Dunwall is built on whale oil, a glowing source of energy used to power this industrial city. Down its wide river sail vast whaling ships, which are manned by sailors ready to face tempestuous seas in the hope of finding adventure away from the stinking backstreets. And when they catch one of the curiously mutated beasts, they hang it above the deck and strip away its fattiest bits while it’s still alive, leaving it to thrash as it slowly dies on the way back to port.
Dunwall’s fast-fading opulence is founded on a culture of cruelty, then, and its many beautiful sights are marred by ugliness. Its upper classes revel in greed, crime and debauchery, residing atop an underclass that’s been driven to its knees by plague, which has left swathes of the city empty, districts blocked off and corpses littering the streets. Those who haven’t died already are often either coughing and spluttering from infection, or have become moaning, savage Weepers. The sickness is borne by plague rats, hordes of which infest every alley and fine house alike. They’re a constant, squeaking presence, and the physical manifestation of Dunwall’s profound corruption.
Dishonored’s city is drawn with breathtaking depth. Its art design might place it on the foundations of 19th century London, crowding its spaces with smokestacks, brick tenements and hulking factories, but it’s also run through with forbidding fascist classicism as well as opulent baroque and art nouveau touches. And fantasy is never far away, brought to the fore by magic; fantastic contraptions, such as the curved-legged Tallboys; and a set of weird, vicious animals, which includes the sharp-toothed Hagfish and brutal Wolfhounds. Although you experience Dunwall broken into large but discrete chunks separated by loading screens, it’s a place realised with a richness that few games have ever managed. There’s a sense that there’s history behind every detail, and indeed you’ll discover far more about the place through the many texts spotting the levels, learning about the intricacies of whaling and the sinister workings of the quasi-religious Overseer order.
The city is peopled with a roster of expressive and stylised characters, spanning from the faintly inbred aristocratic conceit of Lord Pendleton to Granny Rags’ sour insanity, and voiced by redoubtable acting talent. Susan Sarandon’s performance as Rags is at once vulnerable and malevolent, while Brad Dourif’s Piero is a crumpled ‘natural philosopher’, evoking his role as Doc Cochran in Deadwood with a bitter twist. The people of Dishonored’s world feel fully formed even with little exposition, and though most reveal themselves to be unscrupulous and venal, you always want to know more about them. There’s little true evil here, just devouring weakness, and understanding motives becomes a natural part of planning the demise of your marks. Those targets are chosen by your allies, the Loyalists, a group that wishes to restore the kidnapped daughter of the dead empress to Dunwall’s throne.
Rats aren’t just a symbol of Dunwall’s corruption – they also symbolise your own. Playing as Corvo, a former trusted companion of the empress who’s been framed for her murder, you’ll find the rats rise in population as you kill to cut a path to a pardon and the city’s freedom. Dishonored watches your every move, the world reacting to how energetically you take to your role as an assassin. And with magical skills like Corvo’s, you’re likely to be highly energetic. Principal among them is Blink, a power that enables you to teleport to a point close by. It opens up the rooftops and anywhere else within its range to exploration. This might be behind guards, say, either to terminate or avoid them. Other abilities enable you to see enemies through walls, and possess animals and humans, although the latter requires an upgrade. You can slow, and later stop, time; summon a blast of wind to knock unfortunates flying; or conjure rats to consume them. You buy skills and upgrades with Runes found around the levels, but using powers requires only mana, which is in plentiful supply.
But that’s just half of Corvo’s toolset, because he’s also a capable fighter with a formidable arsenal. There’s his pistol, a flintlock affair that’s as powerful and as loud as a shotgun, and just as biased towards close range. There’s a crossbow for longer shots, with Corvo’s grotesque metal mask’s eyeglass used to zoom in like a scope. The bow’s speciality is silent headshots, either with your small stock of Sleep Darts or standard bolts. There’s also a grenade and the Spring Razor, a mine packed with coiled razor wire. Finally, there’s your blade, which perfectly suits both slicing throats and tense duels in which parrying is the secret to sending your foes staggering. In return for money you find lying around the levels, Piero will upgrade these weapons, either by increasing their ammo capacity or power. Once your pistol can fire three rounds in quick succession, you’re positively lethal in any situation.
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