One of the things that set this console generation apart from all of the others is that developers have given the player more freedom than ever before. Countless games this generations billed themselves as sandbox games that allowed the player to do what they want, how they wanted to do it. The inherent catch always was that what you had to do everything within the confines of the level design. But, what if a game was so expertly designed that it offered you a multitude of options, so much so that it would allow players to make choices based on what they wanted to do. Sure, it may sound run of the mill, but how many times have you actually done that? Take a moment to think about it. Now, contemplate the idea of playing a game as an assassin that doesn't need to kill anyone, at all, if he doesn't want to. It makes that idea sound pretty exceptional. Such is the story behind Arkane Studios' Dishonored.
Set on the Victorian Era-inspired, plague-infested island of Dunwall, the bodyguard of the Empress, Corvo Attano, is framed for her murder and must set about to clear his name. The straightforward story becomes much more interesting when a group of loyalists help Corvo escape from prison, and then impart his services to do their bidding. Their hopes are to reclaim the island from the group that was responsible for the regicide, and restore the throne to its rightful heir, the Empress' kidnapped daughter. Mix in a deep mythology around the supernatural beliefs of the island, and you have the makings of a serious game … and that's before you even get into the gameplay.
At first glance, Dishonored is a standard first-person shooter that laces in some light sword fighting, and magical abilities ala-Bioshock. However, after a few minutes with the game, it's clear that your weapons are only as useful as you want them to be. The guns and steel are your basic steampunk fare – crossbows, pistols, and a custom sword, but the magic is what makes Dishonored significantly more interesting. The game offers a variety of magical options that range from the utilitarian teleportation spell Blink, to the twisted and gruesome like the one that summons rats to kill you enemies, and then devour their corpses. Each incantation has it's own benefits, depending on how you decide to play the game, and can be unlocked and upgraded by finding Runes hidden through Dunwall.
It should be pretty clear by now that the game's biggest selling point is how much freedom it gives the player... but you may be saying, "I've heard that before, and gotten that from games like Skyrim." You have, but Dishonored isn't a truly open world game. You are presented with options within a confined level, instead of the ability to run around and just do whatever you want. Each mission has specific targets, with some side tasks mixed in, and however you want to go about completing them is up to you. If you want to sneak quietly across the rooftops, or run straight through the frontdoor guns ablaze, your game is a unique experience, dynamically crafted for you. For example, one of the later missions has Corvo laying siege to a fortified mansion. Once inside he can work his way through the building, going room-by-room, up three flights of guarded territory. Alternatively, he can teleport his way upstairs the second he walks through the door, and skip an entire hour’s worth of gameplay, and sidestory.
The choices that you make throughout the game – specifically who lives and who dies – factor into the overall outcome of the game. If you help someone out in the first mission, they may be willing to help you out in the last, as long as you keep them alive. What you decide to do with people factors into all different parts of the game, from dialog to signposts on the streets – the world of Dishonored is entirely interconnected.
One of the subtle ways that Dishonored helps to set itself apart is by cutting out "boss" battles entirely. While your targets are always the endgame for each mission, the head of the group that assassinated the Empress is no better prepared for battle than a common guard. He might put up a bit more of a fight, but he isn't going to grow into a giant monster and attack you with fireballs. Additionally, you don't even have to kill all of your targets – in fact, you don’t have to kill any of them (there’s an achievement for that actually). The game does an impressive job of offering up alternative, nonlethal ways to take down your targets, but, again, what you want to do is up to you.
Dishonored has gone out of its way in the level design, and gameplay aspects of the game, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Like every game, there are a couple of hiccups here and there that put a slight damper on an otherwise outstanding release. It’s a short list, but some of them, like trying to figure out where the Blink reticule is pointing at, come up very regularly. The vast majority of the game looks amazing, but there’s something about some of the NPC’s faces that tend to make them look like dried potatoes. There was also the occasional occurrence of floating objects - character props like cigarettes that happened to be floating where their former character was. All of these things are minimal, but worth noting, and don’t mar the overall experience of a fantastic game.
It may be hard to believe, but Dishonored is somewhat of an anomaly. It’s a first-person shooter game, that doesn’t include multiplayer, that gamers may not trade in within a week of purchase. Arkane have done an impressive job creating a game with nearly infinite replayability. With the flexibility that's offered in each scenario of the game, players can come back time and time again an experience something different, making it a more than worthy purchase, even if it does not include a half-baked multiplayer experience. In this day and age, it’s a rare thing for a developer to not include multiplayer gameplay in a game like this, and, for Dishonored, it works. It works so well that Dishonored lives up to the hype, and could be the last great FPS of this generation that’s based on a new property. Looking ahead, Dishonored may be the first game in a long line of innovative titles that let the player play how they want to, and have it change the outcome of the game.