Dishonored: a clever blend of action and stealth
Bethesda Softworks masters a lost art
Released October 2012
For Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
It’s rare to come across a proper stealth game these days — by which I mean it is so rare that it’s hard to know if what I consider good stealth games are even stealth games at all. Maybe it’s the stealth genre that I dislike, and I just happen to enjoy a couple games that call themselves stealth games.
Whatever the case, I don’t care. It’s time to soapbox. You know what’s wrong with stealth games? They aren’t tests of intellect — they’re tests of patience. Success flows from a willingness to simply sit and wait, until a window of opportunity opens in guards’ patrol patterns. This is boring. I’d just as soon play as one of the guards, patrolling a little 10-meter patch of space for eternity.
By extension, games that try to present a stealth option at parity with a combat option almost always fail. The long, boring, waiting-based gameplay of stealth is the sucker’s choice, compared to running and gunning through the level. And most game developers, knowing that run-of-the-mill stealth gameplay will always play second fiddle to run-of-the-mill combat gameplay, don’t even try to present the two options as equals. Stealth is largely a self-imposed burden in games like Fallout 3 or Skyrim.
So it was with much trepidation that I approached “stealth game” Dishonored by Bethesda Softworks. At first glance, the game struck me as a steampunk version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game that matches perfectly my personal stereotype of stealth games as boring wait-fests, carried (if at all) by story, characters, dialogue … anything but gameplay. But that was not the case.
In Dishonored, you play as Adam Jense— sorry, Corvo Attano, head security guy for Sarif Industr— sorry, Empress Kaldwin. While preparing for an important tr— sorry, after returning from an important trip, the place you work at is attacked by cyber-enhanc— sorry, magic enhanced dudes who kill (sort of!) your love interest and make a major mess of things. You’re in a bad situation, but six months after the event, you are given the cybe— errr, magic powers that the dudes who attacked used (You didn’t ask for this!), and set on a mission to kill the bad dudes, uncover their mysterious plottings, and set the cyberpun— sorry, steampunk world to rights, mostly by running a blade across the throats of anyone who can press an alarm button.
Although the dust jacket blurbs for Deus Ex and Dishonored are similar, the games are anything but. Deus Ex was a tedious game only worth playing for the dialogue and plot (and even then, your mileage may vary). In Dishonored, the protagonist is silent, and if anything the plot is the weakest point; it is the gameplay that carries.
Dishonored is a game that offers combat on truly equal footing with stealth. The game offers a variety of powers and perks that Corvo can acquire as he completes missions and uncovers hidden artifacts. Teleportation, possession of animals and enemies, stopping time, and other unique mechanics turn the game into a challenge of lateral thinking. Fighting one’s way through a level is not some straightforward run-and-gun. It requires both uncanny timing as well as a creative use of Corvo’s combat powers and gadgetry. And for those who choose the stealth path, the powers system completely subverts the usual process of sitting and waiting for guards to walk themselves into closets.
Some trial and error exists, but instead of watching paint dry while an opening appears, the player spends his time scanning the area, working out safe paths to teleport to a ledge near a target, actively searching for outs, his desire to move through the level quickly limited only by his own ingenuity. Each level has multiple paths to success as well, adding to the replay value. The AI feels organic — gone are imbecile guards who dismiss arrows to the head as just their imagination after some patient stealthing by the player. And best of all, the game employs a moral choice system that actually matters — the more blood Corvo spills, the further the city descends into chaos, not just changing the ending the player receives, but also the obstacles they face in subsequent levels.
The primary complaint I have of the game is its length. As well-designed as the levels are, and as much as they contribute to an open, sandbox-y feel, there’s no getting around that there just aren’t that many of them. Even two playthroughs leave Dishonored with a shorter playtime than that to which I’ve grown accustomed. And the mile deep, inch wide nature of the game has unfortunate consequences for the game’s ability to immerse the player. Dishonored paints a fantastical world of rat plagues, mystical steampunk-technology-powering whales, dark rituals, and high political intrigue— fantastical to a point of over-wrought ridiculousness that was hard to engage with.
Just as I felt I was settling into the fantasy, the game was over, abruptly wrapped up with both little hint of a sequel and no closure on many of the game’s open questions. Of course, this might have gone differently, had I realized earlier on that the beating heart Corvo is given by The Outsider, besides helping reveal the game’s hidden artifacts, also provides mysterious exposition of the world if used on other parts of the world.
In any case, if a game is to come up lacking, better for it to leave the player wanting more, rather than wanting something different. Had Bethesda doubled the length of Dishonored, they’d have, far and away, the game of the year on their hands. But even in its brevity, Dishonored delivers. Pick it up now before IAP ends, and you’ll be able to enjoy this gem before the next semester starts.