Dishonored Review
9.4our score

Or if you’re in the UK, Dishonoured Review.

Sometimes, it’s hard to be a good man.

You might be doing your best to guard your  Empress. Sometimes you’ve had to fight in her honour, of course, but the guys who died from that were bad guys and had it coming. And her adorable daughter, who clearly dotes on you, is the surrogate daughter you’ve never had time to have. Too busy gallivanting round the local islands, asking for help curing the terrible plague that’s destroying your city.

If only London really was this pretty.

But then is all goes south.

Dishonoured puts you in the shoes of Corvo, a silent protagonist who’s been framed for the murder of the Empress of Dunwall. The true criminals have taken over the kingdom, and almost fall over themselves to gloat about how they’re fitting you up for it. But then a shadowy bunch describing themselves as Loyalists help you escape from jail and ask you, for the good of the country, to assassinate the culprits and rescue the Empress’ kidnapped daughter so that goodness and truth may reign again.

Hello. We’re bad guys.

It’s a great premise for a swashbuckling tale of murder and conspiracy, set against a steampunk London-esque backdrop. Dunwall is a town powered by whale oil technology, a greasy silver goo that fuels electro-death fields, clanking trains and motor cars, all of which are used by the oppressive new rulers. The inhabitants are dying from the horrible rat-bourne plague you were supposed to help find a cure for.

I’ve only played a relatively small part of it, but I think it’s a cracker.

This is now my new desktop background. Until my wife laughs at me.

Thief: The Dark Project was a seminal classic from twelve years ago, much lauded for its stealthy gameplay and intricate plot. People loved it then because it was a rare first person game that didn’t insist on you shooting everything – you had to stick to the shadows, nick stuff and avoid killing people wherever possible. The levels were big and free-roaming, with multiple paths to success, hidden objectives and plenty of scope for you to pick your own way through. The story and world were both lovingly crafted, the protagonist (Garrett the Thief) a cynical profiteer caught up in a mystic plot to bring back a sinister forgotten god. And it worked, it was a brilliant, intelligent game.

The comparisons to Dishonoured are very clear (to me, anyway). Protagonist caught up in an plot – check. Sneaky gameplay style – check. Multiple routes through big, lovingly made environments – check. Sense of moral responsibility – check. Graphics that look like arse – check.

An oppressive regime, abandoned sewers and despairing graffiti? Is City 17 on the next island over?

Hold up there, whaaaat? Graphics that look like arse? Surely reviewer be tripping? Well, yes, I am a bit. The artwork is amazing. Dunwall feels like a real town with a definite character of its own. Wounded whales are carried up and down a Thames-like river on giant punky barges. The abandoned slums have their doors plugged with weird technology. Broken smoking chimneys litter the horizon, and brutal state police patrol the streets. Swarms of rats! Like I have never seen in a game, proper swarms with individually modelled rats making them up. They scuttle and scutter and squeal, and devour any flesh in their path like rodenty piranhas.

I don’t really have a complaint about the graphics or sound, they are spectacular. But I think the Unreal engine powering the game has seen better days. Facial animations are a little limited, which makes the excellently drawn characters seem clunky. It particularly struggles with round items, so that the coins you collect, for example, are virtually pentagons. Like a fifty pence coin, I suppose, maybe it’s all deliberate. For my coin, though, (see what I did there?) it gives the lovely setting an unwelcome lumpy feel, especially when things like the floating dragonflies by a rivers edge clip themselves through walls, or getting too close to said wall reveals how flat the textures really are.

Fiver says you have to climb this at some point. A million fivers to the developers if I’m wrong.

And a pal of mine can’t get it to run at all – horrible graphics crashes and distortion is stopping him play at all. I don’t think that’s a widespread problem at all. If his homebrew rig (i7, 8gb ram and twin nvidia gtx570s) can’t deal with it, it may not be a problem with the game itself. But perhaps worth bearing in mind.

I am absolutely picking nits here, though, like an OCD gorilla. It still looks good, the writing and pace is very nicely done. And the sense of choice! First level of the game, and I’m trying to escape Dunwall Prison as quickly and quietly as I can. I want to stay in the shadows and avoid killing people, I will be the nightmare you never saw, a good avenger who targets only the evil men who wronged him.

I can’t sneak for shit. Round the first corner, I clumsily alert the guards, and a snarling pack of snaggle-toothed brits all pull sabres and go for me. Desperately, I parry and slash, thinking to escape, and before I know it, all three are dead. I swear, this wasn’t intentional, I really was panicking! But Corvo, unlike Garrett before him, is a bad-ass in a fight. Neither combat nor stealth feel too easy, either, both have their own challenges. By the time I make it out of jail, the guards in the next level are already remarking on what a bloody maniac I must be, and how they itch to avenge their fallen comrades. That’s the thing with blood, you see, it leads to more blood.

Even the nice bits of the exterior world have gnarled and desperate aspects to them. Like the trees. Or the ugly dude in the redcoat.

I tried to put the next patrol to sleep with humane sleeping darts. One fell immediately fell into a sewage pool and drowned whilst asleep. I stashed a second in a safely dark corner, but when I went back for the third, a ravenous rat swarm was tearing his slumbering form to bloody rags. I still feel bad for his family – I really didn’t mean for them to die.

I’m playing on Hard and I’ve turned all the context-sensitive clues off, which the excellent interface allows you to. If I feel a bit lost at times, that’s my choice – the game rewards exploration by giving you new quests and interesting venues. Currently, I’m trying to poison a bunch of street thugs because a raddled old lady asked me to. That’s the kind of professional assassin I am – easily sidetracked.

The quests will clearly add replays to the game, though – that raddled old lady, the first time I played the level, was being attacked by guardsmen. By the time I chose to intervene (reluctant to kill more of them), I think they’d killed her, or driven her off at least, and I explored her silent house alone. The second time, I thought I’d get there earlier, and was able to meet the hag in person, getting the side quests she hands out. I have no idea how scripted this is, but it’s very impressive either way. The NPCs have a good range of believable responses to you and your actions, and their dialogues are always worth listening to, there’s some great writing here.

Brutal and foreboding, the industrial age interiors remind me a hell of a lot of numerous school trips to salt plants and canals I went on as a youth. *shudder.

There are supposed to be lethal and non-lethal ways of dealing with all your tasks. The more death you leave in your wake, the higher your ‘chaos’ rating, and the worse the story turns out for you. It’s a good dilemma, because killing people is often easy, as long as they don’t see you first, and is definitely fun. The trailers have showed off dozens of hilarious combinations of rat possession, exploding mines, crossbow bolts and time-stoppage. There’s not so many you get lost, and you get to pick and choose which abilities you use for what situations.

Ah, a fractured dream world. How quaint.

I’m a little less sure about the supernatural powers, if I’m honest. They’re great, I love using them, they’re inventive and really improve gameplay. They don’t sit brilliantly well in the story, so far, although I’m sure more will be revealed as I play on. But as Penny Arcade has mentioned, the story has a lot shoehorned into it, and I struggled a bit with the introduction of the magic powers. Corvo’s already got a lot on his plate. Having some dark emo god turn up in his dreams, brand him with a mystic rune and give him a talking clockwork heart – I dunno. Feels like too much of a coincidence to be the Stranger’s Chosen One whilst also fighting to clear your name.

You burned my hand in my sleep? Thanks for nothing, Stranger!

But there are no coincidences in political plots, I’m sure, and if it’s a bit of a stretch, it’s one I’m willing to make. This is a worthy successor to Thief. If you don’t like subtle, sneaky games, then, okay! It’s a worthy successor to, say, Bioshock, which the game also invokes with its looting of abandoned places and use of miraculous powers in combat. Loot buys upgrades, upgrades improve your choices. The look also invokes Half Life 2, thanks to the art director. So I’m throwing around some heavyweight names here, all three of those are gaming gold. This is a big, brilliantly made game, and I recommend it heartily!

Terry Pratchett makes jellied eels? Where can I buy some?

the author

Used to be a Doctor (Dr). Now is an actor (Ar), writer (Wr) and gamer (Gr), and would like to get all these abbreviations into general usage, because GrArWr is a much more interesting title to have on your bank card.

  • Barl0we

    Nice review!

    In defense of the Unreal Engine, it allows the game to run on older systems. I, for instance, am on exchange. I don’t have access to my powerful desktop computer, or my 360. I only have my gaming laptop (which at 2,5-3 years old is beginning to show its age).

    The game runs pretty well on my laptop. I just feel like a bastard to the graphics department of this game, since I’m not doing the game any justice this way.

    All the more reason to replay it once I get home in January to my desktop computer :)

  • Kraken Wakes

    That’s a fair point, about the Unreal Engine. It’s a very graphics friendly bit of kit.

    That said, after writing this, I thought of another gripe – as I said, the look also invokes Half Life 2, thanks to the art director, Viktor Antonov. Invokes is putting it a bit mildly, actually. I’d go so far as to say it virtually is Half Life 2, seen through a brass Victorian telescope. No bad thing, really, the use of light and the huge, partially abandoned city are lovely. But patchwork walls of steel that block streets, mechanical plugs and shutters for doorways, spindly-legged authoritarian crowd control machines… It’s a bit too familiar. The steam punk trains must go straight to the City 17 depot, and don’t seem to add anything else to the game other than a sort of clumsy nod to previous work. Interesting to see him moaning about how few risks modern video games take with art on Kotaku. Could he possible take a few of his own gripes to heart and come up with something a bit more different?

  • Evil Tactician

    You’re making me want to play this Kraken.

    We’re really spoiled for luxury with the quality of some recent game releases.

  • Kraken Wakes

    I’ve seen you’re logging in a bit of quality time with X-COM, there, Evil T – review forthcoming?

  • Evil Tactician

    Affirmative :-)

  • Evil Tactician

    @Kraken – In fact, the XCOM Review is now scheduled for publication this Saturday :)