They don't make them like this anymore.
To label Dishonored a throwback would be a disservice to the strength of its systems, and yet to call it contemporary would also feel inaccurate. Dishonored might as well be a representative from an alternate history where the multiplayer components tied to Call of Duty failed to disrupt the gaming landscape. Instead it’s born from a place where collective game design embraced and evolved ideas first explored in Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines and BioShock. That choice must have taken an enormous amount of confidence from the team at Arkane Studios (and trust from the Bethesda) – but it totally paid off. Dishonored’s gameplay systems are open, intuitive, and intricate - and engaging them to their potential feels special in a manner unrealized by its contemporaries.
The city of Dunwall has seen better days. Infested with rats, ravaged by plague, and powered (economically and literally) by electric blue whale oil, Dunwall's industrial/steampunk trappings and 18th century European influence are quickly apparent. The premise arises with equal parts terror and grace when renowned bodyguard Corvo Attano is framed for the murder of his Empress and kidnapping of her daughter. Salvaged by a group of idealistic loyalists, Corvo is then dispatched on a series of missions meant to tear down the hierarchy one piece at a time.
Dishonored's narrative isn't as revelatory or ambitious as its gameplay devices, but it's still quite good. A great deal of the back story and general mood of Dunwall is absorbed through either idle banter from NPC's or read in pages of manuscripts populating every other room. Corvo’s arc is relatively simple and easy to follow, but Arkane exercised curious restraint with some of the more intriguing background implications. Gleaned from both the general imagery of the game and some dialog overheard from one of the primary antagonists, there's a lot going on in this world, and speculation is bound to run rampant in the weeks the follow.
Dunwall, and presumably the whole world, is also imperiled with a subversive practice of black magic. Magic in particular is often a conceit to gameplay, a device we never take into question because of its omnipresence in videogames. Dishonored isn't entirely innocent in this regard, but I valued how far the designers and writers ran away with magic's place in the world. Overseers use odd contraptions to play magic-blocking music. Fear and bewilderment engulf those who witnessed someone practice magic. Magic really feels like a black art, making Dishonored's respect for even the tiniest detail palpable.
Corvo, as one might expect, quickly becomes capable of wielding this magic. Most of Corvo's abilities don't veer too far outside the realm of normal videogame superpowers. You have a force push (Wind Blast), an ability to see through walls and enemy vision cones (Dark Vision), limited teleportation (Blink), Possession, Time Bend, and a convenient wild card in the form of turning enemies to ash (Shadow Kill). On their own these abilities are not special, but the degree to which Dishonored allows the player to use these powers at will with no specific instruction is the crux of its promise to the player. Each mission grants a generous amount of space and a seemingly limitless ways in which to tackle objectives. As an assassin your all consuming goal is to kill your mark, but even that duty is open to interpretation. Dishonored is always going to be about how you’re going to get into a place and what you’re going to do when you get there, but it rarely feels limiting.
Corvo also boasts with more traditional weapons. His primary means of combat is through his small sword, which also doubles a block move. A great deal went into Dishonored’s hand to hand combat, which is sort of crazy to think about in that some people will literally never use it. Corvo also has a crossbow with variable ammo and a fairly powerful pistol, and while Dishonored is set from a first person perspective I’d hesitate to label it a first person shooter. It’s more of an unconventional role playing game than anything else.
I chose to play Dishonored at a stealth experience. This may seem odd for a game that permanently affixes your right hand with a knife, that features incendiary bolts for your crossbow, or that offers a power that vaporizes foes so you don't have to bother with body disposal. All of those things seemed fun (and will be properly enjoyed on a future sociopath run) but they didn't coincide with my interpretation of Corvo. When shit got real, as the kids say, I had no problem opening a man's throat, but I spent 85% of Dishonored occupying the shadows, Blinking up roof tops, and making generous use of Dark Vision. Dishonored obliged my wishes by always providing a catwalk or window somewhere on the premises.
I can't even begin to speculate the myriad of ways in which players will exploit Corvo's move set. You can use an upgraded Time Bend to completely stop time, fire multiple bullets at aggressors, and then kick time back in and watch all three of them drop simultaneously. With a bit of practice it's not impossible to use an upgraded Blink to make Neo-like leaps to seemingly out of reach areas. Possession also covets its own particular set of astonishing happenstances, the likes of which are ripe for experimentation. In this regard Dishonored is essentially a toy box crafted especially for people who love to tinker with different outcomes (players are free to pull the same trick at varying degrees of difficulty over and over as well, though that particular approach might get old).
Even the mission design, while technically more rigid, adheres to this philosophy. Your only goal is to kill one specific person, but each area Corvo is dispatched to comes packed with potential side quests and variables. There’s usually someone willing to lend you a hand, and if you cut them a favor they typically make you an offer that’s difficult to pass by. There are also designated options in the form of Runes (which upgrade and unlock magic) and Bone Charms (accessories) populating nooks and crannies in each area. Side quests obviously aren't new, but the degree to which Dishonored weaves them into its narrative and gameplay fabric is utterly seamless.
Dishonored credits any style of play-through via an invisible chaos meter. At the end of each mission you're graded on criteria like how many hostiles or civilians Corvo killed, how many bodies were found, and a bunch of other stats. This mission complete screen is also quick to point out any side missions or relevant narrative choices you made under the Special Actions heading. What's interesting is it doesn't tell you if you missed a particular option, meaning opportunities exist that you'll likely overlook (wonderfully illustrated when I couldn't, for the life of me, devise a non-lethal exit for a certain mark). In any case the cumulative amount of chaos Corvo causes plays a direct role in Dishonored's end game.
In between missions Dishonored gives the player plenty of time to catch a breath. You can stop by a shop Piero’s shop and trade cash for equipment upgrades or disposables or catch up with the loyalists milling about town. Outside of the narrative you can even replay any of Dishonored’s missions from the main menu, though I did find myself wanting for a proper New Game Plus where I could push Corvo as a veritable god.
It should be noted that not all of Dishonored's systems seem to work as they should. I understand that an AI NPC should be limited to their vision cone, but I found it ludicrous that I could commit heinous acts of violence seemingly in plain sight of another guy. Loading times were also a thorn in my side, especially considering the frequency at which I was saving and reloading in the closing hours. Lastly the closing act of Dishonored felt oddly paced, making me want to sprint to the finish rather than employ my previous methodical approach.
It's 2012 and length is a concern in exclusively single player games. Honestly if I don't get to review a game and I want to play it, I usually oblige one of those one night rental kiosks for a six to eight hour affair. I wouldn't be able to do that with Dishonored. Not because it took me over fifteen hours (it did) or that I'd treasure it on my shelf (I will), but because of the simple fact that it’s born to be played more than once. It's also worth mentioning that Dishonored features one of the best save systems in recent memory. Not only does it support a full manual save at any point, but it also stacks three different autosaves just in case you find yourself at the end of a road you didn't necessarily want to be going down.
Dishonored respects its audience by not only trusting them with a myriad of options, but also having the courtesy not to stand in their way. Its gameplay systems are open and intuitive, and reaching their potential feels special in a manner unrealized by any of its contemporaries. In a world where multiplayer suites didn't pollute game design Dishonored would be the latest in a long line of great, dedicated single player games. Instead it’s an anomaly, a game almost too good for its time. Don’t let it pass by.