Stealth games haven't been getting their day in the moonlight. After a resurgence of reinvention at the turn of the millennium brought the classics Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid and Thief into the world of 3D, the stealth game genre faltered somewhat. Many recent titles have incorporated stealth segments into their stories but lack that burst of originality that marked their predecessors.
Luckily, Arkane Studios has taken their appreciation of what made classic stealth so compelling and crafted a brand new and exciting world around it. Enter Dishonored, a smart take on a near-dormant genre that prefers to stay out of the limelight.
What did make those classic Thief games so good? The series' cult status and system imitation (in this case, sincere flattery) by many other titles means the mark on gaming's consciousness is undeniable. The thing that players responded to in those titles was the level of player choice on offer. Giving you the tools to approach a mission in whichever way you wanted was revolutionary at the time and Dishonored has chosen to give the audience a similar level of options.
Set in the gaslight/steampunk-inspired city of Dunwall, you take control of Corvo Attano, ex-bodyguard to the much loved Empress. After her untimely murder, the city's spymaster (now the Lord Regent) unjustly frames Corvo for her death and leaves him to rot in the city's dungeon. Corvo is visited by the Outsider, a mysterious near-mythical figure who marks Corvo's hand and sets him free. While most would get out of dodge at this point, Corvo embarks on a city-wide hunt for revenge. The game is heavily story-driven, so Arkane are reluctant to part with any specific details. The Outsider, for example, plays a large part in the game as his mark gives Corvo limited magical abilities, but we know very little about their interactions so far.
While revenge stories are nothing new, the path to this particular revenge is all up to you. Corvo's abilities range from swordplay and crossbows to more mystical feats such as teleportation and possession. The missions are exciting because Arkane gives you these skills and asks you to solve the situation however you feel.
In my hands-on time with the game, I got to play through "Lady Boyle's Mansion". The mission tasked me with infiltrating a masquerade ball and killing the hostess, one of the three Boyle sisters. Simple enough, except you soon discover the target and her kin are all wearing the same costume, albeit in different primary colours.
Before you can even consider who to go after, you have to get into the place. Starting in the river, your first sight is the beautiful view being obscured by a Tallboy. These stilt-wearing enemies are a tough fight and best left alone when possible. After a moment of consideration I launched myself at his legs, firing explosive crossbow bolts and lobbing grenades.
Once I'd reloaded the level I decided to change my tactic to something involving less death. Less of my deaths, anyway. Sticking to the shadows is when Dishonored really starts to shine. While every missions can be completed on a murderous rampage, the game rewards exploration and subtlety with snippets of conversations between the guards and ability-enhancing charms hidden throughout the level.
Finding a way into the party, like most things in Dishonored, can be accomplished in a few different ways. Sneaking in can be as simple as grabbing a forgotten party invitation from the gutter or, for the more adventurous, ascending the neighbouring building and teleporting the short distance between the roofs. You can even possess a fish in the murky river and swim in through the sewer. Dishonored doesn't push you towards any of these options but intrepid players will find many options for infiltration.
Once inside, your assassin's mask lets you blend in with the other party-goers but finding your target is another matter. Should you choose to massacre the three Boyle sisters and flee, you'll have to contend with the intimidating guards. Stealth, on the other hand, is far more satisfying in this situation. A thorough search of the second floor, off limits to guests so caution is required, reveals vital titbits about the Boyles. After discovering which is your target you can return to the party. In each play through the sister your looking for is in a different costume, giving the levels added replayability.
Once back downstairs, a man approaches with an interesting proposition. He's loved Miss Boyle all his life and should you knock out your target and deliver her alive to his waiting boat in the basement, he promises that she will never be seen again. He claims that, "One day she'll love me, after all, she's got the rest of her life." As unsettling as it is, it shows one of Dishonored's more interesting components. You can play the entire campaign without killing a single person. Every situation can be resolved in an alternate, non-violent way. These paths are more difficult, but for the completionist this strategy is a must-try and an interesting choice for a game primarily concerned with murder.
Something that really deserves a mention, though, is the environment. Dunwall is a city under siege. A plague is sweeping the slums and the Lord Regent's militia rule with a liberally applied iron fist. The disparity between the rich and poor of Dunwall is used to great effect when interacting with the denizens of the city. Socialites discuss the growing unrest in the city with a contemptuous flippancy that creates a fantastic feeling of immersion.
For players interested in discovering all there is to about the world, interacting with and overhearing non-player characters (NPCs) is a must. On a larger scale, Dunwall sits on the fantasy continent of Gristol. The known continent (there are several unexplored continents in the Dishonored mythos) is powered mainly by whale oil, the newly discovered fuel source attained from hunting monstrous almost-whales that roam the dangerous oceans.
This commodity, and its scarcity, plays a vital part in the world and sets in motion the corruption that Corvo comes up against. Most of this is subtly delivered background information for those players who enjoy a higher level of immersion in their games and helps make Dunwall a more realistic and well-realised creation.
The rich world of Dunwall is also supported by a fantastic art style. The often disturbingly dark environments and characters are created in a bleak, vaguely cel-shaded manner that often looks like it's copied straight from a concept painting.
When starting the level at Lady Boyle's mansion, you're immediately treated to a view of Dunwall's imposing architecture. Moonlight filters down past a huge Victorian clock tower to the canal as a Tallboy marches ominously over a bridge. Once inside the building, the party-goers all have unique, twisted masks that are easily worthy of individual inspection.
Some of the praise can be directed at Viktor Antonov, the art director behind designing City 17 for Valve's classic Half Life 2. His minimalist design sensibilities are used to great effect to create the fascistic city watch and are easily as memorable as his Combine characters. Even if the game turns out to be a total dud (though all signs point to this not being true), the art design is more than worthy of the high praise I can't help but throw at it.
Dishonored is a true example of a studio taking a chance. Rejecting the action-packed Michael Bay style that many modern games rely on, Arkane Studios is presenting us with a subtle, dark and beautiful game that harkens back to the stealth games that defined the genre. It's refreshing to see a studio create a game based off an intriguing new world and Corvo is just the man to show us how dangerous it can be.
Dishonored is released on October 11 on Xbox, PS3 and PC.