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.

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