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Dishonored: A Taffing Codexian Review

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Dishonored: A Taffing Codexian Review

Review - posted by JarlFrank on Fri 2 November 2012, 20:56:57

Tags: Arkane; Bethesda; Dishonored

Dishonored, the new first person stealth/action game by Arkane, famous for their Ultima Underworld clone Arx Fatalis and their kicking-simulator Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, is by no means an RPG. But our beloved little Crooked Bee considers it enough of one to be worthy of a Codex review (well, you do play the role of Corvo Attano, so you might as well call it an RPG), and I'm excited by anything that claims to be inspired by Thief and Deus Ex, so here's a review of this game that many here were cautiously looking forward to. Considering the track record of Arkane and the games they were inspired by, Dishonored should be the wet dream of every connoisseur of complex exploration-heavy first person RPGs. You can approach the game's missions in different ways: as a stealthy, never-seen shadow or as a Victorian era Rambo with magic powers killing everyone in your way. Since I am an old taffer and the game actually tracks your amount of kills and whether you have successfully ghosted a mission, I've chosen the stealth path and will primarily review the game as a stealth game.

To kill or not to kill?

You are Corvo Attano, the personal guard of the Empress. Just as you return from a mission and reunite with her, she is attacked by assassins with supernatural powers who manage to kill her and kidnap her daughter despite your best efforts to stop them. They leave you with the dead Empress in your arms - and once the Royal Spymaster comes upon the scene, he puts the blame for her murder on you. You are jailed and confronted by the Spymaster - now reigning as Regent as long as Emily, the heir to the throne, is missing - who tells you that he is behind the murder because the Empire needed a strong ruler and the Empress was too soft. He thought that he would make for a much better ruler and had the Empress assassinated so he could become Regent. You're a convenient scapegoat and, about half a year after the deed, the day of your execution is near. But before that can happen, a "friend" slips a key into your cell so you can escape and clear your name.

So far, so good. You open your cell door, pick up a sword that some guard has conveniently left on a nearby table, approach a nearby guard who conveniently has his back turned to you and are greeted by a popup tutorial message showing you how to stealthily kill or knock out a guard from behind, also telling you that not killing anyone will lead to a better ending than killing everyone in your path. This is the point where an old taffer like me decides to go for a zero-kill playthrough, knocking out guards when necessary but not striking a single lethal blow in the entire game.

How not to be seen

It is very much possible to ghost your way through this game. In the prologue mission, this is still quite challenging - the AI is aware and can spot you rather easily. When they spot you at the edge of their vision but are unsure if they've actually seen anything, they will get suspicious and keep their head turned in the direction where they've spotted you. If they spot you again, they will immediately alert and run to your position with swords drawn. Overall, I found the AI to be more perceptive than in Thief - on a horizontal level, at least.

Vertically, the AI is almost blind. As soon as you climb somewhere that is above the heads of your enemies, they will not see you. The only time a guard managed to spot me on a high ledge was when he was already alerted and saw me climb up. When unalerted, the AI will never look up, so as long as you stay above everyone's line of sight, you're perfectly safe. The levels usually offer many opportunities to climb up high, be it on ledges, ventilation shafts or heating pipes, rooftops or balconies.

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Shadows, however, offer almost no protection from unfriendly eyes. They will make you harder to spot at long ranges, but at close or even mid range, guards will detect you even when you're crouching in the deepest shadows. It takes some getting used to for a veteran Thief player; hiding in the shadows is almost useless. Instead, you should hide somewhere above everyone's heads - in Dishonored, verticality takes over the function that shadows had in Thief.

Another important aspect in stealth games is sound. This is true in Dishonored, too. Your footsteps can be heard by guards, especially when you're running. When you enter sneak mode, however, you are completely silent. Not even jumping makes a sound when you sneak. Knocking over items, however, will always pull the attention of the guards to your position, so you do have to be careful where you step. When you have taken out a guard and want to dump the unconscious body somewhere, make sure there's no other guard nearby - I once happened to alert someone by dropping a body on a metal surface.

While the guards are very aware of sounds and can easily spot you when you enter their line of sight, they are completely oblivious to your manipulations of the environment. I once snuck up on a guard standing at a table reading a map, and managed to take the map and everything else lying on the table without him noticing. They don't notice when doors that should be closed are left open, either. They do notice electric defense mechanisms being switched off, though - but all they do is comment on how those whale oil tanks run out too quickly, rather than refuel the device or even just check on it.

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Overall, the AI seemed a bit more aware to me than it was in Thief, but it's roughly the same in capabilities: it can see and hear the player, but it doesn't react to any environmental manipulations. Some Thief Fan Missions and The Dark Mod have an AI capable of noticing open doors or switched off light sources, so it's slightly disappointing to see that Dishonored doesn't incorporate any such more advanced AI behaviours. One positive surprise the AI gave me was that sometimes, guards would notice that a comrade is missing and would take over his patrol route, if it was a more important route than the one they currently had. In one of the later levels, I took out a guard who held a position that overlooked the entire area, only to see another guard take his place a few minutes later. One slightly silly feature of this game’s stealth system, however, is that you cannot be seen when leaning as long as your body is behind cover. So you can stand at a corner, lean to your right to check out the hallway – and nobody will detect you even if you lean right into somebody’s face.

And while the game does have a stat screen at the end of each mission telling you how you did, including a “ghost” checkbox, the ghosting rules of Dishonored are quite different from the “official” Thief ghosting rules. Just like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored has a very lax definition of ghosting. The only thing that counts is not to be seen by a hostile AI. You can knock out or even kill as many guards and civilians as you like, as long as you’re never seen doing it. Even discovered bodies do not break your successful ghosting run. Speaking of dead or unconscious bodies – the game can only keep track of five incapacitated NPCs at once, which means that, if you knock out a sufficient amount of guards, bodies will start vanishing. I once chose a certain room far off from any patrol route to dump all the bodies of knocked-out guards. I already had dumped four guards there, but when I returned with another, three of them were suddenly gone and only one was left. This has probably been built into the game to save computing resources, especially on the console version, but on PC they should at least have offered the option to de-activate this feature.

Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura

Dishonored is set in a pseudo-Victorian steampunkish world, with a distinct late 1800’s feel to it. In addition to the industrialized 19th century backdrop, it has a couple of futuristic technologies that could have sprung from the mind of Nikola Tesla. Dishonored’s electric devices are powered by whale oil, a fact you, as the player, can use to your advantage. There are two types of defensive devices that use electricity to prevent you from entering well-guarded areas: the “wall of light”, an electric field that fries to a crisp everyone who passes throgh without being properly attuned to it, and an electric tower that zaps any non-attuned person who gets too close to it. These devices always have a power supply unit somewhere nearby, which contains a whale oil tank that keeps them running. If you manage to reach that power supply and yank out the oil tank, you can permanently de-activate the device. It is also possible to use re-wiring tools to make the devices work against your enemies – similar to using multitools or hacking in Deus Ex – but if you want to go for a zero-kill-playthrough, you should refrain from doing this, as it leads to lots of guards being zapped to death.

While we are at the topic of removing whale oil tanks to shut off defensive devices, I shall use this opportunity to lament two features that were definitely intended to be included, but, for some reason, weren’t. When you remove an oil tank to shut off a defensive device, the guards will notice it. A guard walking through a shut-off wall of light might comment “Huh, this is supposed to be working!” or “The oil in these things doesn’t last long enough”. Most of the time, there will be a closet containing fresh oil tanks in the vicinity – it was clearly intended that guards would put in a new tank to make the device work again. But they don’t. The fact that they actually do notice that a device is shut off, and the availibility of fresh oil tanks in the vicinity, leads me to believe that the developers originally intended to have the guards do some maintenance. Apart from the occasional comment about the non-working state of the device, the guards don’t do anything, though. That’s some huge wasted potential right there.

Another feature that should have been included but, in the end, wasn’t, is Thief-like shadow-centric stealth. Some levels, especially the introductory prison break, are definitely designed with Thief gameplay in mind. There are deep shadows and brightly lit areas that would fit perfectly into a Thief fan mission. You can even extinguish candles to create more shadows – but those shadows only have a minimal effect on hiding you from hostile sight. It’s as if some of the levels had been designed with a light-and-shadow based stealth gameplay in mind, but then this feature had been taken out when the level design was already complete.

But back to the things that are actually there. Apart from the technological shenangians, Dishonored also has magic. Magic is an art that only a few chosen people can wield, and it is provided by a mysterious entity only known as “The Outsider”. Right before the first real mission of the game, after you break out of prison, this Outsider appears to you in a rather cryptic dream and tells you that he has chosen you, granting you magical powers in the process. The first – and most useful – spell you receive is Blink, which lets you teleport a short distance. It’s a completely stealthy way to move – guards won’t see you even if you teleport right past them – and allows you to get up to places that wouldn’t be accessible by climbing. There are a couple of other magic abilities that you can unlock, but Blink was the only one I used extensively. Most abilities are useful in combat but not in stealth, except for two or three (most notably Time Stop). Magic abilities are upgrades with runes that you can find strewn around the levels. The Outsider also gives you a human heart that can talk to you and allows you to locate these runes as well as bone-charms, magical talismans that give you specific boni to your skills.

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These bone charms are a nice idea, but they end up breaking the game’s balance towards the end. Some of them improve your combat abilities, others your stealth – and the stealth-enhancing ones make stealth way too easy once you’ve got them all. There’s one that makes you move faster while sneaking and one that lets you non-lethally take down enemies more quickly, just to name the two most effective ones.

The Blink spell is really overpowered, too. It costs very little mana and the mana used for Blink regenerates automatically (there’s even a bone charm which makes mana regen even quicker), so you will find yourself using it excessively as it allows you quick access to vertical places and enables you to get from cover to cover without being seen. Personally, I think the game would have been better – and a lot more challenging – without any magic at all.

Verticality and Linearity

If there’s one company out there that can make levels with a good sense of verticality, it’s Arkane. As mentioned earlier, each level offers you several opportunities to climb up high, and the game definitely intends you to do that. Yet I have to mention it again: Arkane really knows how to use the Z-axis.

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The levels are not only very vertical, they are also pretty open. There are always two or more ways to approach your objectives, and there’s ample opportunity for exploration. However, some of the levels do feel slightly linear despite being open and offering multiple paths to your goal. It is most apparent in the mission where you have to kidnap the Royal Physician Sokolov: you need to cross Kaldwin’s Bridge in order to get to his residence, and, due to it being a bridge, it is rather linear. It does offer you several paths to cross it, but they’re all more or less parallel. It’s similar in most missions: the levels are usually roughly rectangular and you start at one end of the rectangle, while your target is at the other end. The levels are very open, yet there’s still a pretty set path. It’s hard to describe, but I think the rectangle analogy fits very well here.

One of the game’s strongly advertised features was how you could find an alternative non-lethal solution to each assassination mission by careful exploration of the levels. Well, careful exploration does have its rewards in the form of equipment, loot and interesting sidequests, but the alternate non-lethal solutions are always very obvious and hard to miss. The most prominent example used by the developers was the whorehouse mission where you had to eliminate the Pendleton twins: if you did some quests for a gang leader, he would offer you to remove them without killing them. If you explore and do sidequests, you will be rewarded by getting this non-lethal option of elimination. Well, thing is, it doesn’t require any exploration at all to find that gang leader. Right in the middle and at the beginning of the path that takes you to the mission goal, a member of that gang will tell you that Slackjaw wants to talk to you. You literally cannot miss it. Another good example is the Lady Boyle’s Party mission: in a previous mission, you can find an invitation to her party in the safe of an artist’s house. At first, you feel like you’ve found the perfect way to enter that party in the guise of someone else, but just in front of Lady Boyle’s mansion, one of the guests will drop his invitation, which gets carried off by the wind. Was there even a point in hiding that invitation in the artist’s house if you can find another one right in front of the entrance? It’s not much better with any of the other missions: the alternate solution is always right in your path and requires minimal exploration to be found. None of them can be missed unless you just follow the quest marker straight to your goal without staying one step from your path.

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Wait a minute. Quest markers? Yes, this game has quest markers. They can be – and definitely should be – switched off, however. There was only one single occasion when I needed to use the markers to find a quest goal. Usually, they’re completely unnecessary. The levels aren’t very confusing to navigate and with a little exploration, you will have no problems finding your objectives. The markers are just tacked on for the crowd that couldn't find Caius Cosades and can safely be ignored by everyone else. This game is at its most entertaining when you go and explore every corner, anyway, so these markers just detract from the fun.

One rather silly element of the level design is how you almost never have to do any backtracking. There is only one mission where you have to return to the position you started at. The mission structure usually follows the formula of: your pal Samuel brings you to the mission location by boat. You go and finish the mission objectives. Then you return to your pal Samuel, who now has docked his boat only a short way from the mission objective. This did manage to raise the question: why didn’t he just bring me there in the first place? Why put me on the opposite side of the roughly rectangular map, forcing me to traverse guard-filled streets, rather than bringing me directly to where I had to go? This doesn’t really detract from the gameplay, mind you, but it’s just one of many problems this game has with storytelling.

I wanted to save my country so I impulsively acted like an idiot

Storytelling. This is definitely the weakest point of the game. Gameplay is fun, level design is solid, but there are lots of things that went wrong in the storytelling department. First: structure and pacing. Once you’ve managed to break out of prison and meet your mysterious friends, the first job they give you is to assassinate High Overseer Campbell, who is the leader of the Mechanists Abbey of the Everyman and one of the two main villains responsible for throwing you into jail. Yes, you get to take revenge on one of the two guys who put the blame of the Empress’ murder on you right in the first mission. After that, you strike at one high-profile target after the other and it doesn’t take long until you get to take out the former Royal Spymaster, now Lord Regent, the main man responsible for the murder of the Empress. It just feels a bit too hectic, without any low-profile missions in-between taking out important targets. And then, when you assume that you’ve beaten the game and think that it was way too short, a plot twist comes along, followed by two more missions. And, boy, it’s a really stupid and cliched plot twist. And the final confrontation with the person responsible for the plot twist is very, very disappointing.

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I will not go into details here because that would be way too spoiler-y, but I do have to say that the plot twist was quite retarded and becomes even more so once you get to know the motivations behind it, because they're not very convincing. It's like everyone just decided to act in a really stupid way in order to solve problems that didn't even exist in the first place. Most of the things the villains in this game are doing/have done can basically be summed up with “some minor problems popped up and I got really worked up about them so I just impulsively acted like a retard rather than thinking it through”.

Personally, I think the story would have been much better if they had just removed the plot twist and prolonged the actual storyline – your quest for revenge against the people responsible for killing the Empress and putting you behind bars. As it is, the main story-arc is just over too quickly and there’s no time for proper character development and build-up. Before you go on your assassination missions, you know next to nothing about the targets you are sent to assassinate, even though they’re the main villains in the game. And while the game does feature a lot of readables, those mostly contain fluff about the setting – there isn’t much characterization of the villains you’re fighting against. No foreshadowing, no build-up. Remember the great characterization of Sherriff Truart and Father Karras in Thief 2? There’s nothing of the sort here. You won’t know much about the Lord Regent’s actual personality and motivations right until the mission where you’re sent to assassinate him. Heck, there are side-characters that have much better characterisation than the main villain of the game, and that should say a lot.

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Another completely pointless and unnecessary element of the story is the Outsider. The concept behind him isn’t bad, but the way he is implemented is really, really sloppy. He’s supposed to be an otherworldly transdimensional being who powers all magic. And he contacts you in a dream right at the beginning of the game, making you his chosen one for unknown reasons. There is no further explanation on this, and every time the Outsider speaks to you he is very cryptic and doesn’t really say anything useful. It’s like he’s just a plot device for you being able to use magic. I really don’t know what the hell they were thinking when they introduced him into the story in that way.

So, is it worth playing?

All things considered, Dishonored is a good game. The stealth mechanics don’t reach the excellence of Thief, but they’re solid. The combat is good, even though it doesn’t reach the quality of Arkane’s previous game, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. The level design ranges from solid to very good, but never manages to be truly breathtaking. The setting is very interesting and there’s a lot of fluff, but the story feels slightly rushed and the ending is disappointing.

It’s a good game, nonetheless. I’ve explored every nook and cranny of the levels, finished it without killing anyone and successfully ghosting almost every level and had a lot of fun doing so. Occasionally, I attacked rooms full of guards for shits and giggles and enjoyed the combat system, which, although it doesn’t reach the quality of DMoMM, has a very satisfying feel to it. There’s nothing about the game that could be called bad. Everything ranges from solid to good. But, sadly, it doesn’t go any further. It’s good, even very good at times, but it never manages to transcend mere goodness and reach excellence. There aren’t any moments that are just jaw-droppingly awesome – it’s merely a good game through and through.

So, if you’re planning to buy this, you can expect to be adequately entertained. Yet you should not set your expectations too high: this is no Thief, and it’s no Deus Ex either. If I had to compare it to another game of its type, I would say it’s slightly better than DX: Human Revolution. Chances are you will enjoy Dishonored if you’ve enjoyed DX:HR.

Due to the many different gameplay approaches Dishonored offers, it is also a very replayable game. You can play it as a pure stealth game, ghosting through the levels without killing anyone, or you can take your pistol and your sword and play it as an action game. The best thing about this is that your gameplay style actually affects the ending: the amount of people you kill directly contributes to the game’s “chaos level”: the more people you kill and havoc you wreak, the higher the chaos level. There are three endings to the game, depending on whether your chaos level is low, medium or high. The chaos level also changes some things in the missions themselves, so you will immediately see the results of your different playstyles. Generally, playing Dishonored as a straight action game will result in high chaos, playing it as a pure stealth game will result in low chaos, while playing it as a sort of hybrid where you stay stealthy and only fight back when you’re detected will result in medium chaos. This means that playing through the game three times to see all three endings is actually fun, since the different endings are a direct result of your playstyle, rather than being determined by binary dialogue choices or by siding with one faction or the other.

In conclusion, it has to be said that Dishonored has its fair share of problems, yet it manages to be a fun game from start to finish with some really good parts and no parts that are outright bad (but, sadly, also no parts that are outright excellent). If I had to give it a rating, I would give it six out of ten Garretts and seven out of ten JC Dentons. If you like mission-based first person games with a focus on exploration and alternate ways to solve each mission, I can wholeheartedly recommend this game to you.

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