Thursday, 18 October 2012

Now Playing: Dishonored

Dishonored is an excellent first person stealth/combat game. Set in a city in the midst of an industrial revolution, you assume the role of the bodyguard to the Empress. Framed for her murder, you escape captivity and set about restoring the rightful heir to the throne.

The setting is a wonderful mix of steam-punk science and forbidden magic colliding in a world rocked by a terrible plague. It’s a fascinating world, with a lot of history and subtle depth. The story itself is fairly straightforward and predictable, but it is engaging enough to compel you to play through to witness its outcome.

Its cast of characters (with good VA) are all varied, interesting people, but like the setting, the characterisation is incredibly subtle. This is because the player has the freedom to immerse themselves in this world as much or as little as they choose.

Talking to characters, playing audio logs, using the Heart tool and reading the numerous books scattered throughout provides more details and insight into the story and its characters, and also into the world, its history and culture. Its graphical style is reminiscent of Bioshock, which may not be to everyone’s tastes, but I found it quite fitting (although that shouldn’t excuse some rather shoddy textures in places) I also get quite a Half-Life 2 vibe – a city falling into ruin ruled by an oppressive regime. And a plucky resistance movement relying entirely on the actions of a mute weirdo.

Dishonored is split into eight levels, with a small hub section between most. It’s a game with two primary mechanics – combat and stealth. You can play to one extreme or the other (and doing so affects the ending cinematic and a few subtle changes to the game world during levels), or with a mixture of both.

Although you are an assassin, it is possible to complete the game without killing or alerting anyone to your presence. Or you can plough through as a murderous brute. Either way is extremely satisfying (although not particularly challenging – but I’ll get to that in a moment) thanks to the varied range of tools, weapons and supernatural abilities at your disposal, many of which can be used in conjunction in various ways.

The player is given a remarkable degree of freedom in how they choose to approach each mission. Will they use non-lethal stealth? Lethal stealth? Brute force? Or a mixture of all three? There are multiple routes to each primary target and solutions as to how you can choose to deal with them. There are also a number of optional side missions and plenty of collectibles, some for fun, others for upgrades. Dishonored's biggest flaw lies in its difficulty.

I’ve always thought of challenge as an integral component of this medium. I think it’s important a game, no matter what it is, presents some level of challenge to the player. Balancing a range of difficulties to cater to various skill levels can be tricky, I understand that. But challenge is important. It serves as an incentive to keep the player hooked, to improve, to win. Victory feels rather hollow if it isn’t earned.

But even on its hardest setting, I found doing a non-lethal/no alert run relatively easy, simply due to the fact that the player character is simply too powerful. Abilities such as Dark Vision totally breaks any tension from a stealth run. Blink, although smoothly integrated into the environment, really needed to be more restricted in its use, at least on higher difficulties. Possession seems balanced about right in terms of cost and duration, however. Slow time is undoubtedly fun, but makes combat runs way too easy, as you can calmly dispatch multiple attackers at your leisure.

I appreciate the variety of abilities available and having the freedom to use/combine them how I see fit, but it does seem like they needed to be toned down, or more restrictive in their use. Sadly, the only real challenge in Dishonored will come from player set restrictions.

Overall though, I’d still highly recommend Dishonored. It may not be groundbreaking, but it’s an excellent game with plenty of replay value and is certainly going to be in the running for a few Game of the Year awards.


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