Corvo is therefore one of videogaming’s more capable aggressors, not least because his skills are deliciously fun to use, and the smoothness of the controls comes together with his weapons and magic to thrilling effect. It becomes second nature to Blink behind a guard and execute him in one sweep of your sword. As two others gradually realise you’re there, why not slow time, run at them and clamp a Spring Razor onto one? Blink away and it will explode in a cloud of wires that will slice them into bloody chunks. When normal time returns, every local enemy will be aware of you, but it’s no problem – simply possess the nearest and walk away. You could also have found a vantage point and soundlessly assassinated everyone, or rewired local enforcement technology to fry the guards.
Dishonored combines such freedom with level design that provides many options beyond combat. Buildings often have multiple entry points, some of which are only accessible through Corvo’s powers – such as vents through which possessed rats can scurry – while others require exploration to find. The spaces are dynamic, rather than broken down into the distinct choices that, say, Deus Ex gave you between combat, hacking, dialogue or engineering, so you’ll find yourself naturally shifting approaches, flipping from aggression one moment to subterfuge the next. Central to all of this is Dark Vision, the magical skill that allows you to see the silhouettes of close-by living beings. Combined with markers that show you where and how far away your objectives are, you’re equipped with huge knowledge about the levels, and with it comes the capacity to make choices.
In fact, choice is the core of Dishonored. Most of the levels contain side-quests and many different ways of dealing with your marks – some non-lethal – if you can find the right cues to prompt you to them, which may be overheard conversations or texts you’ve read. But very little is predefined amid a wide variety of scenarios, which bounce from stealthily infiltrating a brothel filled with guards to walking freely around a masked ball attempting to identify your target. The key is a robust and logical AI system that’s ripe for exploitation, giving you not only a sense of power but also the chance for multiple ‘what if’ replays.
By the end of the game, the conclusion of which comes rather abruptly given the story’s systematic build-up, you realise that Corvo is unstoppable. By then the challenge mostly comes from self-set restraint in not killing or being seen (both of which are recorded on end-of-level scorecards) instead of simply wading through with gun smoking and blade flashing. Indeed, Dishonored’s world encourages a non-lethal approach, affecting the rat population, NPC reactions and the game’s ending. Some characters will view you with disgust if you kill with abandon and rain will fall, giving the impression that the game is judging you even as it hands you a lethal skillset that is so enjoyable to use.
The creators of Dishonored know all about the tension between what it offers you and how it rewards you. They even give you a clue at its very beginning with a line of graffiti on a wall in the prison where you start: “We all start with innocence, but the world leads us to guilt.” Faced by a world in which almost everyone has been corrupted by power in one way or another, you alone have the agency to carve your own path. That gratifying weaponry comes with the implicit request for you to exercise self-control over it, to avoid the easy routes that your victims have taken. You don’t have to kill if you apply yourself, and achieving this conveys Dishonored’s biggest personal rewards.
It’s a brave and interesting statement to make about responsibility and the nature of choice, and if you don’t mind being mildly rebuked for having uncomplicated fun, you don’t need to engage with it at all. For the rest of us, it adds another layer to this sad city. It’s a rare delight to play a game with such consistency of vision, its art design, level architecture, rulesets, storylines and writing all working in lockstep. It’s more than enough to give you a deep connection to Dunwall, and the impulse to work to save it.
PC version tested.
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