Dishonored: a game of subtlety and nuance

Dishonored is kind of like an onion: the deeper you delve, the more layers you reveal.

Not layers of yucky onion-ness, which tastes disgusting and makes your mouth taste funny, but layers of gaming goodness that reveals itself the more you peel back.

Dishonored is a game where the more you sit and wait, the more you explore and investigate, the more you learn about the world around you and the story behind it.

It’s a game where you can stealth your way through missions, skulking from cover to cover, roof top to roof top, carefully memorising the patrol patterns of guards before teleporting to the next safe hiding spot, ever closer to your target. Or you can take the ‘‘Come one, come all’’ approach and confront every guard you came across – either lethally (hello Mr foldable blade) or non-lethally(hello neck choke). The makers of Dishonored have left it up to you how you want to approach things. Isn’t that nice of them?

I have to admit that I tried to remain stealthy as much as I could – using rooftops and pipes to travel above the gaze of patrolling guards  – but sometimes I failed miserably, mis-timing a jump and landing noisily between two guards, forcing me to pull out my pistol and blade and take them on. Soon, the bodies were piling up.

You take the role of Corvo Attano, former protector of the Empress of Dunwall who was brutally murdered by a society of magical assassins. Her daughter, Emily, is kidnapped. Attano is framed for her murder and imprisoned but escapes, vowing to avenge the Empress’ death and clear his name. Dishonored is set in a steam punk-inspired world that plays a bit like the classic game Thief – skulking through the shadows and all that – and has nods to Bioshock about it (it may not surprise you that developer Arkane Studios helped in the art direction of Bioshock 2).

Visually, Dishonored looks like a sumptuous water colour painting, with big daubs of colour everywhere, and Dunwall is a society with whales to thank: whale oil powers security systems and machinery, but since the Empress’ death it has succumbed to crippling plague and a tyrannical ruler.

While weapons come into play, Attano’s real power lies in his left hand through magical powers given to him by the mysterious Outsider, who we never really learn much about but whose legend is scribbled on walls around Dunwall. The powers come through collectible runes carved from whale bone, which imbue Attano with a variety of powers like teleportation, possession (both animal and human), slowing down time, summoning up a plague of rats and wind, which knocks enemies over. Teleportation – or blink – was perhaps my most favoured power, meaning I could zip from point to point largely unnoticed and I suspect completing the game with just that one power would be entirely possible.

Dishonored’s makers, developer Arkane, claim you can play the game how you want – stealthy or aggressive – but it seems the more confrontational you are, the darker the ending. It seems the higher your chaos rating – end-of-mission stats tell you how many people you killed, how many alarms you raised and whether you slipped through unnoticed – the darker the game’s tone becomes, with NPCs telling you they’re not pleased with how you’ve become, and rats and weepers – zombie-like citizens infected by the plague – more prevalent.

Dishonored surprised at times: I was chuffed that I was able to complete two assassinations without actually killing the target (although the outcome of one was perhaps not the best) and eavesdropping on conversations and reading letters and books often pays dividends  – and it is pleasing to see there isn’t a boss battle in sight: no final confrontation where you have to attack a foe’s glowing weak spot three times in quick succession before finishing him off with a well-timed button press.

Eventually, though, I realised that all-out aggression isn’t perhaps the best way to play Dishonored: stealth, cunning and a low body count seems to garner the ‘happiest” ending (although there are achievements which relish in how many people you kill within a specific time limit) – but by the time I realised that, it was too late: I already had too much blood on my sword.

Dishonored isn’t perfect: a quick save for the console versions would be nice, but it’s not game-breaking, and using the left bumper to select powers and ranged weapons was a little cumbersome at times (every now and then I fired my pistol thinking I had a power activated). Also, acid-spitting molluscs just seem to be there for no purpose other than to annoy the hell out of you.

When the game is finished, though, it’s not the bodies you left behind or the creeping about that you’ll remember most, but the subtle nuances revealed through the game’s world and environment, and the numerous layers that will be uncovered in multiple playthroughs. Dishonored is a game that is perfect for a return visit.

Decaying AI, disintegrating Prometheans and Master Chief: it’s Halo 4

Halo 4 has all kinds of pressure on it.

External pressure from the fans that it’ll live up to the standard set by the previous three games to feature the Master Chief, the game’s instantly recognisable hero. Internal pressure from new caretaker 343 Industries to deliver a knock-out blow with its first Halo game and take the series that launched with the birth of the original Xbox back in 2001 in a new direction – while still keeping things familiar.

After some hands-on time with the game’s campaign mode, I reckon 343 has delivered something special here: a game that stays true to the series started by Bungie all those years back but one that delves deeper in the Master Chief’s psyche and his relationship with his AI companion, Cortana, who is nearing the end of her lifespan.

AIs, we’re told, usually survive around seven years but Cortana is nearing eight years old, and it’s clear that Master Chief, the once stoic and usually untalkative combatant, is concerned that she’ll succumb to the AI equivalent of dementia. It’s an added element that he has to take into account as he and Cortana take on a new foe, the Prometheans.

Presenting a more human Master Chief is a smart move by 343 and after an almost five-year absence since we last saw the Master Chief, it’s good to see that 343 aren’t afraid to try something new. Look, I like Halo as a series but it’s not my go-to game when I want something to play. I always thought the genetically enhanced soldier was a little too robotic at times, but this time, he’s more in touch with his human side, and I like that. This is a Master Chief who is in touch with his humanity – and he’s also a lot more talkative this time around, which will please some and maybe annoy others. I liked it.

I played through the third mission in the campaign, which finds Master Chief and Cortana on a mysterious planet called Requiem, and this is the first time we’re introduced to new enemies, which prove smarter and when in a pack, tougher than Halo’s more common Covenant forces.

Josh Holmes, Halo 4’s creative director, advised us to dial down the difficulty a notch that we’re used to – and after facing off against Promethean knights and crawlers, I can see why.

Knights, while not that hard to kill on their own, especially if shotgunned to the head using one of their own Scattershot weapons (nicely disintegrating into a pile of glowing particles) – become more dangerous thanks to the watchers, which fly above the battlefield, regenerating wounded Knights and shielding them from Master Chief’s fire.  I found it pays to take out the watcher as soon as you can, preventing wounded Knights from healing, then concentrate on the advancing Knights and crawlers, which can surround you quickly and scale walls and rock faces.

Of course, with new enemies come new weapons – and the Promethean armoury doesn’t disappoint. While the weapons are essentially the alien equivalent of what Master Chief is used to wielding – shotguns, rapid fire weapons – ammunition for his standard issue weaponry is scarce so it pays to swap to a Promethean weapon as soon as you can.  Something I absolutely  loved with the Promethean weapons is that when you reload them the individual components almost explode outward slightly then snap back into place once the reload is done. It’s a small but impressive feature.

I learned pretty quickly that when overwhelmed by foes, using fast-firing weapons like the Suppressor and Boltshot initially to pick off fast-moving enemies from a safe distance worked extremely well – then I went in with something like the Scattershot to pick off the stragglers.

But it’s not only the Prometheans the Master Chief has to deal with this time around and I was surprised to walk into a fire fight between Covenant forces and the Prometheans. I stood back and just watched, not sure whether I should help either side. I eventually decided to wait until the Prometheans had wiped out most of the Covenant then took on the rest myself. The campaign finished with a revelation that surprised me – but Holmes asked us not to reveal what happened, and I’m going to respect that, for him and for readers.

As I said earlier, I’m not a fanatical Halo fanboi but I came away from my time playing Halo 4’s campaign – and some multi-player which featured mechs that can dominate the battlefield if you let them,  and the Spartan Ops mode (bite-sized chunks of co-operative episodic content) – pleasantly surprised and waiting for November 6, when the game is released worldwide.

Hopefully I’ve finished Arkane’s Dishonored by then (that, is a game that you need to play: it is something special. I’ll give my thoughts on that another time).

I think Halo 4 is an important addition to the series and a necessary one that has convinced me that Master Chief is actually human and cares about those around him, especially Cortana. It’s definitely going to be interesting seeing how the relationship between him and Cortana develops during Halo 4.