Best Served Cold: Dishonored Review (Dueling Reviews 2)
Dishonored is a paradox.
On one hand, it’s a beautifully designed piece of software. From design to sound to modeling and texture, the city of Dunwall is a perfect example of setting for a story that, while flawed at points, remains compelling. A spiritual successor to the Thief franchise, stealth is your greatest ally in a hostile world driven by industrial oil and gear.
On the other hand, the choices made on the parts of the designers seem in line with making sure you don’t take advantage of the opportunities provided. Despite being offered numerous different scenarios and methods of completion, as well as different endings, the developers try and pigeon-hole you into making the choices they want.
You play Corvo Attano, silent protagonist, former Royal Bodyguard and wrongly-convicted death row inmate, accused of murdering Empress Jessamine Kaldwin. You’re recruited into a shadow conspiracy aimed at retaking control of a government currently under the thumb of a corrupt bureaucracy. To do this, you’re equipped with high-tech gadgets by the conspirators, who send you out to do their dirty work, eliminating the people who framed you for murder and took control of the city.
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Also, after (somehow) getting the attention of Satan (or possibly God. Maybe both. The definition of “The Outsider” is never clearly explained), he grants you the ability to use magic in order to aid you in your quest because ... why not? He’s DevilGod -- with twice the powers of an ordinary Deity, he doesn’t need to explain himself to you.
Gameplay and control are advanced but intuitive. You can be doing half a dozen different things at once, but at no point do you really feel like you’re out of control. Graphically, it’s gorgeous -- a beautifully sculpted Steampunk world, modeled on 19th century London and Edinburgh, where the fishing and whaling industries are the centerpieces of the Dunwall society and economy. Choices during missions affect future events within the game, giving the player a feeling of really taking control of his fate.
The throwbacks to the Thief series are welcome surprises, too. Stealing coins, gems, and loot and hocking it for upgrades between missions brings back really fantastic memories and allow for a custom experience based on personal play-style. Reading books, journals, and letters and eavesdropping on conversations in order to get the information you need? Amazing touches. Hiding in shadow, sniping with arrows from across courtyards, hiding dead and unconscious bodies -- brilliant.
The story -- while painfully predictable -- is compelling. Not amazing. Not a superb triumph in storytelling. But compelling enough to keep me going. Not to mention, a Bethesda game that doesn't crash to desktop every 10 minutes?! Holy shit, did I blink my eyes and wake up in Xanadu?
However, despite all these positives, the problem with Dishonored -- the main point that prevents it from achieving greatness -- is the morality system. Much like any game with a morality system, yes, you’re offered choices, but really, you're not. The developers want you to go one direction (the “moral high-ground”). By making choices opposed to what the developers want you to do, you’ll be punished -- normally, in multiple fashions.
Case in point with Dishonored: You’re an assassin who’s discouraged from killing people. From the very first time you pick up a sword, you’re told, “Hey, you can kill these guys, and here’s how -- but don’t. If you do, you’re going to get a darker ending, people are going to react poorly to you, and there’s going to be more plague rats and plague victims in the city to deal with. So, here’s your sword, and a guard you need to get past who’s blissfully unaware of your presence. Get past him, and don’t kill him ... unless you do.”
Developers shouldn’t be dictating play style in a game like this, and if they’re going to, then don’t directly tell me that I’m going to suffer the consequences of my actions. It’s cheap and ham-fisted. It’s like going to a Weight Watchers meeting, armed with a German chocolate cake and telling the attendes you’re leaving it there, and they can have it if they want it, but they really shouldn’t because it’s bad for them.
It would be different if the idea of killing people was devalued, like in Thief. However, the entire point of Dishonored is to seek vengeance against the people who killed your Empress, stole her child, and framed you for her murder. Taking the moral high-ground doesn’t make sense within the narrative, yet it’s being forced on the player by means of punishing alternative play.
The bottom line: Dishonored is a well-designed piece of software which suffers only from its own narrative framework. Despite all the positive things one can say regarding its gameplay and level design, it can’t escape the shadow of a flawed morality system that drives the title’s story forward. It's worth a bargain purchase or a Steam sale, but avoid paying full price for it.
Editor's note: This review is based off of the PC version.