More than ten years after the release of Deus Ex, and games still aren't really doing what ION Storm's classic did. Sure, the imminent prequel from Eidos Montreal should prove to be a big hit, but beyond that, few developers are out there combining sci-fi dystopias with FPS gunplay and RPG elements. Well, there's one: Arkane Studios, the creators of Dark Messiah of Might & Magic. Since getting acquired by Bethesda owners Zenimax, Arkane has been working on a new first person game called Dishonored, and we got an early look at this intriguing action-RPG - and even after a good twenty minutes of Q&A, we still came away with more questions than answers.
The story takes place in a completely alternate reality on another planet. The protagonist, Corvo, is a supernatural assassin who was wrongly accused of killing an empress, and he's been disgraced and stripped of his titles and benefits. The player will stalk around a strange island city that is one part Victorian, one part futuristic dystopia; the city is booming from the money taken in from the whaling trade, of all things. You see, the oil extracted from these whales has some very strange properties, and it's enabling all kinds of crazy new technology. (When you play as Corvo, many of the RPG-like improvements he gets will revolve around this whale-oil tech.) Unfortunately, there's also a plague in the city, and the rats that infest it are spreading it everywhere.
There are some pretty kickass powers to use, too. While Corvo always uses his right hand for a melee weapon, the left hand can wield ranged weapons or supernatural abilities that are akin to spells. Some of these abilities allow you to summon a horde of rats or possess one of them, unlocking routes in missions that would otherwise be inaccessible. It's important to point out that it's not an out-of-body experience or anything; your character actually enters that creature's body, so if you get stomped on as a rat, then you die and it's game over. Ouch!
The mission we got to see was an assassination of a powerful lawyer who is holed up at his residence. The player had to find a way into the house, up to the top floor, and kill him, all without alerting a single guard. (The mission was not a total failure if alarms were tripped, but apparently it changes for the worse as the lawyer escapes and has to be chased on foot.) Here, though, Corvo used light and darkness to avoid the guards and took the lawyer by surprise in his chambers, finishing him off and making a daring escape off of the balcony. Guards and the city watchmen gave chase, but our assassin is a crafty type who used powerful abilities, a bit of impressive first-person melee combat, an ability to point at a nearby ledge or wall and instantly leap towards it, and a little old fashioned parkour-style clambering on rooftops and such to evade the guards.
What I liked seeing was the interesting combinations of powers and weapons that could be employed. Using the Stop Time power, Corvo could move around but his weapons' projectiles would freeze in space once they left the barrel of his flintlock-style pistol. But a few well-placed shots in this mode did wonders, as once time started back up again, several enemies would die at once from well-placed bullets that, for a second, seemed to be just floating still in mid-air.
The game is not set up to turn the city into a huge free-roam sandbox, but instead funnels you into particular areas during each mission. There are several ways to deal with each objective along with possible fail conditions that often change the mission before making players fail altogether, and while players will revisit some areas more than once, the game is generally moving forwards through a plot-based adventure. Dishonored also keeps track of the amount of violence and disturbance the player is making and it will affect his Chaos score - for example, killing guards needlessly or fighting out in public will increase it, while helping one of the city's charitable organizations will bring the number down. Either way, the game's events and characters will respond accordingly; some would rather see violence in the streets and plague spreading throughout the whole city, and others want to return it to its original, healthy and prosperous state. The plot and ending will apparently be greatly affected by the player's Chaos-based choices.
Arkane is pulling in a lot of influences with Dishonored. The force-field walls that have been hastily put up throughout the city and the tall, long-legged robotic walkers that players will see (and fight) evoke memories of Half-Life 2, while the conspiracy theories bring us back to the days of Deus Ex - and that's no coincidence, seeing that Harvey Smith has a similar role on Dishonored as he did working on the original Deus Ex at ION Storm. The combat mixes that solid feel of Arkane's first-person games of yesteryear with the wide range of weaponry seen in the BioShock games, and the Victorian-era clothing that the aristocracy wear creates a visual mash-up that contrasts interestingly against the sometimes glum look of the city and its rather grisly whale-killing industry.
Dishonored is taking tried and true gameplay ideas and putting them together in ways that to this day still seem horribly under-utilized. Layer it all on top of a very strange world with interesting characters, and I do think that we're looking at a winner. Of course, this is all from a pretty distant point of view at this point, as the game has a long way to go before it's complete and there's no guarantee that all of these elements will mesh together well. But under the caring wing of Zenimax and the direction of Harvey Smith, I see Arkane Studios turning this into a very successful new franchise. It'll be a while before we find out, as Dishonored is set for release on PC and consoles some time in 2012.