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Dishonored (Xbox 360) artwork

Dishonored (Xbox 360) review

"It's not the shooting or the sneaking or the cutting of throats that makes Dishonored fun. So many games are all about figuring out precisely what the developers intended for you to do. In Dishonored, you'll frequently do things that the developers didn't intend, but it'll work anyway, and it'll be awesome."

Every time I play Deus Ex, I find myself wishing there were more games like it. Well, now there's at least one more.

Dishonored isn't quite an RPG, but it's enrolled in the same school of game design that gives players a bevy of options and then caters to each and every one of them. It's a game about choices, and not the hollow, color-coded sorts of choices usually restricted to dialog trees, but ultimate freedom over where you go, what you do, and how you go about doing it. It's hardly a fresh concept – the game we're all comparing this one to is over a decade old, after all – but rarely do developers attempt it, and even less frequently do they pull it off as well as Arkane Studios have here.

The game is set in the bizarre ye olde industrial city of Dunwall, in which technology is relatively modern but people still dress and arm themselves like they're living in the 18th century. You play as Corvo, a former bodyguard who's framed for the murder of the beloved Empress, stripped of his title (dishonored, even), and forced to assassinate his way to the center of a massive political conspiracy and so forth. But that's not important. What's important is that you kill people. What's even more important is that maybe you don't. You know a game is up to something when it offers you an achievement for getting through the entire campaign without a single death on your hands, and with Dishonored, that challenge extends to your actual targets. How's that for choice? Here's a game so obviously about killing people that the protagonist wears a freaking skull mask, and you can actually seek out non-lethal methods for making every one of your high-profile hits disappear.

One of the reasons that the kitchen sink approach to game design rarely succeeds is that it multiplies the workload. It's tough enough to make a decent stealth game without having to worry about making a decent shooter at the same time. Predictably, very few of Dishonored's individual ingredients stand up to close scrutiny, but there's a certain newness to the way its elements complement one another. There's a magic system, for example, and the first spell you learn is short-range teleportation: hold the left trigger, point to a location, release, and you're there. It's like parkour without all of that silly climbing – simple, yet it doesn't quite feel like any other platforming mechanic I've ever used and gives Corvo a sense of identity through his mobility. (Good thing, too, since he doesn't talk.) The level design follows suit, as your deceptively uncomplicated objectives are usually embellished with sprawling, open-ended environments that are often delightfully three-dimensional in scope; it's possible to clear large stretches of Dishonored without ever touching the ground, instead creeping across rooftops, over lighting fixtures and through open windows.

While Corvo has enough weaponry to make strightforward combat a possibility, most people will play Dishonored as a stealth game. The RPG elements here appear thin at a glance, but every upgrade you unlock is a potential game-changer that opens a realm of new possibilities as to how you approach an obstacle. A passive ability that turns your victims' corpses to ash, for example, means that you can freely slit people's throats without having to worry about hiding those pesky bodies. While it's a bit cumbersome that weapons and spells can't be dual-wielded (with your sword permanently adhered to your right hand), anyone who makes the effort of combining abilities will stumble upon unconventional solutions. Having the power to stop time in a stealth game has plenty of obvious applications, but one significantly less obvious use is to freeze the world around you, fire off a few well-aimed shots with the crossbow, and watch as your arrows simultaneously lodge themselves in your targets' heads. Bam. You just cleared an entire room full of guards before any of them realized that they were under attack.

It's moments like that – using the tools and paths available to concoct creative means of overcoming challenges – which make it easy to forgive the game's lack of refinement. It's not the shooting or the sneaking or the cutting of throats that makes Dishonored fun. So many games are all about figuring out precisely what the developers intended for you to do. In Dishonored, you'll frequently do things that the developers didn't intend, but it'll work anyway, and it'll be awesome.

But it still leaves us with a game that's unpolished, and I won't act like that's not a problem. As much as I love the teleportation spell, for example, it has a nasty habit of assuring you that you'll land in such-and-such spot only to have Corvo come up a few inches short, fall to the ground, and injure himself in front of a few now very alert guards. The physics system in general has a bad habit of making your best-laid plans go awry, my favorite being when a death-from-above "drop assassination" attempt inexplicably sent me bounding across the room while leaving my intended target unharmed. You should save frequently in Dishonored, partly because it's easy to screw things up, and partly because you never know when the game will screw things up for you.

The bigger issue, or at least the bigger oversight, is how the player's varying levels of aggression affect the direction of the story. Arkane shoehorned an unnecessary moral slider into here, and the game blatantly tells you that more violent behavior will lead to a darker finale. I don't mind multiple endings per se, but each of them needs to provide an appropriately satisfying conclusion to the story. In Dishonored's case, one of the endings is very obviously the one the writers intended for you to see, while the other is, frankly, kinda half-assed. In a game that puts an enormous emphasis on letting players have it their way, it seems awfully contradictory to punish a fair portion of them for doing precisely that.

If there's any upside, it's that the story is weak enough that I didn't particularly care where it wound up to begin with. The inhabitants of Dunwall seem to have no trouble believing that the Empress's most trusted servant would murder her in broad daylight, kidnap her daughter, and then return to the scene in the span of about a minute, and Corvo himself never objects to any of this for the simple reason that he can't talk. Ah, yes: the silent protagonist, the crutch that lazy storytellers have been employing since the video game equivalent of the Bronze Age. This is the scene from which the game derives its very title and already we're rolling our eyes. From there, the game's cartoonish visual style proves deceiving, as there's no wit or spark in any of the dialog to match. Dishonored's look, as vibrant as it often is, feels less like an artistic choice than it does a wasted effort to give Dunwall some degree of distinction.

The good news is that none of this really matters. Plenty of AAA titles these days dump so many resources into overachieving set pieces and big-name actors that they forgo depth and complexity in the process, and as such, it's a satisfying relief to play something that succeeds simply on its own terms, by being creative and intricately designed, and for making players feel intelligent and powerful at once. I wouldn't want every game to be like Dishonored, but I certainly wish more were.

Suskie's avatar
Featured community review by Suskie (October 12, 2012)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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zippdementia posted October 12, 2012:

A good review. I have had Dishonored recommended to me. Honestly, one of the things I liked about it was the silent protaganist. It's extreme, but I'm looking for any way now to stop people who can't write from writing. I've seen too many video games now where the game is completely overpowered by the "video" aspect. I accept that in cases where that's the entire point (like Journey, or Heavy Rain—both of which I thought did it well besides, or at least in an interesting fashion) but I've grown pretty tired of the cutscene in general at this point.

Anyway, after reading your review I see it's an entirely different kind of game than I thought it was, so my positive silent protaganist argument sort've bites the dust. I'll probably keep holding out for a new game until Mass Effect comes out, though.
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zippdementia posted October 12, 2012:

Yeah, the morality stuff is also getting old in games. Usually because it's not done with enough foresight or critical detail.
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honestgamer posted October 12, 2012:

I haven't read this review yet, because I plan to write my own reveiw and I want to go in fresh, but I couldn't help but notice the comments and I have to say: I'm slicing and dicing. Like... everyone. If someone comes across my path and means me harm, that head is coming off at the neck. Arms will leave shoulder sockets and rats will feast. I'm not a stealth player, and going through the whole game all stealthy-like is not in the cards, not for me.
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Suskie posted October 12, 2012:

I should note that I don't think silent protagonists are a lost cause at all, as I've been bigging up the Half-Life series as the poster boy of good interactive storytelling for a while now (though recently I think Spec Ops: The Line may have usurped it in that regard). But at no point in those games did everyone turn to Gordon and say, "Obviously you're responsible for the alien invasion, you traitor!" No plot points in the Half-Life series were made possible only by the main character's inability to speak. It's an inherently ridiculous concept to begin with, and the question of whether or not it can be spun into something believable is the difference between good writing and bad writing.

The first Dead Space is another good example of this being done poorly. Isaac is just a faceless avatar who takes order from his commander and does what's required of him in a tense scenario; fine. But then suddenly at the end of the game he has to start expressing emotion, and it looks unbelievably silly.

Thanks for reading, by the way! Except you, Jason. You buffoon.
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zippdementia posted October 13, 2012:

It almost sounds like Dishonored was supposed to be satire on the genre but... isn't.
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Genj posted October 14, 2012:

I've been looking forward to the game since E3 and finally got around to pulling myself away from RE6 Mercenaries to play a little over half the main campaign. Easily one of the best games this year. It feels like Human Revolution meets Bioshock meets Half-Life 2. Every mission is like a playground to mess around in. The art direction is great.

Read the review. Can't really comment on the morality aspects yet, but I agree on at times wonky physics. It's more reliable for example to just teleport to the ground and slit someone's throat than trying to fall on top of them precisely enough to do the assassination drop or whatever it's called. Probably my biggest complaint about the game so far is Dark Vision kinda makes the stealth approach a bit too easy (especially since you can pretty much use it infinitely).

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