Dishonored and XCOM came out on the same day in the United States, doing few favors to the free time of serious gamers. As for me personally? I haven’t had any free time in the past six months. It’s been one very long, very exhausting sprint of professional responsibilities, leaving me scarcely time to check my email, let alone immerse myself in games. I haven’t seen anyone socially in months. And then Dishonored and XCOM arrive, both on the same day, and of course I bought them both because I’m me, and here I am trying to insert slivers of play time no wider than acupuncture needles here and there into the unyielding mass of my schedule. Luckily I think that’s a light further on down the tunnel, so hopefully things will go back to normal soon. And I have been finding a little time to play.
You’re On Her, Your Honor
Dishonored comes from Arkane, which in and of itself surprises me. The studio has been around for quite a few years now, but it’s never actually made a good game – nor, in fairness, has it made a bad one. Arkane’s work has heretofore been extremely, profoundly okay: Dark Messiah of Might and Magic was okay. An earlier attempt, the unusual subterranean RPG Arx Fatalis, was okay. You could tell that Arkane had talent, and creativity, and was pretty good technically, but I never really saw the company being able to break out of a sort of mediocre mold.
Imagine my surprise, then, with Dishonored, a game hit so far out of the park that the park is but a speck in the rearview and still falling away. Dishonored makes me think differently about Arkane, to think that maybe with their earlier work they were just kind of feeling a way toward the accomplishments of which they felt truly capable if they could only find the path. The company did make some important staffing additions crucial to this game (Deus Ex: Invisible War lead Harvey Smith, for one; and former Valve art director Viktor Antonov, who was largely responsible for the bleak stone-and-angled-metal dystopia of Half Life 2’s City-17), but what’s truly amazing about Dishonored is how good it feels. I mean, that in itself is not terribly amazing, it’s just that I wouldn’t have expected it from Arkane.
I suppose the above paragraphs would probably read as pretty offensive to anyone who works for Arkane. That’s really not my intent. Dishonored doesn’t strike me as accidental. Instead, it strikes me as proof that Arkane has always had a lot of capability and is now really beginning to realize it.
Arkane – and they have made no secret of their influences – basically took the best of Thief, Half Life 2, Bioshock, Deus Ex, and Assassin’s Creed and rolled it all into a game. It hybridizes a mission-based first person sneaker with large, sprawling environments that create the perceived affordance of an open world without actually being one. Overlapping, often conflicting optional objectives and a myriad of potential solutions to your problems result in a sense that you can go as you please and do as you please, provided, of course, you stay within the general parameters of your mission.
A Dish Best Served Cold with A Side of Jellied Eels
That mission is revenge, revenge for the dis on your honor. You’re Corvo Attano, Lord Protector (read: bodyguard) to the Empress Jessamine of Gristol and her daughter, crown princess Emily. Corvo is a trusted advisor, even a friend to the Empress, and Emily adores him. So there you are with a nice government job, the opportunity to do some traveling, the ear of a hot Empress and a delightful little girl to play hide and seek with.
But Jessamine is murdered, brutally, and Emily gets snatched by the assassins and to a casual observer it would totally look like you did it and before you have a chance to say “that was a really good frame-up,” you’re in prison getting poked with red-hot pokers, less than a day away from your big showy public execution. The city’s ruling elite planned it and even stop by the prison to make fun of you for falling into their trap.
Gristol, and its capital city of Dunwall, is a panoplytic merger of various architectures, technologies, and cultures. Swords and flintlock pistols coexist alongside electric lights, combustion engines, and even robots. Fascism is the watchword; religious orders control speech and belief with inquisitorial authority. The punishment for practically every infraction is death, street gangs clash with the City Guard, religious police kidnap children in the night and initiate them into their order. Poverty shares streets with opulent wealth, homeless scrabble for dumpster food in the shadow of eight-story manses. Dunwall is a cold, hard-edged mixture of Orwell and Machiavelli.
Oh, and there’s a terrible plague that’s already wiped out about a quarter of the population. The sick are in agony for days before bleeding out through the eyes; plastic-wrapped corpses pile in the streets and many doors are heavily barricaded and marked as plague homes. It’s spread by rats, this plague, and the rats of Dunwall have recently gotten out of control. Even the rich have rats. The streets teem with them. Alone they’re nothing to worry about, but rats get smarter in groups, and rat swarms can strip a man to the bone in ten seconds. No wonder people on the street curse and stomp every rat they see: one or two often indicate a coming swarm.
The influence of City-17 and the City of Thief are in evidence here, obviously. Dunwall is a little of both. But it’s also its own place; Dishonored isn’t a straight copy of anything. This world has a vast mythology and a lot of unique character, almost all of it kind of… horrid. The food, for god’s sake… brined hagfish, potted whale meat, jellied eels… “bread” is the most normal thing I’ve eaten in this hellhole of a city where concentrated whale oil is used as fuel and people protect themselves from evil spirits by carving out totems of bones and walrus tusks, only to be hauled away and executed for blasphemy by the religious Overseers.
Corvo’s escape is inevitable, and he soon hooks up with a sort of resistance that’s fighting against the High Regent (the guy actually behind the murder of Empress Jessamine and the kidnapping of her daughter). The resistance sees the former Lord Protector as the final piece of their revolutionary puzzle – trained in stealth and combat, he can systematically eliminate their political enemies and get his revenge at the same time.
Of course, everyone thinks Corvo murdered the Empress, so they stick a big mask on your face to wear when you’re out on assignment. It’s… not particularly subtle, but in this gloomy, diseased metropolis of rebreather-clad assassins and Overseer enforcers hidden behind terrifying golden masks that resemble smiling children, you stand out less than you might imagine.
I have a feeling that Dishonored is going to get to this, but it kind of goes without saying that the country wasn’t a nice place for most people to live even when Empress Jessamine held power. Oh yeah, everyone makes it clear that things have gotten worse since her death. And she seemed like a nice lady. But even so, the autocratic stranglehold of life in Dunwall doesn’t seem terribly new. The poverty is endemic, the strict lines between the aristocracy and the people weren’t drawn in days or weeks. Dunwall is a city of Haves and Have-Nots, though the plague is remorseless about taking them both. I am curious if part of Corvo’s journey won’t be about the realization that it wasn’t until his life was shattered that he truly understood the world in which he lives.
I’m playing through Dishonored very slowly – about halfway through the second assassination mission, actually, which amounts to maybe six or seven hours of play. Each major mission is huge, practically a world unto itself, and what a world it is.
A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys, A Steerpike is a Dumbass
They’ve been really pushing the concept of choice in this game, choice in how to approach your objectives, how to infiltrate secure keeps, how to play Corvo. Stealth versus violence is the least of it. Right now I need to get into a brothel, for example, and I know of at least six ways in, of varying degrees of effectiveness, and those six are all either doors or windows. I haven’t yet checked to see how the brothel is hooked up to Dunwall’s sewer system; I haven’t investigated chimneys or hiding in delivery vehicles or using one of Corvo’s unexpectedly-gained magical powers to possess a rat’s body and skitter through a crack in the wall. Any or all of them could be valid. Occasionally the game itself will pause and remind you to look around and be creative.
Complex, forward-thinking decisionmaking is a hallmark of Dishonored. Who you kill and how you kill affect the attitudes of your allies, affect the behavior of the guards, even impact the course of the plague. My very first assassination target presented me with a number of options, none of which were ideal. At least one was easy, and would guarantee that I’d never be considered a suspect, but it would result in someone else being accused of the murder. Another was straightforward but would have meant a bloody running knife-and-gun battle to the exit. A third had potential but would require amazing stealth and, frankly, for me to trust someone I’d never met before. A fourth came across as the most cold-blooded, but also the most likely to get my primary objective completed without raising an alarm.
You see a lot of this in Dishonored. Choosing whether to use the rooftops or the alleys as your main path from place to place. Casing a building and finding a way in that suits your purposes. Messing with the City Guard’s automated security systems. Luring rat swarms toward foes by gobbing severed human limbs and viscera into a Hansel/Gretel trail of gore for the vermin to follow. In fact, the most difficult thing about the range of player choice in Dishonored is that I at least don’t always think as nonlinearly as the game allows, and I feel like I’m doing it, or myself, a disservice.
So though I laud the inclusion of choice in games, it also sometimes makes me feel bad when I’m actually playing such choice-laden titles. If I elect to go across the rooftops instead of going through the sewer to get to my objective, I somehow feel guilty for “skipping” the sewer. This isn’t a rational thing, and it’s not the game’s fault, but it’s an interesting aspect of granting choice in entertainment.
One of the nicest things about children, and one of the things that adults lose when they grow up, is the ability to not care about “playing it wrong.” Kids play in a pure sense. I have lost that ability.
With games like Dishonored, I often can’t help but feel that I’m playing it wrong. The developers would shake their heads at this and say there’s no wrong way to play Dishonored, and they’d be right. But that wouldn’t stop me feeling it sometimes.
Not Among Thieves, Though
The PC system requirements are surprisingly high, so check under the hood if you want to go this route. It is a little surprising, though, since Dishonored shows no signs at all of being a hardware hog. It makes spectacular use of Unreal 3 technology and shows off fabulous visuals, practically nonexistent load times, and bedrock-like stability. A generous person would call my PC high end – I have a Core i7 2600K with 16GB and a GeForce 560 on Windows 7 x64. That’s well within the recommended specs but hardly top of the line; Dishonored is capped at 60 frames per second and I have never seen it drop below 59. I guess it might not be the most graphically punishing game in the world, but it looks amazing, and the performance (especially the ridiculous non-load times, less than a second) tells me that this game is super well-optimized. Honestly, if you’re above the minimum specs you’re probably going to be okay.
The biggest complaint I have about Dishonored right now is a really weird one. Corvo carries his knife in his right hand and keeps his left free for some other tool – gun, crossbow, readied spell, whatever. Knife is your primary weapon, and a left click swings it, which is very standard for first person games. But for some reason the visuals of it here, the knife so evidently on the right of the screen, and often having a gun or something so prominently on the left, is very disorienting. It’s the visual disconnect between which button I’m using and which hand is executing the action. That’s bizarre because left click is almost always used for the primary action, and primary weapons are almost always in the character’s right hand in a first person game, but in Dishonored I often accidentally click wrong. I can’t explain why, but I’d love a way to switch the visuals (not the controls), so Corvo’s got his knife in his left and his secondary in his right.
In general I can’t say enough about this game, at least based on the handful of hours under my belt. I mean, it’s basically Thief in all the right ways, with a bunch of roleplaying elements and a deep new world mythology to explore. This is a game I’d have expected from Looking Glass, not Arkane; that Arkane managed it tells me I’ve been unfair to the studio all along.
The two top contenders for game of the year came out on the same day. XCOM is everything it ought to be, an absolutely monumental reboot of one of the best games ever made. Dishonored is a slurry of many influences, so I guess you could claim that it’s not “original,” if you don’t know the meaning of that word, because it is so very original in so very many ways. On my personal scale, right now at this moment, it’s edging out XCOM for the top spot. The year’s not over, but these two titles are a million miles better than the next best of 2012. I find it hard to believe something could possibly supplant them.
Now if only I had no job and no demands on my time.
Make squeaky little rat sounds at Steepike by emailing him.