Rating: 7 (out of 10)
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
In an era of never-ending sequels, it's tempting to greet an entirely new video game with the kind of zealous overenthusiasm that inflates the mediocre to good and the good to great.
I fear some of the early glowing reviews of Dishonored , the new stealth game from Bethesda, may fall into this trap.
Yes, the company is taking the extraordinary risk of releasing a new concept during the busy fall season. As the gaming industry's official blockbuster window, it's when publishers tend to put out the latest entries in their biggest-selling franchises. Yet Dishonored's execution – a questionable design choice coupled with an overall lack of emotional impact – is not as bold as the timing of the release would suggest. These flaws are what hold the game back from being great.
Set in Dunwall, an Industrial Revolution-era whaling city that has been largely decimated by a plague, players take on the role of Corvo Attano, bodyguard to Empress Jessamine Kaldwin. In the game's opening sequence, the Empress is ruthlessly killed by mystical assassins, who then abduct her daughter Emily. Corvo is framed for the murder and jailed.
The action picks up as you escape and hook up with a group of loyalists who seek to rescue Emily and restore order. From there, the choice is yours – you can sneak through the game dispatching nary a soul, or you can become a blood-thirsty killing machine, taking out everyone who stands in your way. The more murderous your choices, the more your Chaos rating climbs. The measure determines how many guards you'll encounter in subsequent missions, as well how dark the ending will be.
The plot beats are laid out in a series of missions, all of which can be accomplished in multiple ways. One episode, for example, sees Corvo attend a masquerade ball with an eye to eliminating one of the hostesses. After some detective work in figuring out who the correct target is, you can choose to wipe out everyone at the party in a bloody whirlwind, seduce said hostess and quietly murder her, or subdue and deliver her to a suitor, who promises to take her into exile. All of the missions let you reach your preferred type of resolution.
About three quarters of the way through – after Corvo is betrayed by other characters one time too many – I abandoned all efforts at stealth and began killing everyone, thus accumulating maximum Chaos. The resulting ending, culminating in a resolution of the empire's power struggle, was chilling and foreboding.
As I played, a big thematic problem kept cropping up: Despite all the political manoeuvrings and drama going on behind the scenes between loyalists and imperialists, there's no evidence that there's an actual empire for anyone to rule over.
Aside from a group of nobles at the masquerade ball mentioned above, Corvo rarely encounters anyone who isn't a city guard or a "Weeper," a plague-infected derelict who inhabits the desolate streets of Dunwall. Looking around, it's hard to understand the stakes of the power struggle: Why exactly anyone should care who gets to be emperor of this desolate place? It leaves this adventure feeling oddly empty and lacking in any real emotional urgency.
The gameplay itself relies on what has become a proven, by-the-numbers formula in the current generation of consoles: collect hidden items that allow you to upgrade your weapons and special abilities. Some of those magic powers, upgraded by hidden runes, are more useful than others. Dark Vision, for example, gives you X-ray vision that can see enemies behind walls, while Possession lets you inhabit the bodies of guards, dogs, rats and fish, which can access hidden areas.
The abilities encourage creative methods of dealing with foes, but they are also unbalanced, with Time Bend being all you really need. The power lets you slow down time and accomplish all manner of events. You can run into a room, assassinate your target and leave again without anyone actually noticing, or you can possess a guard who has just fired a bullet, move him in front of the bullet, then let time resume its normal course. Presto – he just shot himself.
One of Dishonored's big flaws is that it forces you to use first-person perspective. There are reasons why this is desirable or even logical in a stealth video game. For one, it lets you see exactly what your character sees, thereby giving you no explicit advantages over the people you're sneaking around. It also brings you closer to the action than a detached third-person view of your protagonist might, which can boost the game's immersiveness.
But there are also reasons why it doesn't work. Key among these is the inverse of those positives – it's hard to tell if you're properly hidden. On several occasions, a guard discovered me when I was sure I was invisible in the shadows or firmly ensconced behind a piece of furniture.
The first-person view also prevents you from seeing all the cool things your character is doing. Corvo is able to climb high buildings, both with his natural athletic abilities and mystical powers, such as the short-range "blink" teleport, as well as fight guards with his various gadgets and skills. While it's nice to be able to do such things, it would be even more impressive to actually witness them, which you can do in third-person view.
The biggest problem with Bethesda's chosen perspective, however, is another inversion of the positives: As a skilled bodyguard, Corvo really should have an advantage over his enemies. That fact is present in other successful stealth series, such as the Batman Arkham or early Splinter Cell games, which also star highly trained protagonists. To be sure, Corvo does have an edge, but it comes from his magical powers and weapons, not from any natural ability or awareness of his surroundings.
In those other games, the third-person view results in an emotional connection with the hero. In Dishonored, I couldn't help but feel a disconnect with Corvo – although I'd spent numerous hours in his shoes, I really couldn't get a sense of who he was, simply because I couldn't see him.
Some won't mind the first-person view – a creative choice obviously inspired by the Thief series. It would have been simple enough to give players a choice between the two, like Bethesda has done in some of its other games, such as Skyrim. It's distracting, but not a game killer.
Still, Dishonored is never able complete that transformation from a game into a totally new and exciting world to inhabit. To be sure, our mostly positive rating reflects that this game is well-structured with all the pieces you'd expect and story flexibility will offer up a unique adventure for every player. It's a promising and mostly enjoyable start to what will perhaps be an ongoing series, but it lacks the emotional punch that could make it great.