Monday, October 22, 2012

Dishonored: a classic in the making

I was interested in Bethesda's and Arcane Studio's new game Dishonored ever since the first teaser and details were released. A first-person stealth shooter with RPG elements, set in a new and original steampunk setting with supernatural elements? How does this NOT sound like Thief games? Thief 3 is definitely in my top 10 PC games, but if the first Dishonored game is any indication, then its sequel (or sequels) will make its way on this list as well. This game is wickedly fun to play, with a well-crafted setting, where only the story falls somewhat short of expectations. Dishonored offers a tantalizing glimpse into Bethesda's and Arcane Studio's new original IP (that's intellectual property), that I look forward to exploring further in updates and hopefully sequels.

The game's setting of Dunwall city is strongly based on England undergoing the throes of Industrial Revolution of 19th century. Here, technological advancement, economic growth, and strange steampunk technology are made by the use of whale oil, which in this world has all sorts of strange applications. The references to whale hunting, whether through in-game books, whaling ships, in-game advertisements, and so on, have prompted many to refer to the setting as "whale punk". The city of Dunwall is suffering from a terrible plague, as well as political corruption, crime, and the effects of Industrial Revolution. The character whose actions the player controls is Corvo - a bodyguard and adviser to the Empress who rules Dunwall and the Isles Kingdom (not so-subtle Britain, down to its own version of rebellious Ireland - here known as Moray). Corvo is framed for the murder of the Empress and kidnapping of her daughter, and must work to regain his honor (hence the title). His work will involve much skulking about, slashing of throats, backstabbing, choking out the guards, and possessing people and animals. To accomplish his goals Corvo joins forces with a loyalist conspiracy which provides Corvo with weapons and tools he needs, and a strange god-like entity called the Outsider who gives Corvo supernatural powers to give him an edge.

The gameplay is that of a first-person shooter, combined with some elements of an RPG, and strongly resembles the Thief series, as well as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Bioshock games. The player has access to a number of weapons (sword, pistol, crossbow) with different ammo types, traps and grenades, and a host of supernatural powers. The powers are quite varied and very colourful, and can be combined in interesting ways to create mayhem. Corvo can "blink" to higher ledges or behind enemies (for assassination kills or choke-outs), slow down or even stop time, see in the dark and see through walls, and possess people and animals. The most imaginative power by far is that of the heart. Corvo carries a still-beating heart that not only displays the runes and bone charms (more on them in a bit) in the area, but also offers interesting and creepy facts about whichever objects, people or setting that Corvo is facing - occasionally I just went around pointing that heart at everything I could think of in a level. The mystery of the heart's identity is a neat one and is strongly hinted at throughout the game.

The fun comes from figuring out how to use these weapons, tools, and powers in creative ways to bypass obstacles and achieve goals. One of the most gruesomely hilarious ways I've found was to wait until a large group of enemies was clumped around me, freeze time, attach a razorwire mine to one of the enemies, then stand behind that enemy and unfreeze time - instant ground meat! Another worthwhile tactic was to re-wire arc pylons (electricity-powered doom cannon) to target enemies instead of me, and then lead the guards on a merry chase towards it (although after the first couple of guards got zapped, the enemy would then try to cut off the power supply - the AI in this game is quite good). Although Corvo is sent on missions, rather than exploring a sandbox world like Skyrim, within each mission there are many different ways to accomplish tasks. The more people Corvo kills, the more chaos spreads through the city, occasionally making progress more difficult, but it's also a lot easier to just hack and slash through the level rather than carefully sneaking around and exploring every different nook and cranny. The strategies the player chooses alter the game experience dramatically. Corvo can also choose to pay for different upgrades to his gear to suit the player's style, which is further added to by runes and bone charms. Runes can be used to purchase and upgrade supernatural powers, while bone charms provide small but persistent bonuses. The trick is that the player cannot gather enough runes to buy and upgrade every power in the game, and can only equip a maximum of 6 bone charms (while there are easily three times as many).

The setting is very atmospheric and begs to be explored. There is probably over a hundred in-game books, notes, audio recordings, and dozens of conversations that the NPCs have with each other (and can be eavesdropped on). The game takes place for the most part in an urban environment, from city ruins, to flooded and plague-ridden districts, sumptuous noble mansions and brothels, and various military installations. Unlike the setting of Thief which is strongly medieval despite primitive steam power technology, Dishonored feels 19th/20th century, with quasi-modern military fortresses and facilities, and even a nod to Half-Life 2 here and there (some of the building designs are very clearly influenced by HL2's City 17). Fully exploring each mission level is rewarded with information about the setting, money, gear, and is just worth it for the sake of fun. Running through each level doing the bare minimum would ignore probably 90% of the game. One minor quibble I have with the setting though is that it seems almost too bright. Most missions take place during the day, which just seems out of place. But maybe I'm used to Thief's perpetual gloom.

The story, unfortunately, falls rather short of the gameplay and the setting. It's very predictable, with few genuinely interesting characters, and all the twists can be seen coming a mile away. There are some limited dialogue choices, but the player is always presented with only two possible choices (precisely one dialogue in the game is an exception to this). Curiously Corvo is not himself voiced, so while he is clearly talking to NPCs (unlike Gordon Freeman or the protagonist of Bioshock), the player only hears the audio for the NPCs. Corvo really doesn't have that many lines that he couldn't be fully voiced, so I found that to be jarring and disappointing. The story also lacks an emotional punch that it could have - I didn't find myself caring much for any of the people I encountered or even the main character. There were a couple of interesting characters (a certain blind wizened woman and an honorable gang boss come to mind), but for the most part the characters were cliche-ridden stereotypes. What I did find gratifying about the story is that the choices Corvo makes throughout the game (even the innocuous ones) have a strong bearing on later levels and the end of the game. Help one character out when you didn't have to, and later s/he will help you right back. Finally, I quite enjoyed that the game could be played without killing anyone, even the supposed assassination targets. There is always a non-lethal way to take out or bypass a guard, and likewise assassination targets could be captured, blackmailed, or be dealt with in ways that do not involve sharp pointy objects.

What I really wish is for Dishonored to have pushed the envelope further, and I hope it sells well enough to warrant a sequel. It's not a long game - I explored each level as fully as possible and it took me 20 hours to complete, although I am planning on playing it again to get a different ending. It also hints at many mysteries in the setting that are not explained (the ruins of an older nameless city, a village of witches, the Deep Ones - a reference to Lovecraft's "A Shadow over Innsmouth" or simply another name for whales?), and locations outside of Dunwall that sound like they could be fun to explore. Dishonored is a great new original IP which pays homage to both classics like Thief, and newer hits like Bioshock and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I can't wait for the sequel, here's hoping it will be darker, more sprawling, and expand the setting further.