Dishonored

Of Whale Oil and Magick Obscura

Dishonored has finally arrived, bringing with it all of the choose-your-own-adventure gameplay that made series like Thief and Deus Ex the classics they are to this day. Get ready to get lost in Dunwall.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: November 13, 2012
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Ask me on any given day what my favorite game of all time is, and I’ll probably spit back the single greatest licensed game of all time, the adventure adaptation of Blade Runner or the open-ended cyberpunk epic Deus Ex. You'll probably notice a few similarities in there. Yes, I love cyberpunk more than any other genre and in pretty much any medium. I also have, as my favorite games of all time, a handful of PC titles (even if I did link to the PS2 version of DX). That might seem like blasphemy from someone who has run a PlayStation site for 15 years and counting, but in truth those kinds of games were only possible on the PC when they game out; consoles simply couldn't keep up.


There's another reason why both are ranked so high in my mind, and it's not just because of aesthetics or atmosphere (Blade Runner in particular still looks amazing once you get used to how low-fi the heavily compressed, low-res, pre-rendered backdrops and voxel-based characters are). Instead, it's because the games actively invite repeat play, even long after you know the major outcomes. In the case of Blade Runner, it randomizes who is a replicant, so each playthrough means anyone -- including you -- could be a skin job.

With Deus Ex, though, the approach is largely the model by which Dishonored plots its course -- which is to say it offers the player multiple routes even early on, then builds on the various ways in which they can use whatever powers they choose to unlock (by way of hidden collectable upgrades) to allow for a multitude of different routes to the same basic objective, and then multiple ways to accomplish that objective itself. There have been many attempts to replicate this basic idea but for some reason very few of them (including the Deus Ex follow-up Invisible War) failed to hit the right balance of atmosphere and options for me.

Suffice it to say with an intro like that, I am completely, utterly enamored with Dishonored. It actually plumbs one of my least favorite settings, steampunk, but deftly sidesteps many of the Victorian trappings and supplants quite a few of them with a kind of post-industrial approach, thanks in no small part to Viktor Antonov, the man responsible for the angular, mechanistic feel of City 17 in Half-Life 2: Episode 1.

There's no denying that Antonov's look and feel permeates almost everything about the game; lampposts, conduits, cabling, walls, trains - all of it feels eerily reminiscent of Valve's world. But this isn't Valve's world, this is the handiwork of some serious craftsmen at Arkane Studios (of which Viktor is now a part, naturally). Given the keys to the literal kingdom of The Isles, a vaguely referenced realm, the plague-stricken city of Dunwall rises not unlike a beacon of maligned ideals.

See, you, Corvo Attano, are the protector of the Empress of these troubled Isles. Though little is actually revealed in dialogue -- a nod to the silent style of Valve's Half-Life series -- the actual world is rich beyond initial understanding with ways to thicken this universe. In truth, Dishonored does more with its world in text than it could ever hope to do in gorgeous visual splendor -- and that's a hell of a feat. There are allusions to the idea that this is a world not built of steam, but of whale oil - that hard times and less-than-favorable conditions were always the norm... and then something else made them worse. Then there are the cults and The Outsider and conspiracies and religion and Granny Rags and... yeah, I'm definitely getting ahead of myself. The point is that there's actually quite a bit more to the world than what's presented directly to the character through spoken word, an approach that rewards exploration and curiosity the way few games these days can.
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