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While trying to avoid sounding preachy, it is hard to deny that games have gone a little Hollywood nowadays, at least where the AAA market is concerned. Big releases that, as long as there is some spectacle to be seen, don’t really have to do a whole lot of explaining as to how it all works. Dishonored, the most recent release from Arkane studios, turns this idea on its head and delivers a universe wherein just enough is explained so that it all makes sense, and just enough is left to the imagination to allow players to fill in the blanks on their own – something that is sadly missing from many big-box releases nowadays.
Set in the Victorian/Stempunk-inspired city of Dunwall, Dishonored tells the tried-and-true tale of revenge. Taking on the role of Corvo Attano, the Empress’s bodyguard, you play the fall guy – taking the blame for her assassination five minutes into the game. When a group of rebels assists in your escape from the guillotine, however, you are given the chance to not only take vengeance on the ones who wronged you, but overthrow a corrupt government in the process. Things only get more interesting when you are approached by a shadowy figure called The Outsider in a dream and granted a special set of powers that only add to the bodyguard-turned-assassin’s deadly skill set.
As it stands, the game is more than the sum of its parts. The are only eight powers to upgrade and a few gadgets to obtain, but they all contribute to the gameplay in such an organic manner and have so many applications that this makes their presence even more noticeable. Instead of listing all the powers here, I will just tell you this: they are all very pliable and can be applied to a stealthy approach or a violent one in a very natural fashion, something made even more possible by the semi-open world in which the game takes place.
The city of Dunwall is not designed as a sandbox ala Saints Row and the like, but as a series of hubs in which players take on and carry out missions. The Hound Pits Pub plays home base to the resistance and is where much of the well-told story progresses. Outside of that, Sam the boat man transports you to other areas of the city where the hits are to be carried out. Each of the nine missions can be as long, short, interesting, uninteresting, violent, non-violent, quiet or as loud as you want them to be because of their various pathways along rooftops, through ventilation systems via a rat or a fish through the use of the “Possess” power, or right through the front door if you upgrade the “Bend Time” power to the point where time stands still.
What keeps you from just running through these levels, in addition to the open nature, is the excitement that exploration can provide. While the attractive, believable, and consistent art style makes every level worth picking apart simply off of the aesthetic pleasure, the prospect of reward and discovery is greater. You may find a non-violent, out-of-left-field way to eliminate your target, discover Runes and Bonecharms to upgrade and modify your powers, or eavesdrop in on some information that is pertinent to your task at hand by peeking through a key hole.
I am stressing all of these open-ended factors to zero in on why I really loved Dishonored so much: organic player choice. Where most games paint pictures in black and white, blue and red, good and bad, this game manages to do the same, but with a classy sense of subtlety. You can just as easily use your powers to avoid violence as you can use them to cause it, be rewarded for killing your targets just as you may be for, say, branding them a heretic and having them exiled. The game allows you to be “evil” or “good” without condemning or commending you, but by simply showing the consequences you wrought, the avenues that you opened or closed to yourself through violence or non-violence. I truly felt that I played through the entire game without killing anyone because I wanted to, not just because the game gave me a more attractive set or rewards for doing so. Of course, I did enjoy keeping as many of the well-acted and equally lovable and despicable characters around to see the end game as well.
Ultimately, Dishonored succeeds by giving you a believable world filled with mysteries like our own, and giving you the power to interact with it as you will, but showing you the cold consequences of that in the process – nothing more, nothing less. The well-acted cast complements the appealing (if cliche) story and the organic stealth and action elements meld into the fiction perfectly. Everyone should, at the very least, give the game a try. Once you get past the steep learning curve and start playing smart, you will be rewarded. Rating: 10/10