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is the third game created by the French developer Arkane Studios
after their debut Arx Fatalis
and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic
. I haven't played those two games, but their reception by hardcore RPG circles was lukewarm at best. Dishonored
is less of an RPG than those titles, and it looks like the developers approached it from a different angle. Very soon it becomes clear than the game attempts to emulate a particular breed of hybrid games from the past, as immortalized by Looking Glass
and to a certain extent Ion Storm
The main inspiration here appears to be Thief II
with a touch of Deus Ex
. Many people (myself included) consider those games the epitome of intelligent level design and absorbing gameplay. Paying homage to them is a tricky business, since modern game designers are more restricted by mainstream requirements, which state that every game should be as streamlined and as user-friendly as possible. Nevertheless, Dishonored
succeeds in most of its lofty aspirations, with only Deus Ex: Human Revolution
towering over it as a more successful modern example of genre-merging.
The first thing to notice here is the generosity. We are all familiar with the type of level design that eschews everything except what is needed to complete a stage, with doors that can't be opened by any means, unrealistic structures that scream "it's just a game level", and so on. What I probably love most in Dishonored
is that it does away with this kind of thinking. One of the reasons for the immersion it evokes is its level design, which brings back memories from Thief
and Deus Ex
and all those beloved classics. The levels are large and feel believable. Doors can actually be opened and they lead to areas you do not need to visit in order to finish the mission. The game excels at creating an illusion of a real world around you, a world that exists there because it exists, not because somebody constructed it to serve as a stage in a video game. You sense around you an environment that lives its own life, independent of your presence, and when you explore the locations there is a feeling of wonder and excitement. This is a fantastic achievement that only a few games have been able to accomplish.
Let us not confuse this with open-world design. The key word here is quality, not just quantity. Dishonored
is not an open-world game, but it succeeds in creating dense environments that make you feel that you don't need any open-world gaming afterwards. The areas are not only exquisitely detailed - they are full of useful, gameplay-related objects. Collection is one of the cornerstone mechanics of game design, and Dishonored
is great at satisfying our collector's instinct. There is so much to find in the stages that it becomes almost overwhelming. In a smart move, the game also tells us after every mission how much stuff we were able to collect and how much of it we missed. If you know that you only got 341 out of 1127 possible coins you are bound to go back and replay the mission. There are no empty places in the game's world, but it's so easy to miss out things that careful exploration becomes a goal in itself.
Gameplay philosophy here is quite Deus Ex
-like: choosing different ways and routes to complete a mission is what makes this kind of gameplay so rewarding and thrilling. Dishonored
is radical in this aspect: you can finish the entire game without killing anyone or become a walking death machine. In a cool twist they made these choices affect the world: killing more people will call forth more rats to feed on the corpses - which, in turn, will spread the plague and more people will become infected. The freedom of choice is exhilarating, and every mission offers ample opportunities to play it in any style - be it by carefully crawling on suspended beams, seeking out alternate paths and hiding from guards, creatively using your arsenal to sneak upon them and put them to sleep, or risk it all by sniping them with crossbows or hacking them to pieces when they attempt to bring you down. Some instances also offer moral decisions concerning the target's ultimate fate, harming innocents, etc. In short, Dishonored
is a game that begs to be replayed and savored to the full.Dishonored
is worth checking out just for its setting. In a world full of recurrent fantasy, sci-fi, and post-apocalyptic scenarios, this game stands out as an example of true originality and thought put into creating a believable setting. Thief II
with its mixture of medieval and steampunk is probably the closest famous example, but Dishonored
only has a touch of "ye olde Europe" style and instead goes for something that looks like an alternate future of early 19th-century England where science continued to develop while society did not. In other words, the game's world is full of grim cruelty associated with the Middle Ages coupled with the oppressive, hierarchical social structure of a powerful empire and crude technology, producing a setting with electric torture chambers, messages recorded on mechanical devices, industry powered by whale oil, and wooden crossbows fired in a mad scientist's lab. Books scattered through the levels provide more insight into this interesting world and add more depth to it.
This world is also incredibly detailed, inviting you to stop and gaze at all those little things that make it come to life. You know that art designers put their hearts into the project when you stop fighting on a staircase in a gorgeous brothel just to admire stylish black-white photographs decorating the walls or when you stare at a thug taking a leak near a dumpster containing a mechanical trap device. Posters, paintings, furniture, architecture, clothes - everything has been paid attention to, everything exists for a purpose, with rare coherence and conviction that, once again, makes you forget that you are in a game. Never since Bloodlines
have I seen such a lavishly designed game world full of contrasts, beauty, and artistic inspiration.
It looks like Arcane couldn't quite shake off its "magical" past, and as a results made the unfortunate decision of adding magic to the setting. This was a bad choice for two reasons: first, the world of Dishonored
was already complete and even homogeneous in a certain way, and magic just gave it an unnecessary edge that came close to destroying its delicate balance. Second, magic had a similar effect on the gameplay as well, ruining an otherwise successful equilibrium of rough combat and nerve-tickling stealth. I didn't even touch the other spells, but Blink is given to you right at the start and there seems to be no way to avoid using it in certain situations. The problem is that Blink quickly become a cheap way of dealing with enemies, giving you an unfair advantage in a game that is not too difficult to begin with. Blink behind an unsuspecting enemy, choke him and drag away the body - this becomes a recipe you'll be too tempted to follow, as any other way of surpassing your obstacles is significantly more troublesome. In a rare case, I wish there was a patch that removed
(or at least weakened) certain elements of a game. Dishonored
would have been a more complete package if magic weren't there.
The story is disappointing. A setting like this could have become a stage for a cool tale full of mystery, intrigues, and ambiguous characters. Instead we get a schematic video game plot we've seen countless times before (even if we consider first-person 3D games only, the plot of Strife
, released sixteen years before, is by and large identical), with a twist in the middle that feels by-the-book and predictable. Most characters lack charisma and personality, and most of the dialogue is as bland as they go. Voice acting is uniformly forgettable, and scenes that are supposed to move us emotionally barely do so. It is a bit sad to see that storytelling standards in video games are so low that even a game of such caliber survives without bothering to come up with anything more original and involving.
The Bottom LineDishonored
may fall just short of the giants of the past, but it is nevertheless in the top echelon of smart gaming and an instant modern classic. Original setting, generous and inventive design, and loads of atmosphere resurrect the kind of playing experience we thought was mercilessly destroyed by modern streamlining, and restores hope in a better future for the medium.