The approach you take will at least partly be determined by how you’ve customised Corvo, and these options are incredibly robust. Each of the game’s ten powers can be unlocked in any order (after Blink), and each can be upgraded. Runes hidden throughout the world are the currency for unlocking and upgrading powers, and that hunt is brilliant fun in and of itself. For my first play through, I focused on using and levelling up three core powers: Blink, Dark Vision and Agility.
Blink is a short range teleport that’s useful for moving from cover to cover, getting the jump on enemies and scaling buildings. Dark Vision lets players see enemy movements through walls, and also highlights other important objects in the world. Agility, on the other hand, is a passive power which increases jump height and movement speed, and reduces fall damage. As you can see, I opted for agility and stealth above all else.
To further enhance my cat burglar-like skills, I also spent cash upgrading my boots for quieter movement, and activated perks – via the game’s hidden bone charms – to drastically reduce the time it takes to choke an enemy, as well as to increase my movement speed in stealth mode and while carrying corpses.
You may well choose completely different abilities and perks. If you’re combat-focused, whirlwind sends enemies flying and is really effective, as is slow time, which actually freezes time when fully levelled up. While some powers are more useful than others, it’s a good selection and great fun to experiment with. They’re backed up by more traditional weapons: crossbow, pistol, grenades, spring razor, and so on, and these can all be upgraded too.
Dishonored’s nine missions are all very distinct. You’ll attend a society gala in disguise, scale a bridge, escape from prison, wander through flooded slums and stalk across rooftops. You’ll take part in a duel, carry an unconscious man through a gauntlet of enemies and decide whether or not to become a torturer. Each mission is designed as a sandbox, allowing players to utilise whatever approach they want, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll take your time, getting the lay of the land, discovering alternate routes, listening in on conversations, taking on optional objectives, looking for secrets and treasure, and generally just playing.
Players who really take the time to enjoy the experience are rewarded too. The more runes, bone charms and money you find, the more you can augment and upgrade your character, and the more bad-ass you’ll become. In fact, by the last couple of missions I was almost too powerful; able to stalk, choke and kill with ease. Good thing there are hard and extra hard difficulty settings to move on to, which ramp up the perceptiveness of enemies and increase the general challenge.
It’s also worth noting that taking out the actual targets in each mission can often be a bit of a letdown. In almost all cases you’ve got a serious advantage over them – no matter how heavily guarded they are. That’s not much of a deal breaker, however, because Dishonored really is about exploration and experimentation as much as the end goal. This is one of those games in which you’ll save often, reloading again and again to try different approaches, until you get each gameplay vignette just right.
Even though the odds are very much in your favour (on normal difficulty at least), the gameplay evolves nicely alongside the story. New factions and enemy types are introduced, which help shift up the vibe and introduce new challenges. One mission in particular pits Corvo against foes that aren’t so easily outmanoeuvred, and it’s a great touch, even though I’d have loved to see that sub-story pushed a little further.
In fact, that goes for a lot of the game. It’s a fascinating world with a memorable cast, not to mention an interesting overarching tension between mystical pagan magic and industrialisation, but all these elements never really feel like they come to fruition. The experience is still engrossing from start to finish, however.
You may also have some small issues with the controls. Climbing ledges – particularly when getting out of water – sometimes isn’t as smooth as it could be. The mechanic for sneaking up on guards and grabbing them from behind can be a little temperamental too – nothing worse than coming up behind a guard and blocking instead of grabbing. It’s also a little disappointing that the well-implemented first person perspective doesn’t extend to carrying objects, which just hover in space, in stark contrast to wielding weapons, powers and knocking guards out. Oh, and you’ll come across a few invisible walls in the play spaces, too, which is a bit of a shame, but probably unavoidable. None of these concerns are deal breakers, as Dishonored is very much a joy to play.
It’s also one of the prettiest games of recent years. The art direction is nothing short of incredible, and it’s matched with a visual aesthetic that makes the world look like an oil painting in motion. Dishonored isn’t competing on detail; it’s driven by soft textures, intelligent use of colours and contrast, and beautiful lighting. From terraced urban streets to industrial warehouses, menacing fortresses to regal palaces, it’s Victorian England meets City 17 meets whalepunk. The character modelling is superb too, even if the facial animations could be better… and the oddly oversized hands could be smaller.
As is becoming standard, PC owners are in for the biggest visual treat. Dishonored does look excellent on console – I finished it on Xbox 360, then started again on PS3, and thoroughly enjoyed playing on both. You may notice minor frame rate issues and a little tearing, but nothing that will really take away from the gameplay. That said, it’s significantly better-looking on a modern PC, so that should be the platform of choice for players who have the option.
It’s a shame that Dishonored’s story isn’t greater than the sum of its decidedly memorable parts, but its gameplay absolutely is. Each mission is built as an elaborate network of choices for players to explore, and the same can be said for Corvo himself. Each player’s selection of powers, perks and other upgrades will inform how they see and interact with this world, and no two play-throughs will be exactly the same. Dishonored is a game you’ll talk with your friends about, and that you’ll want to play multiple times. In this game there are always other paths to be taken and other challenges to conquer, and that’s a refreshing thing indeed.