Anticipation and hype are often seen as the key ingredients in launching a new property in the ever-crowded games market; visibility of your product and positive word of mouth are vital to ensuring you can be heard over the background noise, but it can also be a tricky balance to maintain. Dishonored is the most high profile release from developer Arkane Studios and with a pedigree stretching back to Deus Ex and System Shock 2 it has a lot to live up to, rightly or wrongly. Thankfully the finished product is more than worth the wait. For a specific type of gamer Dishonored feels like a cool refreshing glass of water proffered up after a long trek through a desert of linear, scripted first person shooters. Prioritising freedom and choice it plays like a series of sandboxes, trusting the player to explore and daring them to experiment whilst still retaining the accessibility and streamlined nature that characterise modern games. It’s a heady blend of old and new and arguably one of the best games of the year.
As the game starts you find yourself in the shoes of Corvo Attano, a royal bodyguard returning to the city of Dunwall, a once great capital crippled by a spreading plague. Within minutes of your arrival however things go awry, an elite group of assassins murder the Empress, framing you and disgracing your name, leaving you to wait in a prison cell for your inevitable execution. With some help from a mysterious source you are soon able to escape the dungeons and unite with a small band of resistance fighters holed up at a remote and seemingly abandoned pub on the outskirts of the city. This area functions are the game’s hub world and from here the story becomes one of revenge as you complete missions to eliminate those who engineered the attack and seek to restore the rightful heir to the throne.
Gameplay wise Dishonored tips its hat overtly to the stealth action games of the past, most notably Thief and Deus Ex, prioritising systems and abilities over linear narrative and allowing each mission to be a free-form experiment for the player to test out. You are typically led to a level with a concrete objective in hand, and an optional side mission which typically offers either an alternative to your central objective or a whole series of side missions you otherwise would not have seen. For example in one level you are charged with identifying and eliminating (though not necessarily killing) a target at a lavish masked ball. Not only are there multiple ways into the ball itself – through tightly patrolled streets where fighting your way through is ill-advised or over rooftops and via abandoned buildings – but once inside you can choose to snoop around restricted areas to discover your victim’s identity, or chat to various party guests and complete side missions to gain the same knowledge.
At all turns Dishonored promotes choice, handing the power over to the player and stepping neatly out of the way let them get on with it. It’s an invigorating feeling and one that really succeeds when coupled with a hugely enjoyable series of abilities and controls that make navigating the world of Dunwall a pleasure. Central to this is the Blink mechanic which is basically a short distance teleport but its implementation is so good it revolutionises the gameplay experience and removes so many of the hassles usually associated with navigating a world from the first person perspective. It opens up the verticality of the levels and adds a puzzle-like quality to some of the missions, as you plan your way across the tops of lampposts or across narrow ledges, darting into open windows and moving silently into cover. It makes traversing the world pleasure and although the game advocates for all gameplay styles in practice the gameplay seems optimised for a mix of strategies, the ability to save anywhere makes up for some slight lapses in the stealth mechanics which can occur early on as you try and gauge what you can get away with, what guards range of vision and movement is and how your skills work. Later on it does become more natural, and the combat has had a lot of thought put into it as well so should you plans go awry it’s not always necessary to start over, unless you really want to do it properly. The achievements for not killing and alerting any guards are more like extra challenges, a lack of any progress updates on these stats mid-mission though can make them frustrating and the game is more enjoyable when you aren’t worrying about that stuff; work out your own morality, your own code and stick to it for a more rewarding time.
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