Dishonored PC Review
This statement might sound a bit weird, but RPGs have been crawling into first person shooters since before id Software even invented them back in 1992. Origin Systems' Ultima Underworld wasn't really an FPS, but it did have real-time combat including melee and ranged attacks, along with an inventory, leveling system, and non-linear movement through what at the time was a fairly large, hand-crafted 3D dungeon. Wolfenstein 3D came out shortly after and it's a little more like the FPS that we're used to, with the large window into the game world, the fast action, and the gun at the bottom of the screen. But ever since Ultima Underworld - one of gaming history's most under-appreciated innovations - was released, we've had a separate style of first person game that has slowly been gaining ground. Those who played the System Shock, Thief, and Deus Ex games back in the day know what I'm talking about, and that style of single player FPS-RPG hybrid has seen growing critical and commercial success in the last few years in BioShock and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Well, a new game is joining those ranks: Dishonored from Bethesda and Arkane Studios. I'm not convinced that this latest effort to merge fast-paced FPS action and RPG choices (and progression) will be successful in stores or on Steam, but the game is certainly stellar enough to be mentioned in the same breath with its legendary forerunners.
Dishonored is marketed as a revenge tale, but it's actually much more complex than what the advertisements tell us. The protagonist, Corvo, is the bodyguard of the Empress of an island nation somewhere on another planet, possibly in another reality entirely. She is assassinated right in front of Corvo, and he gets blamed for the murder. After a daring escape with some help from a few new friends and some missions to get to the bottom of how this happened and what the bigger plot is, Corvo turns his skills from protecting life into taking it, and intends to get revenge on the Empress' assassins and do a little cleaning up of his own.
The city of Dunwall is already in pretty rough shape as you start the game. It's been hit by a rat-carried plague that's killed off a huge chunk of the city's population, filling the streets and sewers with filth and forcing the local City Watch to put out curfews, lockdowns, and quarantines. This limits Corvo's movements and forces him to creep through the shadows and over rooftops, moving silently as the City Watch is out in force. It's the player's choice as to whether Corvo is a selective killer, a psychotic mass murderer, or whether he's not even really an assassin at all, as you can play through this game without killing a single person. This is a core part of the game, as the bodycount you leave behind proportionately affects the density of guard placements as you progress. Play it like a true guns-blazing FPS, and you will encounter lots of resistance in the streets while still having to make interesting choices about your weapons since your resources (crossbow bolts, pistol ammo, and special weapons) are limited. But if you decide put the people in your way to sleep rather than in a bodybag, you'll find the city isn't so hostile to you later on in the game. The developers do a lot of subtle (and a few overt) things to promote this kind of careful play, but it never out-and-out discourages you from causing a bloodbath if that's what you want.
This goes for what would be bosses in most games, too. Dishonored doesn't really have boss battles, although it most certainly includes important characters and VIPs that you'll have to deal with, but the difference is that they won't absorb fifty times the damage of a standard soldier before going down. Instead, the game puts them behind layers of security you have to bust through, and you'll have lots of paths to get through to that. The most obvious solution is pretty much never the best one, and the game does try - although maybe not hard enough - to get you to find those alternative solutions. In finding these different paths, you'll dive down into sewer access, jump up for rooftop access, overhear a conversation that gives you a nice tip for easy infiltration, or help a person nearby that winds up opening up a shortcut for you.
One thing I want to point out is that this game could be played vaguely like Call of Duty, but you probably won't like it if you try that. Dishonored is thick with backstory and style, and it's at its best when you stop to explore and search the nooks and crannies. Not only will you likely run out of ammo if you try to shoot everyone with your crossbow or pistol, but you'll take plenty of damage, too. Even if you learn the timing to block and counter-attack well with your sword, which is always in your right hand (while supernatural powers, gadgets, and ranged weapons reside in your left), you'll still have to deal with using that sword to fend off multiple enemies, and that's not really easy when you're in a first person view and can only defend attacks that come from your front.
Those supernatural powers I mentioned are plenty of fun here in Dishonored, and there's a lot of interesting stuff here that you don't really see in most games. Corvo can possess creatures and even humans - even his assassination targets - and can even use possession to move, as he literally inhabits the victim's body and pops out of it when ends the possession. There are also abilities like pushing an enemy back with a burst of wind, gaining adrenaline with melee attacks, instant teleporting of short distances, slowing or even stopping time entirely, and plenty more. Corvo needs to collect runes littered or hidden throughout the world to "buy" these abilities, though, and if you just rush your way through the game, you're going to miss most of them.
What I like most about Dishonored is that it can be played in many different ways, even while you're making entirely independent choices as to whether to leave a bodycount or not - and your choices of who to kill and how many bodies are left in your wake do affect the end of the game. But you don't absolutely require a lot of tools to do it: you don't even need to use special gear or runes at all, as careful use of stealth mechanics and awareness of your surroundings can lead you to a run where you use little more than your sword (or a silent choke from behind if you want to go non-lethal) to get through the whole game. Of course, there are plenty of fun toys to use, upgrades to get, and cool powers to use, but I love that Dishonored makes pretty much every single one of them optional.
One thing that you'll notice early on is that Dishonored doesn't look quite like any game you've played. The style is steampunk meets the industrial era with a dash of fantasy and sci-fi, all done with Victorian-age fashion and architecture. On top of this, the textures are done in a hand-painted style that resembles oil paintings more than anything, so sometimes you'll see a hint of Renaissance, a bit of Impressionism, along with influences by Renoir, Van Gogh, and more. All of this comes together in a way that's far better than my feeble words can describe, but the fluid animations and wonderful art that go into this game only serve to make the world that much more stylized and interesting. It's a shame that the story isn't as focused as it could have been, but it's still quite a bit better than what you can usually expect when playing a game entirely from a first-person view. The voice work is generally quite good, if a bit repetitive when overhearing guards here and there, and the minimalist soundtrack matches the game's overall theme pretty much perfectly.
I reviewed the PC version of Dishonored mostly, with only a bit of time spent with the console versions. On PC, the game offers quite a few extended options, including the usual run of resolution and detail settings along with some pretty serious customization of UI elements and on-screen help (including the ability to turn off all object highlighting or hand-holding). You can disable mouse smoothing and turn up the field of view, although it doesn't go as high as some Quake veterans will like. The game's posted maximum shows only 85, but eyeballing it, it kind of seems more like what you'd get out of a 95-100 FOV in other games. You'll still see a bit of texture pop-in if you're not running on a fast hard drive or an SSD - yep, Unreal Engine - and some texture quality is still a bit fuzzy, but it's still better than what's available on consoles.
Arkane Studios has doubled down on the importance of a solo experience, as Dishonored has no multiplayer component at all - and I'm absolutely happy with that. Sure, it's got some problems, like some missions with separately-loaded sections that can occasionally reset guards if you merely knocked them out rather than killed them, forcing you to deal with them all over again, or a few framerate issues on slightly low-end PCs that are still comfortably above the minimum requirements. But this kind of a thinking-man's action game doesn't come along too often, and Dishonored has many of those difficult-to-include things that a true FPS-RPG that's descended from Deus Ex and Ultima Underworld should have. Pure FPS fans may not be too excited and there are a few minor problems, but this is a rare gem that anyone looking for a more cerebral action game should be paying serious attention to. And by "paying serious attention", I mean that you should buy it.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a review copy provided over Steam by the publisher.