Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Dishonored (PC) - Review

Honor among rats.
(With spoilers)

Dishonored has floated around in my peripherals for quite some time, ever since I first read something about it somewhere that made me realize it was a stealth game of some sort. This was probably around the time it was released in 2012, I suspect - I can honestly not say when I first heard of it. I do know that it never really left me though, and I kept coming back to it as a game I really wanted to try out. For some reason I kept stalling it however, until now, when I finally decided that enough was enough and it was time to get it done. Considering Dishonored takes inspiration from one of my favorite games - Thief - and is designed by designers from another of my favorite games - Deus Ex - it seemed like a match made in heaven and a dream game from the start. No wonder it wouldn't leave me alone. Big wonder I didn't get to it sooner!

I'm glad I did though, because the inspirations are clear and make for an overall lovely experience.

What I've mentioned above is pretty much all I knew about Dishonored going in to the game but I instantly liked it and its almost-as-if-painted graphic aesthetic. Visually it wasn't going for full realism and I enjoyed it all the more for it because it gave the city of Dunwall a unique feel to it. After I had managed to get my lighting settings into a satisfactory state (originally I could barely make it out of the first area because I couldn't find my way in the dark) I looked around to see a gameworld well realized and that felt realistic enough even when twisted into the shape the game designers needed for the gameplay.

The story is not what makes the game memorable - Dunwall has been struck by some sort of plague, and people are dying by the dozens. The Empress is killed and you (Corvo) is framed for it. You have to find your way out of prison and join a group called the Loyalists, for which you complete a series of missions to rid the city of its new Lord Regent to allow for the daughter of the Empress, Emily, to take her rightful place on the throne. Initially I was hoping the story would unfold to uncover who, or what, has unleashed the plague on the city. I felt it was hinted at early on in the game and was a bit disappointed when that is never fully explained (at least not in my playthrough). While there is one interesting twist towards the latter half, the story plays out pretty conventionally and even the twist isn't used to its full potential.

They've employed some famous voices, like Susan Sarandon and Lena Headey, for the voice work but overall there isn't enough of the story for the voice work to be of much importance. If there is something I would've loved to see more of it is a fleshing out of some of the side-characters, which seem pretty promising when you first encounter them but don't get the screen time they deserve. Like Granny Rags, voiced by beforementioned Susan Sarandon. Crazy for sure, but also apparently important enough even for the Outsider (the mysterious force who endows you with your powers for pretty mysterious reasons) to make special mention of her. Why exactly that is isn't further explored, neither do possible story paths you take with side characters get enough room either if you ask me.

It was instantly obvious that inspiration had been taken from Deus Ex, where the stages offered up several different ways of taking on the goal. You could choose to go rampage and murder anyone that stood in your way, or sneak your way in. Just as in Deus Ex you can also choose not to kill "bosses" if you find another way of neutralizing them or to achieve your goal.

Overall I found that most stages did a good job at giving you fun ways to explore the areas and find different ways to go. Some of the most fun I had in the game was to perch myself high up early on in a stage (the ones that allowed it), survey the area and plan out how I would play it in my head before executing. Sometimes, even most of the times, there would be something in the way that required me to rethink my plan and that only made it all the more fun. In this way Dishonored often felt like opening a puzzle box, looking through all the information you had and trying to figure out how to solve it.

Deus Ex did a better job than Dishonored in making the different paths offered seem logical and realistic, often in Dishonored I would wonder why someone who has so many guards still chooses to have a huge open sewage leading into their mansion or open hatches everywhere (I'm not saying Deus Ex didn't suffer from these problems, but somehow they felt more glaring in Dishonored). It is clear that the designers of Dishonored have let nothing stand in the way of fun gameplay, and I have no problem with that. Because of this, Dishonored makes you feel like you're in control of the path you're taking, whereas in Deus Ex it's more rigid. Jumping from pipes, rooftops and hiding behind dumpsters is an acrobatic joyride - the areas are littered with opportunities to explore them.

Early on you're given a teleport magic/power that allows you to travel quickly a short distance in any direction. If you want, this is the only supernatural power you'll have to aid you. If you want to make things (I suspect considerably) easier, there are a handful of other magics that can aid you in your missions. The Eye that allows you to see enemies (and if upgraded alarms and items) through walls almost feels like cheating however, it made the game very easy. On the other hand, it allowed for a different kind of playstyle and planning which was also highly enjoyable. Not using this skill would probably make the game a lot more difficult than I found it.

There were many powers I didn't even try out, either because they required killing enemies to be used or because the game was easy enough with the powers I had. Because of this I never tried out the "possession" skill for instance, that allows you to mind control enemies, neither did I try out a skill that allowed you to summon a pack of rats to attack enemies with. There were a couple more skills and it would definitely be fun to try to play the game with a different setup.

The NPC's have also been dealt the "fun over realism" treatment, with most enemies about as smart as two thick planks. Enemies will not notice when the people they are patrolling with are missing for instance and are, at least on normal difficulty, extremely easy to sneak up on. Reading on Wikipedia I see that the game designers didn't want to make the mistake of Thief where the player can pretty much hide in plain sight as long as they stay in the shadows - I feel that this game did little to change that however, as most of the time you can stay out of the sight of enemies without much trouble at all. But it is really your choice whether you want to make it that easy for yourself. Like I said, playing without any additional powers would probably make the game a whole lot harder even on the normal difficulty. I opted instead to use some of the powers for the enjoyment of being able to explore the areas more freely, allowing me to try different angles of attack or side-missions.

Side-missions, or optional goals, are basically the chance to help people around the stages that aren't otherwise related to the main quest line. Here as well you're sometimes given several options as to how to deal with it, you can either help them, betray them (which sometimes gives you some other benefit) or just ignore them. One example was one of the later stages where a group of survivors of the plague are holed up in a house. You can choose to help them escape the city or you can alert the guards to their presence. If you choose the latter, the guards will be temporarily busy fighting the survivors, making the stage easier to traverse for you. This of course leads to a lot of replayability if you want to try the different options presented to you.

Because of the plague in the city you will also fight the "weepers", plague victims that are not yet dead but mad from disease. I wasn't too happy when these were introduced to the game as I am easily frightened by anything remotely zombie-like. Dishonored also has a very interesting design choice which means that the more people you kill, the more weepers the stages will hold. Even before I knew this I had decided to kill as few people as possible, but this definitely increased my motivation ten-fold.

I had an interesting experience early on in the game that definitely left an impression and lasting memory. I was on a mission to help the criminal Slackjaw uncover who had infected his men (it was me). He had already locked some weepers up in a caged area on his premises. When I left Slackjaw's chambers to leave his premises, I noticed that the weepers had gotten out of their cage somehow and were fighting Slackjaw's men outside. I was perched above on some pipe, watching them battling it out and it was genuinely creepy. Who had let out the weepers? Were they going to kill Slackjaw while I was gone too? I don't know if it was scripted, but it really made the city come alive and the eeriness of the situation felt real.

I've so far mentioned that I am not too fussed about game designers who choose fun gameplay over realism (in the cases where it's either/or). In one area I was a bit annoyed however, Dishonored doesn't allow you to shoot out lights (at least not the couple of times I tried it) which was something I was counting on after having played Thief, in which it is basically mandatory throughout. I feel like this would've been a great option to using the magical skills, and it is a double-edged sword as it simultaneously alerts enemies to your presence. I also would've liked for the AI to be a couple of notches smarter than they are in the game - maybe that requires the harder difficulties.

As mentioned I would've loved for some of the characters to get more room and development and some of the storylines to be further fleshed out. In the end it pretty much comes down to me just wanting more of this game and it almost feels like they've had to leave a lot on the cutting board. Maybe this is where multiple playthroughs come in, as I've only done one so far I can't say for sure that there isn't at least some more for me to discover about each character and storyline.

Overall though, Dishonored is a lot of fun. I rarely hammer out games where I play them intensely (as intensely as I can with two small children) until I am done, but I did this with Dishonored. At first I thought it was a bit short when I had finished it after 15 hours, but with the replayability and sheer vastness of options offered to you I find it a pretty fair length. Still, I was a bit sad to hit the end and I am very glad there are more games in the series, which I am really looking forward to trying out.
While it is not as intense or memorable as Thief and not as slick as Deus Ex, Dishonored is a lot more playful - the kind of game where you can almost see the game designers enjoyment reverberate throughout every thoughtful idea. If you enjoy stealth games I would say Dishonored is a must-play.

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