Sunday, January 20, 2013


Kind of an obvious way to go for the title of a review of the game Dishonored (Xbox 360) and rather gives away the central thrust, but I have to say I expected greater things. And therein lies part of the problem: expectations.

IGN praised it as a breath of fresh air – says so on the box. In terms of  design and overall aesthetics this steampunk revenge tale has fresh air and creativity by the boatload, but ultimately unfolds as a brighter and less twisted Bioshock.

Ah, Bioshock. There was another game I didn’t embrace with the same fervor (in honor of Dishonored, I am dropping ‘u’s for the duration of this review) as other gamers. It was darkly beautiful, sumptuously atmospheric and creepy – and yet missing something in the immersion department. Social interaction was minimal – and yeah, I realise it’s odd for a video gamer to miss such things – and your path was carefully controlled, essentially on thinly disguised rails like a Dalek in a quarry. (Among my other Christmas presents was Doctor Who: Death To The Daleks.)

Here in Dishonored (where you get the same powers-in-the-left-hand, weapon-in-the-right arrangement) there is more daylight and more freedom to roam and choose your own specific path, but I was still left disengaged, exploring the (actually pretty finite) limits of the world as a detached observer. Admiring the scenery and the distinctive graphic-novel visual style, but with none of the emotional involvement you might even expect from a decent movie.

That’s not to say certain emotions didn’t run high. Principally frustration.

On the surface, the game favors the stealthy and indeed non-lethal approach. Not only are there handsome rewards in the gamer achievement stakes dangled in front of you – if you care to check these things – but an altogether happier conclusion awaits if you assume the role of the vengeful but pacifistic assassin. An oxymoron you may be, but I’m reliably informed a far bleaker ending is in store for any who take the bloodier and noisier course. (Again, reminiscent of Bioshock.)

Now, I happen to like games with an emphasis on stealth. Always makes for a good challenge and it’s the subtler approach. And on the plus side, this game doesn’t fall into the trap of other titles, where you spend the whole game going all softly-softly only to come up against a climactic boss battle where there’s nowhere to hide and all your prior stealth tactics are chucked out the window.


With powers not always as co-operative as they could be, the game being overly particular about where you stand behind an unsuspecting guard in order to neutralise them (a button press in the wrong place can quickly turn them into suspecting guards) and some nonlethal takedowns being inexplicably attributed as kills only at the end of quite long missions, your journey will be unnecessarily fraught. Save often, advises the load-screen game tips. Absolutely – I recommend after every takedown and every ten yards or so you’ve progressed unseen. This will improve your chances of success and further disrupt any sense of an immersive gaming experience. Even with this jerking, faltering progress – like a road movie on a gridlocked freeway - you may realise that the guy you carefully set down unconscious on a shelf (out of reach of the flesh-eating rats) for some unfathomable reason still counts in the game’s mind as a kill. At which point, if you want your clean record, you’d best restart the mission from scratch.

And it’s no use replaying previous missions in hopes of expunging a red blot on your copy book – unless you’re prepared to replay the entire game through from that point. Which I wasn’t. (NB: Kills racked up in the prologue, where you are nobly defending your Empress – before you fully realise what’s going on and where it’s all leading - will count against you, so this may involve restarting from the very beginning.)

Once I was done, out of curiosity, I did experiment with a replay of the last mission adopting the violent approach and I have to say it was a lot more fun. Which is disappointing and counter to what I’m sure the designers were aiming at. Still challenging, with none of the frustrations, I kind of wish I’d adopted that route from the outset. But it’s just not good enough a story to warrant multiple playthroughs – no matter that the achievements are tailored for just that.

It’s a very simple tale and when you’ve slain (or disposed of) your main foe two-thirds of the way through the dramatic twist of a betrayal is scarcely a shock.

It’s not all bad. Production values are high and there’s a noteworthy cast of vocal talents – Susan Sarandon, Brad Dourif, CarrieFisher. Nice coup. Selective combinations of powers, when they behave, can be amusing and entertaining as well as granting you an edge. And as well as the artistic qualities and visual style, there’s a nice variety of settings (albeit some are visited twice) – including a masque party and one mission to cross what looks like Tower Bridge transformed into some Jules Vernian fortress. Lovely stuff.

But beauty is only skin deep and that’s about as far as the game impresses.

At the end of the day, it rates roughly on par with Bioshock and Deus Ex. Gloriously realised worlds, but my stay in each of them failed to live up to expectations.

The rewards are there for those willing to put in the time and effort, I guess, but that might not mean a rewarding experience. Whatever Dishonored is missing, it’s more than a simple ‘u’.


No comments: