Friday, December 21, 2012

Games Review: Dishonored

I got to the end of Dishonored, and the game made me feel like a bad, bad man. Having finally rescued Emily, the young girl you've spent the game trying to protect, she looked at, and told me her plans with something terrible in her voice, and something changed in her face. She had learned, not from the things done to her, but by the example I had set her in my quest to free her. Just for a moment, I shivered at the "bad ending" that I had created.

You see, my tendency in any game that gives me the choice is the be the "good guy". If I can proceed non-lethally, I will. If I can save people, I do. If there is a happy "rainbows and unicorns" ending, then, dammit, I want to earn it. But I decided this time that just for the hell of it I was going to be the bad guy, and kill and burn my way through the world. So yeah, I pretty much deserved a bit of a telling off by the game, but in many ways I don't think it made a lot of difference to my gameplay experience.

So, Dishonored is set the Steampunk-styled Whaling City of Dunwall, which is facing a severe outbreak of plague. This situation is not helped when the Empress is assassinated in a palace coup and you are framed for it, being released by a conspiracy of "loyalists" who wish to place her daughter on the throne and "restore" things to as they were. Your role in this is the do-er of deeds, a shadow in the night sent to remove obstacles to their path to power and your quest for vengeance. To be honest the plot of Dishonored is a little thin - it's nicely realized but there isn't a lot to it. It is really just a frame that the two big strengths of the game are hung - it's gameplay, and Dunwall itself.

This is a stealth game in the vein of classics like Thief and last years Deus Ex: Human Revolution. You are dropped into an environment, you have a set of abilities and an objective, and pretty much left to your devised as to you approach it. Guards can be avoided, knocked out or killed. Security fences can be circumvented, shut down and in some cases turned on their owners. Once you start accumulating powers you can possess rats, or dogs, or even fish and access new pathways. Each level is a twisted, wonderful playground for you to traverse as you see fit.

This also applies to your assassination targets, who can be non-lethally removed as well. It's not always a nice method of removal, but unlike say, DX:HR's horrible boss fights, there is no jarring disconnect at the climax of each mission. Me, I was killing them all anyway, but even so the options presented always led to interesting little vignettes and bits of world building. Which brings us nicely onto Dunwall itself.

Whilst the story of Dishonored is lacking, the world itself isn't. Rather than smother you with exposition about the city, the game is littered with books and journals for you to read, and early on you are granted The Heart - a fusion of metal and flesh that lets you find certain power-up items, but also tells you secrets about the world and the people in it. Point it at someone, and it tells you their hopes and fears and dreams, use it in a place and learn about the deeds done here. Dunwall is a city drenched in sadness, a city built on the death of the great Leviathans of the Sea, a crumbling ruin striving upwards but pulling up the ladder behind it. It is a striking and clever piece of world building, that lets you absorb it, or not, as you see fit.

I've been absorbed by Dishonored, just happy to spend time it it's environments. The gameplay is fantastic, and tense, and lethal or non-lethal, discovery always feels like failure, and those moments when you slip unseen across half a level like a ghost to destroy a target are enormously satisfying. I just feel guilty that I chose to be the villain, and let Emily down.