire game using pepper spray, fire extinguishers, and those pathetic one-shot plasma pistols, it does streamline things considerably. In Dishonored as in BioShock, none of your powers or items are useless (not to be mistaken with thinking they’re equally useful), and it’s a joy to switch between them during combat.
Combat, by the way, feels like a much-polished and vertically-enabled version of the combat in BioShock 2, in which you could make use of both hands. In Dishonored, you’ll perpetually have your blade in one, then whatever else suits the situation in the left. I’m hard-pressed to think of a stealth game with combat as smooth as the stuff found here — if it were a car, I’d be putting all sorts of positive adjectives in front of the word “handling.” Earlier today, while trying to reach one of the traitors who had imprisoned me, I tossed a sticky bomb onto a guard, froze time while I jumped from a ledge to land blade-first on another, set two spring-mines by the door, and shot a third with my pistol as time sped up again and the mines (and sticky bomb) exploded behind me as reinforcement flooded into the hall. As easily done as written.
The strongest inheritance from BioShock, however, is a sense of geography. In BioShock, not only were the locales distinct and brimming with ruined beauty, but there was a distinct sense of place. The city of Rapture was the game’s second protagonist. Dunwall plays a similar role, and it’s especially nice to be able to stand on the shore and catch glimpses of levels past and to come — seeing the inhabited bridge from the distillery district, or the lighthouse on the horizon, or the palace looming imposing against the skyline, helps maintain the illusion that Dunwall is a living, breathing space rather than just a series of levels.
Thief series (1998, 2000, 2004)
Like the Thief games, Dishonored is fundamentally a stealth game. Even if you’re planning on wiping out everyone in your path, it’s generally wise to silently scout your targets first, identifying technology (such as the hero-vaporizing Walls of Light or Arc Pylons, or the armored Tallboys) to avoid or subvert, enemies to pick off before the fighting starts, escape routes, hiding places. The stealth itself is critically different, being based on line-of-sight and elevation (your enemies are intensely interested in their feet, so perching even a short distance above their heads will often be sufficient unless you give them a reason to look up) rather than shadow. I was concerned about this at first, but my fears were allayed after all of half an hour — it’s functional and satisfying, especially given the verticality of many of Dishonored’s levels, which provides ample opportunity to creep about on rooftops.
Where the real comparison appears is once again in their respective cities, both of which are technological marvels built over shaky magical foundations, with old ways competing against new industry for primacy. Both host militant religious orders dedicated to uncovering and controlling the more mysterious powers of their cities, and with good reason, considering the unpredictable nature of that power. In fact, one of the few weaknesses of Dishonored is that I wish it had delved more into its mythology, which is difficult to nail down, if only because it embraces such a unique and new aesthetic. It’s not steampunk, for there is no steam power, and we couldn’t call it oilpunk, because that’s the best description of the nightmare world we inhabit. I guess the closest would be whalepunk, since everything seemingly derives from those malevolent leviathans, both technology fueled by whale oil and magic from whale bone.
Pathologic was one of the weirdest games I’ve ever played, and it’s probably the least-recognizable game on this list. It was about a semi-mystical town in Russia that was descending to the ravages of a mysterious plague, and about an oddly-matched trio working against all odds to figure out the source of the sickness, and to bottle it up. It was buggy and unpleasant and fascinating all at once, full of brilliant ideas and horrendous gameplay.
One of its better aspects was watching the town crumble around you as the plague intensified, and observing the efforts of the government to dam the ever-growing tide of disease. First a few sickly infected, then soldiers, then hazard-suited flamethrowers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t any fun to play. As in, not at all. Not even a little.
Dishonored gets this right. Dunwall’s own plague is gradually chewing through the girders and rotting the floorboards, and the pace of the disease is partially dependent upon your actions. Swarms of rats and plague-zombified “weepers” roam the streets, making life more difficult for both you and the city watch, and can even be used to your advantage. It’s the most visually convincing attempt at urban decay I’ve seen yet, including from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise, and yet the game is so breezily playable that I was cursing the rats, not the asinine user interface. I’ve longed for a playable version of Pathologic, and I suspect Dishonored is about the closest I’m going to get for some time.
Half-Life 2 (2004)
It’s easy to see many of the same influences between Half-Life 2, especially in its Eastern European City 17, and Dunwall. The Tallboys resemble and even sometimes sound like Striders, metal bracers support bygone architecture while cables span the gaps, and an oppressive speaker system announces the goodness of the ruling regime while inflicting oil bans and curfews. It’s no surprise, given that both were conceptualized by Victor Antonov, and they’re sufficiently different as to not be distracting, but now and then I would round a corner and think for a moment that I should see Combine soldiers bearing down at me rather than the patrolling Dunwall watch.
There are a hundred other things I’d like to say about Dishonored, and maybe at some point I will. This will suffice for now: Dishonored has made it onto my Top Ten list, which is no mean feat, since it had to bump something else off of it. It’s sublime, and at the absolute least, it’s trying to inhabit the world left behind by excellent games, not satisfied with being yet another installment in yet another cloned franchise.