Dishonored: A nice change of pace


— 12:03 AM on October 19, 2012

Warning: minor spoilers follow. If you haven't beaten the game and want a completely untarnished experience, don't read this!

Good single-player games are somewhat of a rarity these days. Way too many titles emphasize multiplayer over single player, and those that don't usually offer frustratingly linear experiences, with cut scenes punctuated by hours and hours of repetitive gunplay. (I'm looking at you, Max Payne 3.) Notable exceptions include the handful of open-world RPGs out there—but those are repetitive in their own way. After so many side quests and dungeon cleanups, the Skyrims and Fallouts of this world start to feel like second jobs.

I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up Dishonored last week. The game has no multiplayer component—the developers say they were never pressured to add one—and while it's very much story-driven, Dishonored gave me free rein to approach missions as I liked. I could jump from rooftop to rooftop and silence guards with sleeping darts. I could sneak through the sewers and try to avoid the zombies plague victims roaming there. Or I could stab and shoot my way from start to finish, taking down everyone who got in the way.

The game offered an impressive set of tools to speed things along, too. After a few upgrades, I was able to teleport silently behind enemies, stop the passage of time, and briefly possess foes, The Exorcist-style. If I'd favored aggression over sneaking, I probably would have chosen some other powers—like the one that conjures a swarm of plague-infested rats to devour an unlucky target. Mmm.

That's only part of the reason I enjoyed Dishonored so much, though.

This game has a unique, captivating atmosphere, which is something few other titles get right. The designers managed to put together a totally believable alternate universe that is different enough to feel otherworldly but consistent enough to seem genuine. All that talk about getting an industrial designer on board wasn't just a load of hot air, by the looks of it. Everything in the game world, from the costumes and architecture to the furniture and whale oil-powered electric devices (don't ask), feels like it belongs and serves a purpose in that strange, pseudo-19th-century universe. The fact that everything is so well tied together is pretty cool, and it makes you want to explore and discover—not just cruise along to the next checkpoint.

Some have poked fun at Dishonored's plot for mixing and matching disparate elements, but I think it works, if you suspend your disbelief just a bit. More importantly, the plot isn't about a cartoonish struggle between good and evil. If I had to sum it up, I'd say the story is about how power both attracts and corrupts. There are shades of gray here—moral dilemmas that have no easy solution; characters that do bad things despite good intentions. The protagonist may be an assassin, but assassinations are only one way to dole out justice. Usually, you can snoop around, learn a bit about each target's backstory, and find a non-lethal alternative to their murder.

I got drawn in so much that I balked at killing pretty much anybody. Could I justify murdering city guards who were misled into believing I killed their empress? Could I assassinate a noblewoman simply for being the antagonist's lover—or kill a brilliant scientist for serving the wrong cause? At one point, the game even gave me a choice between torturing a character and finding a way to bribe him into revealing sensitive information. I picked option B. It involved a little more effort, but it worked, and the character ended up joining the resistance later.

It's refreshing to see a video game story try for a little nuance and complexity, and I think Dishonored's makes a very respectable attempt. Of course, you don't have to be the good guy. The lethal approach is just as much fun as sneaking around, and judging by some of the videos on YouTube, it's possible to become quite a prolific killer. (I expect I'll start a second playthrough to try that out soon.)

If I had one complaint, it's that Dishonored's developers made their inspirations a little too obvious. The game looks an awful lot like Half-Life 2 in places. Yes, I know the art director is the guy who designed City 17, but it feels like he should have mixed it up a little more. Also, following the non-lethal path feels a bit too much like playing a Thief game. I'd have appreciated some new twists to character AI beyond the same old basics—multiple levels of alertness, pre-programmed patrol routes, and so forth—that are the bread and butter of seemingly every stealth action game.

Oh, and why the heck is the left mouse button bound to the weapon in your right hand, and vice versa? Come on.

   
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