With its innovative gameplay, distinctive look inspired by classic illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth and Charles Dana Gibson, an incredible cityscape created by Visual Design Director Viktor Antonov with Art Director Sébastien Mitton and the rarefied air of a product that knows how great it’s going to be to those who “get” it, Dishonored has shot up to the top of the list of games I really want to play (and see succeed in this era of sequels and retreads). Arkane Studios has been going full steam ahead with this all-new PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 IP, a single player focused and yes, story-driven game that allows players do tackle missions in just about any way they desire. Without a multiplayer mode in sight (thankfully), Arkane is showing that a strong story and stronger gameplay can do wonders for an industry where relying or retreading popular multiplayer modes has decimated some games and genres into a depressingly generic formula year after year.
On the surface, the basic story of Corvo, a framed former bodyguard turned masked assassin set on clearing his name and tasked with eliminating a wide range of targets via missions set in and around an huge city seems like yet another stealth game tiptoeing into stores. However, where Dishonored shines is in the freedom it gives each player as well as the multiple paths the story can take based on your actions. You can go in facing enemies head on, slicing and shooting your way to your target, raising all sorts of hell as you go. However, choosing a mixture of stealth, spells and clever NPC manipulation is also on the table for those who like to take things slower. And if you’re really good, you can make it through the entire game without directly killing a soul. More on that enticing bit of non-ultra violence later…
Bethesda brought a build of the game to NYC a few weeks back and held what I would call a master class in game design led by Arkane’s Co-creative Directors Raphael Colatonio and Harvey Smith talking about the gameplay, followed up by the tag team of Antonov and Mitton detailing the influences behind the look of the game. There was no hands-on time here, but at some point I noticed nearly every editor-type in the room was leaning forward, ducking and weaving like I was when the action got intense. I’m not sure if anyone was grinning like an overclocked hyena as I was because I saw all the pieces of a great game falling right into place. Arkane’s first game, Arx Fatalis, was and is one of my all-time favorite role-playing games on the PC and Xbox, and while Dark Messiah of Might & Magic wasn’t all it could have been, it was still an immense amount of fun to play through a few times.
What works so well in Dishonored is the level of immersion combined with the ability to improvise as you play. The game takes place in the very much London inspired fictional city of Dunwall, a coastal whaling city rocking a “steampunk” meets City 17 vibe. It was noted almost immediately that this is NOT an open-world game at all – missions take place in different parts of the city, each with a distinct look and tone thanks to the incredible sense of scale and detail the dev team is getting from the Unreal engine. What’s crystal clear from the stylized visuals is the game’s distinct look isn’t the usual beefy sci-fi or fantasy stuff you see made with the engine, but a rich, unique and artistic blend that’s wholly original and refreshing.
In the first mission shown, two brothers had to be killed as they spent some quality time in a very well-guarded brothel called The Golden Cat. We were shown first, the stealthy way to approach things, then a more direct (and less subtle) approach that changed the game to more of a shooter. For the first attempt, lots of supernatural aid was key, as teleporting unseen from point to point using a “Blink” spell, possessing guards, a fish, a rat and later on, a working girl taking a break outside were key moments. The game is like a fantastic mix of the best parts of Thief, Tenchu, BioShock, Assassin’s Creed and a few other well-known inspirations, but the team is smart enough to let the game show its originality by doing so much differently.
Peeping through keyholes, using a great skill that lets you see through walls and check enemies’ lines of sight, carefully leaning out from corners (!) to toss a trap or scope out movement and more all come into play here. Getting into the Golden Cat by possessing a fish, swimming into a grate outside, then transforming back in order to silently take down a few guards in a few different ways from violent to cleverly amusing made for a few laughs, but it was clear that one could replay any map and do things a completely different way (and with not so much humor involved)…
Like any good stealth game, leaving a dead or unconscious body around is a bad idea when there are patrolling guards nearby, so hiding or getting rid of the evidence is another key to success. You can drag and drop a body when needed, but there’s also a handy skill that turns a stealth kill into an instant incineration, removing any need for poking about for a hiding spot. Guards here aren’t the total dopes you’ll see in too many other games. Once your sighted, they’ll do their best to track you down, but similar to the Metal Gear Solid games, they will give up the hunt if you manage to stay out of sight for a set period of time. That said, if you follow a guard around or sneak into an area where some are patrolling, you’ll hear them comment randomly on stuff like a painting in a room or events that are taking place around the area they’re in. Sometimes, waiting for the correct moment to stab some guard in the throat means sticking around long enough to hear a bit of art criticism…
Meanwhile, back at the demo… one brother was dispatched by overloading the heat system in the steam room he was in (after taking out a few guards with a nasty spike trap that cut them to pieces), making his death seem as if were due to an unfortunate malfunction. After a bit more Blink travel, a few more bloody guard killings and some skillful navigation, the second brother was reached in an upper room and taken out by possessing him, walking him out to a balcony and using another skill to blast him over the edge to his demise. Getting out of the area was a matter of choice as well, since missions don’t just come to a close once objectives are met.
Smith pointed out that the testers working on the game are helping shape the gameplay by finding some very creative ways to do things not originally intended by the dev team. Case in point: if you’re cornered by too many enemies and there’s an NPC or other living thing you can possess, you can leap off a high spot and into the body of that unsuspecting vessel and beat a hasty retreat, leaving your attackers looking like total dopes. You can’t possess the seagulls nor occasional whale you may see off in the distance (this would break the game if you could fly or swim away from the map boundaries, folks), but you CAN choose to not kill a single soul throughout the game. Colatonio says that it’s “possible, but not easy to do” and also suggested that it may take a second play through to accomplish this feat, as certain skills need to be mastered in order to set certain wheels in motion that would take care of targets for you non-violent types out there.
There’s a light RPG system at work in the way active and passive skills are developed, but you’ll actually not be able to level every skill in the game the first time out. Scattered throughout the levels are well hidden runes and charms that unlock passive or active skills, all of which are useful, but making do with what you have will add to the challenge for players who like it rough. This also insures replay value among smarter gamers who just don’t blow through a game one time and trade it away. While all the skills were unlocked in the demo build, it was noted that players won’t even have half the cool abilities that were shown off at this point in the game. This, of course means that more likely than not, many players might find this stage a wee bit more challenging.
Of course, if going in all shooty and stabby is more your style, Dishonored supports that as well – just expect things to get geometrically tougher if you go in all gangbusters every single time. Enemies will do their best to outflank or outgun you, but you have the ability to slow down time briefly to heal, swap out and use skills or get the hell out of Dodge if need be. Calling up a swarm of nasty rats to swarm and kill an enemy is a good tactic, and you can even become one of those rats, which is cool… provided a guard doesn’t stomp you into a bloody smear on the carpet.
Also shown off was a brief part of another mission, an outdoor map at night named The Flooded District with Corvo going up against a few “Tallboys,” the manned mechanical long-legged walkers equipped with very deadly flaming arrow cannons. The more direct approach was taken here, but it wasn’t too successful, as poor Corvo got lit up from a few angles once he was spotted. Still a few of the striders went down before that happened, so it wasn’t a total waste. That missions particular strategy for the battle seems to be taking control of a Tallboy pilot and using him to shoot up a few of the others, Blinking and possessing as you go. I figured that out while watching the way the Tallboys moved, but I’m betting it’s going to be tougher than it looks.
Speaking of looks, it’s impossible to gauge how beautiful the game looks in screenshots or lower-resolution videos, but once you see it in motion (and perhaps a demo will drop before the October 9, 2012 release date), you’ll see where the time and money spent researching by the art team has gone. Antonov and Mitton’s presentation on the game’s art direction was low-key, brilliant and humorous at times, especially when they showed shots of some of the inspiration for the people in the game. In addition to looking at Gibson, Wyeth and other classical illustrators, the team took guerrilla photos of tough-looking Londoners at work, including a beefy club bouncer who looked as if he could snap a man in half, and some orange-vest wearing laborers, one of whom was glaring directly at the camera lens, as if he were about to drop everything, throw his hardhat to the ground and punch out the photographer.
Coming up with the environments and the stunning lighting were a lot less life-threatening, but still as important. Antonov says he wants to make Dunwall one of the most memorable locations in a game and from what I saw, it’s going to be one for sure. As noted, even though the game isn’t open world, each area has enough detail that you’ll want to take the time to read the signs and posters when you come across them and check out every nook and cranny for interesting stuff. This isn’t they sort of game where you can put a fixed (as in low) amount of hours into playing and see all it has to offer unless you’re really good at ignoring being impressed at what’s on screen.
Even with much left to do as it races to release in October, Dishonored pulses with life through its sci-fi /Victorian-era setting, strange powers and brutal (but justified) killings, and now that Irrational Games’ superb BioShock Infinite has been pushed into 2013, this just may be the go-to game for those looking for something with a slightly similar tone, but VERY much different in terms of how it plays. Absolutely slap this game on your radar, ladies and gents, as it’s got all it needs to be one of the best and most original games coming your way this year.