Friday, November 9, 2012

Dishonored Review

A Watercolor Painting of Revenge

Behold! The beautiful, but troubled city of Dunwall.
Your name is Corvo Attano. You are returning from a trip back to your home of Dunwall, where you serve as the protector to the Empress, who dispatched you to find aid to cure a plague that has beleaguered her citizens. However, shortly after your return, magical assassins infiltrate the tower and murder the Empress before your eyes. Before you can recover from the shock, her daughter is kidnapped, as well. To make matters worse, you were (conveniently) alone when this happened, so as soon as the assassins disappear from existence, the guards are there to accuse you of murder. So begins Arkane Studios' new game, Dishonored. From there, you begin a tale of conspiracy and revenge as you try to find the Empress' daughter, Emily, and right what's been wronged.

The first noticeable feature of the game is the design and the amount of thought put into it. Although for the most part, objects are rendered realistically, there's a layer of cel-shading, creating a beautiful watercolor effect over the environment. Body forms are exaggerated to have overly broad shoulders and large hands on men and skinny legs and long necks on women. The effect enhances the fantasy but also creates an internal dilemma between the violent actions you're asked to perform and the actual impact that killing caricatures could possibly have. Still, the game is a marvel to look at, and all elements of the design serve each other well. After the opening moments, Dunwall becomes something of a military state, mostly defending the rich from the diseased poor who wander the streets like zombies. During the course of the 15 to 20 hours the game could take you to finish, you will see both plague and opulence juxtaposed in colorful glory next to the military machinations and decorations of the ruling party.

He's thinking, "I'm a knife, knifing around. Cut cut cut cut cut cut..."
As with any game featuring open environments, you will also see some technical errors - characters stuck in geometry, disappearing bodies, dancing corpses, the sudden inability to move forward, and the like - but none of these happen often enough to detract from the experience that much. The worst offender would be overused character models and spoken lines. Encountering two identical guards in combat in a world with such character is kind of a let down. Similarly, after playing the game twice, I'll be happy if I never hear one guard ask another guard if he thinks he'll get that promotion. Here's a hint: he won't.

Gameplay seems most akin to Deus Ex: Human Revolution in terms of the options set before you. You become an assassin like those who wronged you, so you're mostly expected to lurk in the shadows. However, compared to it's half-brother, Dishonored leaves you better prepared to handle enemies when they are alerted to your presence or, at the very least, prepared to disappear from their view and lay low. After completing an introductory level (Sneaking 101) and some exposition, the game gives you a magical ability, Blink. This is granted courtesy of The Outsider, a character who is much like Satan in the Book of Job in the way that he opts to meddle in human affairs from the sidelines. Blink allows you to teleport to a location in view and ultimately becomes the most useful traversal ability in your possession. As you progress, you can find runes to gain more abilities or upgrade existing ones, both active and passive, and there are bone charms to discover which provide buffs to combat and magic as you equip them. Like receiving a treasure map, The Outsider also gives Corvo a standalone beating heart which can point out where to find these collectibles. It is strange, to say the least, and the voice inside it is never clearly explained.

No, nothing seems right about this at all.
In terms of navigation, I'd say Corvo is the most capable first-person platformer since Faith from Mirror's Edge, only the feats you're expected to perform are much simpler to execute given the slower pace. The most noticeable convenience is the automatic climbing mechanic. While you can't run up walls like Assassin's Creed, pressing the jump button near a climbable object (read: nearly everything) results in a very quick but fully animated hop onto the top of it. If you encounter a ledge, holding jump makes Corvo surmount it. Thus, there is little jumping distance or height estimation involved. Automation takes the height while Blink takes the distance. Beyond this amazing but obvious leap in platforming, Corvo has capable running and sneaking modes when needed.

Stealth itself is handled gracefully, and I encountered no omniscient AI. For those who are interested, I was playing on Easy mode, so it is possible the NPCs are all-seeing gods on the harder difficulty settings. Although a first-person perspective makes it troublesome to know when you are out of view, the game makes it simple - if you can't see an enemy, he can't see you. This is made fallibly untrue when using the lean mechanic, though, which allows you to peer around objects without being seen even though your head would technically be sticking out. I won't deny its use, of course, and I can only assume it makes up for your ability to see around the protagonist in games played from a third-person perspective. Other abilities also help out stealth, such as Dark Vision, which lets you see people through walls along with their cones of vision, and Bend Time, which lets you slow down (or stop with an upgrade) time to navigate around obstacles quickly. Another rule set clear is that stealth mode mutes your footsteps while it reduces your speed and vision height. All of these things work to make first-person stealth very satisfying while maintaining the challenge of remaining unseen. Another compensatory gift Dishonored offers is an extended reaching distance, both for grabbing items and dispatching foes when sneaking up on them. The reduced guess work is a great bonus.

A beautiful shot from my favorite mission in the game.
The choice between being stealthy or blatant isn't the only one presented to you. Choice is the shining light of the game. First, many of the environments present multiple pathways to your objectives. Getting from point A to point B could mean navigating back alleys, carefully crawling along exposed ventilation shafts up high, or finding an unaccounted-for rat tunnel between two buildings. Next, completing your objectives typically involves a layer of player choice. Despite being an assassin by trade, you are able to lay the no-fail choke hold on NPCs to make them unconscious. The game even has achievements based on the number of people you kill or don't kill for those enthusiasts. [I'd like to note that there is a known bug regarding receiving the Ghost and Clean Hands achievements. I won't be specific because spoilers, but you can find out about it on internet forums out there. To the developer's credit, Harvey Smith, the co-director of the game, said they are presently looking into it. This does not affect gameplay or overall enjoyment of the game, only two specific achievements.]

Furthermore, if not suggested to you by a primary character, Corvo will typically come across additional side quests. Some of these have multiple tracked steps while others are a matter of being in the right place at the right time, for example, to stop an over-zealous guard from killing a civilian for a health elixir. The rewards for completing these tasks range from safe combinations to runes to newly revealed ways to reach and complete your objectives. I talked to every NPC I came across on one mission, and that resulted in finding a man willing take my target away instead of performing the kill. All of these are nice touches, which encourage exploration and reward completionists for their extra efforts while not penalizing those who opt for the quick and dirty. The game is essentially yours to shape. While not a negative, the amount of abilities you unlock along with the weapons you find will outnumber the amount of either that a typical player will use during a given play session. Mission structures are fluid enough that no one ability or weapon is required to move on. As a designer, I would be disappointed to create a neat ability only to see someone ignore it, but it also speaks volumes about these designers that they are willing to let players arm themselves as they see fit. I can't think of a single moment where I was funneled into doing something specific to finish what I was doing.

Speaking of shaping the game, your actions do have a binary set of consequences, though. Killing your targets alone will not have much of an effect, but going on killing sprees increases the chaos level of the game. This results in a larger level of armed guards and plagued citizens as Corvo reaches the final hours of his efforts. Reaching the last level of the game is vastly different depending on whether the overall chaos level is considered low or high, and your objectives will be satisfyingly altered to compensate. While I won't speak to the specific details, I would like to note that the ending to the game is clearly biased towards the low chaos approach, resulting in a more rewarding though equally brief cinematic at the end. In contrast to the slew of trailers and demos Arkane Studios provided demonstrating the multitude of fun and fulfilling ways to dispatch your enemies, the game ends up admonishing you for doing so. My personal suggestion is to try for a no or low kill playthrough first for the achievements, the challenge, and the "good" ending and then follow it up with as relieving a slaughter as you can muster. Dishonored does warrant multiple playthroughs if only to exercise more choice and change your overall approach.

While there is so much to enjoy about Dishonored, I wish the story was on par with the gameplay and the presentation. I do appreciate a game that puts more of itself in my hands, but many of the explanations for your environment and even your abilities come from books and notes you can find along the way to your objectives. Of course, many of those are in the optional areas, so someone just flying through the game is not presented with much depth to this fully-realized world the developers have created. The game then becomes a list of targets to remove from the world somehow with an exciting twist somewhere along the line. The biggest failing is that Corvo is a silent protagonist in a story that practically demands his input. He's the one who's been framed for murder, and he's the character who should be most motivated for revenge, especially given some later revealed facts (if one stops to read them). However, because of his silence, he becomes the least invested in his own actions. None of your mission objectives are choices made on your own; they are all assigned, and that's unfortunate for a game that boasts, "Revenge solves everything." It isn't revenge if you're assigned the people to exact the revenge on. Though I take little umbrage with the silent protagonist in games in general, it acts as a glaring omission in this narrative.

However, don't let this rather specific problem sway you from playing an immensely satisfying game. The amount of choice it affords you is better than other games that force the player into trial-and-error situations until he or she discovers the developer's intent. Here, every way you get there is the right way, and every action you perform is rewarding somehow. There's nothing like playing a game that is adept at both conflict and stealth and keeping them fun.

Go for the beautiful kill (or don't)!

1 comment:

  1. Hey Gil, great article! It summed up the pros and cons in the game, and you elaborated with your own opinion. It could've appeared in Game Informer :). Also, it made me want to go through my second playthrough of the game. And good thing you're so anal about grammar and punctuation - you can be your own editor. :)