Dishonored has been one of the biggest surprises of this year for me. Developed by Arkane Studios, of Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic fame (or at least, fame in my book), and combining their penchant for first-person melee combat gameplay with Harvey Smith's Deus Ex-ian talents, I was absolutely certain I was going to find myself disappointed in the most crushing way imaginable. After BioShock set itself up as a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 but ended up being Doom with some pseudo-philosophical jargon added in, I was fully expecting the next big shooter-RPG hybrid to be a let-down.
Yet, it wasn't. Dishonored is a fantastic game, and I had a huge amount of fun playing through it over the last couple of weeks. Broadly, it was just about everything I wanted out of a game... or at least, about as close as it could be to one not modeled from the substance of my deepest desires and dipped in chocolate. Artistic, smartly written, with well-defined and well-explored characters, excellent level design that offers options without pigeon-holing players, and atmosphere and ambiance up to its eyeballs, it's a great accomplishment and a joy for me to play.
But, it is my nature to nitpick everything, chronically so, and so while I write a longer article discussing both what I think are the game's successes and failures in more extensive detail, I'd like to discuss what I feel are three major problems that Dishonored has, and what it could have done to improve upon them.
Dishonored takes heavily from Deus Ex, but the second big influence on the game is undoubtedly Thief. Dishonored is generally far more focused on stealthy gameplay than it is on Deus Ex's more open-ended, hub exploration model, and the mission structure with objective summaries confirms this as well. But as much as Dishonored calls itself "inspired by" Thief, the fact is that its stealth gameplay is significantly lacking compared to that title.
In terms of basic mechanics, Dishonored simply does not have as much to offer. Although light and shadow apparently do have an influence on whether enemies can detect you as you sneak around, I found it to be an incredibly subtle distinction, as enemies were able to spot me hulking in the shadows from distances of 40-50 feet near the endgame. There is also almost no reliable way to manipulate light and shadow in the game, which was Thief's big technical innovation in 1997... if Thief could do this with dynamic lightmaps running on antiquated technology, why can't Unreal Engine 3.x.x manage the same? Sure, it's more a design problem than a technical one now, but even so, one would expect that after so many years improving graphics, we'd start using them more consistently to enhance gameplay as well.
Additionally, the lack of tools in stealth is a big misstep. Thief gave players a wide variety of tools, from flash bombs, to moss arrows, to grappling hooks, to climbing gloves, to water arrows, and more. Deus Ex didn't offer quite the same selection, but even it had the courtesy to offer non-lethal alternatives like the stun prod and gas grenades. Dishonored, even with its Blink power that lets players teleport around the environment quickly, feels like it's missing several critical stealth tools with its paltry poison bolts for the crossbow and the ever-popular stealth takedown. There is almost no evolution of stealth gameplay over the course of the game, which is a real shame when it's apparently the focus of the title.
Last, the way the AI is set up leaves something to be desired. In addition to being very poor at looking just a few degrees up (the guards in Dishonored's world must play a lot of console shooters), whenever a single guard spots you, every other guard in the area will be alerted to your presence and will magically know exactly where you are. This means that being detected always forces you into a straight-up firefight, and running away is strongly discouraged in favor of save-scumming. Combined with the lack of progression and options in non-lethal equipment to use, it means that players rarely have any adequate escape route or options to get out of a fight other than slaughtering the alerted enemies.
Dishonored has a silent protagonist, which many people will point to as an antiquated thing in 2012. I don't quite agree with this perspective, simply because it assumes that a silent protagonist is a technological or budgetary limitation and not a design decision with upsides and downsides. However, Dishonored's choice to use a silent protagonist ultimately harms its narrative delivery and the resonance of its themes and characters.
Silent protagonists are usually selected because they allow players to project onto them, serving more literally as the player avatar in the game world. However, Dishonored has a very defined character already - Corvo Attano. Corvo has a definite origin, upbringing, occupation, history, and past relationships with key characters in the game. He's not some newbie punk who's working his way up from the bottom - he's one of the most important people in the empire. With such an established character, it becomes hard for players to project themselves into the game - so the other approach of creating a character that players identify with is almost required.
In Deus Ex, JC Denton was not a great character, but rather than an avatar, he was someone the player could identify with in the third person. I never felt like I wanted to be *me* in Deus Ex - JC was appropriate to the setting and themes of the game. It let players learn his motivations, his history, and then make choices based on how they interpreted the character.
Dishonored attempts involved conversations featuring the player, but Corvo never utters a word, so in addition to just being a bit weird when more extensive dialogue sequences occur, it's very difficult to get a sense for his true motivations, his relationships with other characters, his personality. Additionally, many sequences feel like they move too quickly because of the lack of dialogue on his part, and some plot holes could have easily been filled in if Corvo could simply ask questions and direct the discussion himself.
I think that Deus Ex's tri-tier character progression system of weapons and equipment, skill points, and augmentations was a work of genius. Each one of these systems grew and developed over the course of the game, each had unique qualities which were rarely redundant with the others, they were all rewarded through different kinds of gameplay and exploration, and most importantly, they offered opportunities each for all kinds of play-styles, not just one or two. Sniper? There are augmentations, weapons, mods and skills for that, just as there are for a demolitions expert, a melee assassin, and more.
Dishonored tries to do similar, but is far less successful due to poor pacing and a lack of options. Bone charms are effectively equippable passive perks found by exploring the environment, and give small bonuses such as extra health or quieter movement. However, they are distributed randomly around the game world, so their capabilities had to be fairly generic and limited, since a player could get any of them at any time. It also makes planning character "builds" for replays difficult.
Runes, meanwhile, are currency used to unlock new occult powers and more substantial passive upgrades, similar to augmentations in the original Deus Ex. However, the lack of significant upgrade tiers for individual powers, and the relatively low number of them, means that players will have purchased almost all the powers they need only one or two missions into the game. Additionally, the ability to buy any power at any time means that it was impossible for the level designers to create really interesting, exclusive challenges and solutions - sure, you can sneak in through a drain by possessing a fish, or summon a rat swarm to devour your enemies, but why bother when you can just use an equally-effective grenade, or the deviously powerful "walk through front door" ability? There's always a fool-proof solution, and it's usually easier than the one requiring you use a power anyway.
Last, weapons, while open to upgrades, are quite limited. There is a distinct lack of guns and other toys throughout the game, especially for stealthy players, and while I appreciate the attempts to make limited equipment feel more valuable, the fact is that there is very little "heavy artillery" for more action-oriented players. Blueprints can be found and bought throughout the game, but all these do is upgrade the ammo capacity and effectiveness of your weapons in a completely linear way - there are no trade-offs to make. And, like the powers, weapons really don't get more interesting or varied as the game goes on, leading to a feeling of stagnation around halfway through. Again, it's nice to see an action game that doesn't thrust a minigun and bazooka in your hands, but played as a shooter, Dishonored doesn't get very far because, like the stealth aspect, it has significantly less to offer players than its inspirations.
As I've said, I still enjoyed Dishonored quite a lot, and I'll be discussing its successes and failures in more detail in a follow-up. It's also worth noting that not all of these is an example of "bad design" - but rather, they're things that I personally believe are inferior to what could have been. I really do have to wonder at the justification regarding some of these decisions - did it come down to time and budget, or ease of development, or a more conscious choice to limit the player's capabilities to encourage other elements of gameplay?