Dishonored is just the shot in the arm the gaming scene needs

Dishonored Xbox 360 cover artIt’s January, the weather’s horrible outside and no-one has any money – in other words it’s the perfect time to stay in and rattle through a few games from my epic games backlog. No doubt my Australian blogging companion Sir Gaulian is currently sunning himself in the 42 degree heat of the land down under, with games being the last thing on his mind as he tosses another shrimp on the barbie and puts his feet up on a wombat, but for me the cold weather has provided a chance to get some serious gaming time in, and I’ll post the fruits of my labours over the next few days.

The first game to be plucked off the shelf was Dishonored, which is the game I’ve been most looking forward to playing since I bought it about a month ago. I’m glad to say it didn’t disappoint.

It’s quite a brave move for Arkane/Bethesda to release a brand new IP into the world so late in the console cycle: with the Xbox 360 and PS3 in their twilight days, game sales have dwindled away, and most publishers have been relying on sequels to tried and tested mega-franchises, like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, in order to generate much-needed sales. The gamble with Dishonored seems to have paid off though: it topped the charts on its release, and it’s popped up in pretty much every ‘game of the year’ list going.

Dishonored screenshot 1

In terms of actual gameplay, there’s nothing particularly new about Dishonored, and you can feel the influence of a range of games. There’s a heavy emphasis on stealth assassinations, which gives the game a feel of a first-person Assassin’s Creed, and the visual style is very reminiscent of Half-Life 2 – unsurprising really as both games share the same visual designer, Viktor Antonov. In particular, the ‘tall boys’ – biped armoured transports with spindly legs – brought to mind the Striders from Half-Life 2, and some of the later enemies are particularly reminiscent of the Combine. However, I felt the most obvious influence was from BioShock: the combination of a weapon in one hand and mystic powers in the other harks back to the plasmid/gun combo of BioShock 2, and there’s also a BioShock-like emphasis on reading and listening to the many books and audio logs scattered throughout the game in order to learn more about how the game world functions.

So perhaps you could argue that really the game is more like a greatest hits package of all the games that precede it, but even though in some sense it’s derivative, the resulting game certainly feels like a breath of fresh air. The chief reason for this is the elegantly crafted world of Dunwall – the game world feels solid and real, burdened with a great weight of history. Every visual aspect has been lovingly crafted and placed with care, backed up with reams of backstory detailing the motivations of each character and the history of the buildings you walk through. Take Greaves Lighting Oil for instance: one of the game’s brilliant conceits is that in place of crude oil, whale oil is the dominant energy resourse in Dishonored‘s world (something that actually echoes real history). Throughout the game there are references to Greaves Lighting Oil, a company that produces whale oil, and gradually you learn that the oil factory was abandoned after flooding, causing whale oil prices to rise. More than that though, you learn of the cost of industrialisation as high-tech factory ships take over and workers are sucked into the hellish conditions of the whale rendering plants, where child labour is exploited while factory bosses rake in profits. Eventually you arrive at the ruined factory building yourself and get to see at first hand the results of the economic and environmental forces that have wreaked havoc on the city.

Dishonored screenshot 2

It’s the enormous background detail like this that really sets the game apart and allows you to become fully immersed in the world it presents: a beautifully dishevelled fantasy Victorian city, dominated by steampunk machines and tainted with an undercurrent of mysticism and corruption. Visually it feels unique, despite the slight nods to Half-Life 2, and I particularly loved the art style used for the main characters, who have deeply etched, beautifully ugly faces matched with outsize hands and elaborate costumes. Just wandering through the world, admiring the view and reading its history is a delight in itself.

The other thing that makes the game feel unique is the much talked about ‘Blink’ ability, which lets you teleport short distances. It’s a brilliantly empowering tool – just point the cursor somewhere, tap the left shoulder button and you’re magically whisked across the gameworld to the disbelief of watching guards. Chaining successive Blinks allows you to zap yourself out of trouble, slip silently past guards or dart stealthily across rooftops, and it’s an ability that never grows old no matter how much you use it.

Dishonored screenshot 3

However, my absolute favourite aspect of Dishonored is the way it presents you with so many different ways to complete each meticulously crafted level. Each goal can be approached in multiple different ways, such as when you’re tasked with infltrating a high-class party to assassinate the mistress of the High Regent. First you have to get inside: but do you freeze time to sneak past the guards, hop across the rooftops to find an open window or possess a hagfish to sneak in through the sewers? Once inside you need to identify your target, but do you opt to wheedle information out of the guests or sneak through the top-floor bedrooms in the hunt for clues to her identity? As with all of the levels, I initially approached the house with the intention of gaining the ‘Ghost’ achievement for gliding through the level completely undetected, but – inevitably – I was spotted within about ten minutes, and the level quickly descended into a bloodbath, leaving the guests cowering in corners and causing my target to lock herself in her bedroom. I spent ages hunting for a key to the room before I realised I could just smash the door in with a grenade and incapacitate my victim. Job done.

I never did get that Ghost acheivement.

[As penned by a dreadfully unstealthy Lucius Merriweather.]