Dishonored ReviewPlatform: PC
, Xbox 360, PS3
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
UK Price (as reviewed): £27.99 Incl. VAT
US Price (as reviewed): $56.99 Excl. Tax
I want to be careful not to get caught up in hyperbole; I don't want to make promises that Dishonored can't keep and I don't want to go off on indulgent tangents or speak in blithe internet memes.
But Dishonored might be one of the best games I've played in the last ten years and, if you want to cut a long story short, you should know that I'm going to finish this article by telling you to buy it.
What makes Dishonored so good? It's tempting to go into excessive detail about the features and plot - the vengeance of Corvo Atano, framed assassin turned actual assassin, for example. In truth though, what makes Dishonored remarkable is best understood by taking a step back to consider both the creative aim of the team and also where Dishonored stands within the larger industry.
Firstly, the aim. At a surface level you can examine Dishonored in a variety of ways and label it as anything from an assassination simulator or stealth game to a steampunk shooter and RPG. You can call it an immersive sim or an FPS/RPG hybrid or anything you want, but what it boils down to is that this is a game about letting you be creative. This isn't a game which holds your hand all the way through or forces you to solve things in a certain way; it's a game which gives you a simulation of a space, a variety of tools and then asks you to apply one to the other. It does so in a way which isn't restrictive, but freeing - encouraging
This isn't just the aim of the designers by the way, it's also the major theme of the story. Framed for regicide in the London-inspired fantasy city of Dunwall, Corvo is locked up in jail and broken out by a loyalist rebellion - but before that happens he's paid a visit by an otherworldly being called The Outsider. Interested in seeing what Corvo's capable of, he bestows on him abilities such as short-range teleportation, possession and time alteration...and then departs, showing up only a few times afterwards.
The Outsider and the design team are one and the same, then; giving Corvo/You means and opportunity, but more interested in the process than the result. It could be like giving a handgun to a toddler or a textbook to a genius - and Arkane/The Outsider are merchants of mischief, desperate to find out which.
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What this means on a basic level is that Dishonored is a freeing experience. A lot of games talk about emergence and freedom, but Dishonored is one of the very few to have embraced these ideas meaningfully and utterly. Parts of the game will even change subtly depending on the sort of solutions you find; not in a grand story-determining sense (which would undermine the freedom), but tonally. Play maniacally and you'll see more rats and plague-bearers in the streets, while the later levels will be dark and rain-drenched. Apply yourself more delicately and the opposite will happen.
Of course, what with this being a modern game with such an extravagantly realised setting, Arkane have provided at least a few incentives and goalposts along the way. Even here the simulation of the world is kept consistent though and there's no arbitrary dolling out of XP or other metrics. The Outsider's gifts are levelled up by raiding his shrines, for example - and even then only by a few increments. Likewise, weapons don't magically improve themselves but must be taken to a workshop at the loyalist hub between missions, while subtler perks are bestowed by randomly positioned and selected bone charms throughout the city.
Expressed alone these design choices don't seem that important, but the result is cumulative and Dishonored becomes far more than just the sum of its parts. Examined piecemeal these decisions and others - such as the small size of the cast, so that even small changes become personally noticeable - seem clever, but not critical. As a whole though, Dishonored jumps into the elite cadre of games that can express complicated themes in a way that's both meaningful and respectful of your time and intelligence.