Editor’s Note: Dishonored originally came out in 2012, predating the official founding of Continue Play by over a year and meaning that we never reviewed the game upon release. With that in mind, and also taking into consideration the fact that many people will be coming to the game without prior experience, our review of the remastered edition aims to evaluate the game as a whole, rather than purely a simple remaster.
Arkane Studios’ Dishonored is all about empowerment. It’s a game that’s flexible enough to be played how you want to play it, and no matter which approach you take through its expansive levels, you never feel as though you’re being pressured to play according the designers’ intentions. Instead, Dishonored hands you a diverse range of tools and asks you to complete your objectives however you see fit.
Many have compared Dishonored to the Thief series, and it’s easy to see why. From the Steampunk dystopian setting to the wide range of stealth options at your disposal, Dishonored is a game that shares a lot of DNA with Looking Glass Studios’ seminal series. But Dishonored also has shades of Deus Ex and Bioshock in its makeup, as well as plenty of its own ideas. Like Thief, you can play through the entire game without killing or even alerting a single person to your presence – and you’re even awarded an achievement for playing this way – but you can also play through the whole thing as a superhuman psychopath, wielding devastating magical abilities and bringing a bloody end to everyone you encounter.
That Dishonored allows you to take either approach without ever feeling admonished for it, or feeling as though you’re playing contrary to the designers’ intent, is worth applauding. Too many games these days claim to champion player choice only to limit your playstyle and force you through linear environments with only a single way to complete your objective. Who can forget Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s mandatory violent approach or Boss Fights, or the recent Thief reboot’s disappointingly hemmed-in levels? Arkane Studios understands that in order to make players feel truly powerful, they need to be given the freedom to exercise that power how they want to.
That’s not to say that there aren’t consequences to your actions. A loose morality system sees the world subtly reacting to your actions. Kill too many people, and plague rats will start to overrun the city, guard layouts will change, and how certain characters react to you will be altered. The system isn’t implemented to such a degree that entire missions or objectives change depending on your decisions, but rather it impacts the overall atmosphere of the city as you get deeper into the game.
And what a city it is. Dunwall is Half-Life 2‘s City 17 meets Bioshock’s Rapture by way of Moby Dick: a dystopian Victorian-flavored sprawl powered by Whale oil and kept in an iron grip by a regime that patrols the streets in bipedal walkers and keeps trespassers at bay with giant lightning-spewing guard towers. Playing as Corvo, former bodyguard to the Empress and now a fugitive after being framed for her murder, you spend your time immersed in the City and its environs. Whether it’s infiltrating a masked ball being thrown for the upper classes, or wading through sewage in the city’s slums, Dunwall is as much a character in the game as the citizens who inhabit it. The atmosphere, backstory and conversations between characters lend an authenticity to Dunwall that so many games lack, while the copious audio logs, letters and other notes found throughout hint at urban legends, dark secrets and more powerful forces at play.
The level design throughout is superb, offering a multitude of hidden passages and routes to your objective that rewards exploration. Confronted by a heavily-guarded entrance protected by an Arc Pylon (the aforementioned lightning towers) and a number of guards, it’s easy to find yourself reloading a save to try different approaches. Perhaps there’s an entrance to a nearby sewer that will allow you to sneak by unnoticed? If you can find the control panel for the Arc Pylon, you could turn it against the guards it protects, reducing them to ash. Exploring the rooftops might reveal a way past, or you could lure the guards away from the post and take them out one by one. And that’s just one example – each level is filled to the brim with areas that can be tackled in multiple ways, and it’s easy to spend hours teasing out every last secret.
Corvo’s Blink power, essentially a short-range teleport, makes traversing the environment a joy, not to mention providing each level a degree of verticality rarely seen in first-person stealth games. Other powers can mask your footsteps, cause bodies to fizzle away into ash – very handy when you don’t want anyone stumbling across them – and locate hidden secrets. Possession is probably the most fun to use, allowing you to take control of rats and – eventually – other people, accessing otherwise inaccessible areas. The most inventive powers are, inevitably, the most destructive. Listening to the panicked screams of a guard as they’re devoured alive by a swarm of summoned plague rats never gets old, and neither does sending entire groups cartwheeling through the air with a blast of wind.
While the general quality of writing throughout is frequently excellent, and the self-contained stories within each level are compelling, the over arching narrative falls down. As a silent protagonist, Corvo isn’t the most compelling character, which makes it difficult to become emotionally invested in his quest for vengeance. With so much corruption and depravity on display, it’s equally difficult to sympathise with almost any of the characters you encounter throughout the game. You’re repeatedly told how desperate the city’s inhabitants have become, how oppressed nad mistreated they are – but when all you ever see is the worst of humanity on display – among both the oppressors and the oppressed – it’s difficult to accept. Dunwall feels like a city that only has itself to blame for the state it’s in, which can make you apathetic to ensuring its salvation.
Dishonored: Definitive Edition comes packaged with all the game’s previous DLC: Dunwall City Trials, The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches. Dunwall City Trials is basically a simple series of challenge maps, forcing you to complete maps under certain conditions. It’s pretty standard stuff, and only really worth bothering with if you’ve rinsed the rest of the content and still want more. The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches, however, are far more interesting.
These two story-led expansions put players in the shoes of Doud, the assassin responsible for murdering the Empress at the beginning of the main story. Substantial in length – combined, the two packs offer around a dozen hours of gameplay – and containing some of the best level design in the entire game, the only thing that lets these expansions down is that, like the main campaign, the story simply isn’t compelling enough.
The premise is interesting – a repentant Doud, made aware that he doesn’t have long to live, attempts to redeem himself; but the execution leaves something to be desired. Doud never really develops into a convincing character, and the central mystery never becomes as compelling as it could have been. But the fantastic level design makes these expansions a satisfying addition to the overall package, and the new gadgets and tweaked powers at Doud’s disposal – the Arc mine is a wickedly amusing highlight – offer something fresh.
Doud’s levels are significantly more challenging than the main game, even on the lowest difficulty setting; the sheer size of the levels and unforgiving checkpointing can mean you’ll find yourself replaying the same sections over and over unless you remember to manually save frequently.
Far from being frustrating, the increase in difficulty is actually welcome. Towards the end of the main campaign, Corvo is so overpowered that playing on even the highest difficulty setting provides little challenge, so being able to delve into content as Doud where you feel vulnerable again provides a sense of satisfaction that’s sorely missing from the latter stages of Corvo’s story.
On the technical side, Dishonored’s remastered form is something of a disappointment. With no new texture work or overhauled geometry, the only benefits are an increase to full 1080p resolution and solid 60fps. Essentially, what you’re getting is parity with the original PC release with the DLC bundled in, and while still a very attractive game – in no small part thanks to the unique artstyle – it’s clearly a game built for the previous generation. Unreal Engine 3 is nearly a decade old now, and it’s showing its age. If you played Dishonored when it first came out, there’s little here to justify purchasing the remaster.
For those who’ve yet to visit the city of Dunwall, and yet to experience Dishonored’s open-ended gameplay and fantastic level design, then now is the best time to do so. The passage of time has done nothing to take the shine off what was, and still is, one of the most entertaining open-ended gameplay experiences of recent years.
A great stealth game and an empowering action game all in one, Dishonored grabs you from beginning to end. Roll on Dishonored 2.