Sunday, November 4, 2012


It's kinda crazy how many dudes I've choked out while they took a pee. Don't get me wrong, it was fun. Still: lots of dudes were waking up in dark corners with their pants around their ankles. I try to rationalize that their confusion and sense of violation was earned by the fact that the clockwork heart I've been carrying around keeps telling me that they are violent, fascistic douchebags. They kind of deserve it.

These are the kinds of thoughts you might have during the course of Arkane Studios excellent stealth/action game, Dishonored.

As stuffed with ideas as the game is, they never overwhelm you with exposition or cut-scenes. It's a world absorbed through books, visuals and overheard conversations. This allows for people like me, hiding in nooks and crannies, to develop my own story as I play. For instance, I used an item given to you towards the beginning of the game as a way to track down collectibles, the aforementioned clockwork heart, as a way of weeding out the people just doing their jobs from the willfully evil and visiting bloody retribution upon them. As events in the game turned and I got more invested in the fates of certain characters, I found myself getting more and more unhinged and violent, silently wiping out anyone and everyone until the entire level was empty except for me, blinking across the rooftops in search of more prey.

Keep in mind, this narrative was entirely in my own head. The clockwork heart spits out a series of canned responses whenever you click it on someone so you'll hear the same phrase repeated over and over again. It just seemed like a neat way to approach a game that offers so much freedom in how you approach it. Once you enter a stage, there's no hand-holding whatsoever. You can explore and find optional side missions and collectibles that enhance your abilities or you can beeline right for your target. The game becomes whatever you want it to be. I chose to create my own story-within-a-story to go along with my "avenging angel" playstyle. By the end, my desire to burn down the entire dying, corrupt city and everyone in it was reflected by increased guard patrols, plague-infected Weepers and swarms of carnivorous rats. Once I became conscious to how my approach to the game was changing, I embraced it. I did a completely non-lethal second playthrough but damned if the game didn't give you plenty of good reasons to murder everything in your path.

That's not a coincidence either. Morality is a very important aspect of the game. As Lord Protector Corvo Attano, framed for the murder your Empress, you are always given a choice on how to go about achieving your vengeance. People are watching you and some react to you differently depending on how much death you deal out. Every main target has a non-lethal option, usually fates worse than death, if you can find out how. I knew how far down the rabbit hole I had gone when a young girl I talked to told me that she wanted people to fear her the way they feared me. From that point on, I knew there was no going back.

The game allows a bit of leeway between, as they call it, Low Chaos and High Chaos. You only have to do a completely non-lethal route if you want the 100 point/Platinum achievement. Otherwise, a couple of deaths here and there, by accident or necessity, can be tolerated, so you don't have to worry about absolutist morality. Between the overarching story and some of the things you read and overhear, you'll probably find it hard to avoid wanting to toss these people screaming into the Void. A minor complaint would be that the High Chaos route feels more fulfilling, not in the sense that YOU are acting as an agent of their death but that the characters who have wronged you meet ends more appropriate to their levels of ego and hubris. (It didn't slip by me that my initial attempt to kill only those I felt deserved it was eventually twisted into something much darker, making for an excellent symmetry at the end.) The final scene of the Low Chaos path has a nice, well-acted monologue about what you lose in pursuit of what you think is right when you stop considering the consequences of your actions but it felt comparatively anti-climactic when compared to the more brutal High Chaos route. Seeing the people responsible for your misery and betrayal implode and destroy themselves felt more appropriate. Being a witness to other people's well-earned self-destruction might have made a better ending than the people involved just sort of... giving up.

Another complaint about the game is some very hit or miss voice acting. Dishonored boasts a very high powered cast of actors that, unfortunately, reinforce the idea that great actors don't necessarily mean great voice actors. John Slattery (Mad Men's Roger Sterling) does an excellent job as the resistance leader Admiral Havelock and Chloƫ Grace Moretz (a/k/a Hit-Girl from Kick Ass) does the unthinkable by making a child character in a video game likable and someone you actually want to save. Others don't fare so well, including Susan Sarandon badly miscast as the insane Granny Rags. There isn't a whole lot for her to do, so she doesn't do much of anything. A professional voice actress might have given the doddering yet dangerous character a little more... well, character. Compare that to voice actress April Stewart (one of the go to cast for South Park) who gives a chilling performance as both the Empress and the clockwork heart and you wonder why people would rather hire "name" actors versus people who do this for a living. However, in a world so fully realized, it's pretty small quibble.

I've seen some criticism about the game being too overstuffed with ideas but I think they're coming from the wrong point of view. The Steampunk-ish setting, the magic, the whale oil, virulent plagues, the capricious demigod figure, teleporting assassins in death masks, the stilt-waking robot men firing explosive arrows... it can all be a little too much but it felt more to me that Arkane Studios are trying to world build here. Any one of those aspects could be central to another game in the series. Given that even surefire concepts can fail once the game is in stores, throwing every single fucking thing they can think of at you given them plenty to build on in sequels. The game even goes out of it's way to tie off Corvo's story with a big red bow, so they aren't forced to use him as a protagonist in any future games. (He's treated as a player avatar and not an actual character, so there's no great loss there.) Arkane now has a very interesting world to revisit depending on it's success.

The gameplay itself is solid but has some curious choices. The game is presented in the first person so you are unable to lock into cover and rely mostly on leaning in and out of cover to get a sense of your surroundings and enemy routes. There's a designated stealth/crouch button but the game gives no clear idea as to whether you're able to be seen. Twitchy enemy AI has led to multiple situations where I can either sidle right up to someone from a position where I should be in their line or sight or others where an enemy spots me from behind cover from across the room. It doesn't occur very often but using the convention of a blue screen tint or on-screen prompt to designated being in stealth mode would have solved a lot of problems. When stealth fails, combat holds up pretty well. Put a couple levels into stopping time and you'll easily slice through any unfortunates who catch you creeping around before they can raise an alarm or call for reinforcements. You'll probably rely on your sword and crossbow more than anything else but there's also proximity devices and a pistol for more desperate encounters.

The actual set pieces are never less than strong. You have multiple points of entry and lots of variety in how you approach your targets. Usually, you aren't just restricted to a lethal or non-lethal option. Many stages have varying modes of dispatching your target. Sure, you can creep up behind him and slit his throat but maybe you can sneak into his room and trick him into drinking poison or possess a guard and get him to do your dirty work for you. I was partial to siccing a swarm of rats on them and letting them get eaten to death while screaming for help that never arrived. (I did warn you about my propensity for bloody retribution.) One standout moment was during a mission where you infiltrate a costume party. You're dressed as yourself, the creepy killer terrorizing the city, but the nobility at the soiree simply compliment you on your provocative costume. After doing my dark business, I sauntered back in, signed the guest register in my own name, and walked casually out the front door. Much evil cackling was had.

Little moments like this, things you could easily never catch, make the overall experience that much more fun. All missions are available from the stage select screen at the main menu after completion. The only thing the game is really missing is a proper New Game+. I didn't have much trouble on Normal difficulty. Enemy AI is dumb enough that you usually only have yourself to blame for mistakes. You can decimate an entire barracks worth of guards and the last remaining guy will just note that more people should be patrolling and never change their routine. This is something I wish more stealth games would rectify on harder difficulty levels. Having your enemies react to squadmates who disappear would promote better situational awareness, planning and quicker, more decisive action or just force you to not engage anyone at all.

Taking my time and exploring everything I could means my initial run took me almost twenty hours, including restarts. Having a firm idea of enemy placement means my non-lethal speed run took me less than eight hours but I've heard people have been able to beat it in as few as five. The length of the game will be entirely dependent on your approach.

I keep coming back to the worldview of Dishonored when I think about it. The writers managed to hit just the right notes. It doesn't matter what political views you have but throwing such sharp criticism onto the idea that the kinds of people who actively seek power being the ones least qualified to hold it is an idea I think a lot of people can rally behind. Not only is the world of Dishonored very full and fleshed out, the ideas behind it work just as well.

Ultimately, this is an odd game to review since so much of it's story is dependent on whatever is going on in your head (which was pretty fucking fantastic, thanks) and your patience for waiting around for the best time to strike. If you approach this as an action game and stealth elements, you'll likely find it short and unsatisfying with a perfunctory plot. As a stealth game, minus some small issues easily ironed out in a sequel, it offers a lot of very satisfying sneaking and combat. Dishonored might very well be the best new IP of the year.

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