Dishonored, one of the most anticipated games of the year, has built itself up with the promise of incredible exploration and many different ways to completing a mission; ranging from a stealthy, non-lethal approach to a mindless slaughter on the way to the end. After all this hype, many have hoped that Dishonored would show that a game about stealth that does not hold the players hand could prosper in a modern industry. However, the game’s simplicity and lack of difficulty has, unfortunately, produced a product much different to what many where expecting.
Dishonored is built around the “Blink” ability, where you can instantly jump from place to place. While in theory it is an interesting idea, it can easily be abused to skip any obstacle you encounter, meaning that even in the highest difficulty settings the game is easy. The game’s AI doesn’t help with this lack of difficulty either, with the combat being incredibly simplistic and guards often not noticing very obvious things. For example, as I hit an assassination target with a sleep dart, to take him down non-lethally, five guards rushed past me to his body, do nothing, and proceed to run back to their posts like nothing had happened. It’s amazing how bad the AI can be at times.
While it may not be perfect, I actually quite like the nonlethal neutralization of your targets. In most other games, a nonlethal takedown consists of simply knocking them out and leaving, but Dishonored usually requires you to complete a separate objective. For example, to non-lethally remove a certain NPC, you need to kidnap him and brand him as an outcast so that he’ll be exiled from the city. Regrettably, this interesting part of the game is tarnished by just how similar most of the other non-lethal options are identical to their lethal counterparts.
The game also tends to hold your hand. For instance, in one mission I was not outright told who my target was, and I was looking forward to trying to deduce the identity of the target, but then one specific NPC flat out told me who to target and how I would take them out, which amounted to telling her to go to the basement and knocking her out there. The lethal option is not much different, requiring you do just kill her instead of knocking her out.
And while branding the target as an outcast and then seeing him as an outcast near the end of the game was a nice touch, more often than not choices made in the game have no effect on the overall game. While some side quests will often reference your previous actions, the main missions have no coherent connection to one another. Nothing you do in one mission will really change the next, other than your chaos statistic which simply represents how many people you killed, so any choices in the game feel hollow and meaningless. The biggest decision you’ll ever make is whether or not to do a full lethal or full stealth run.
Much of the game seems to have no real purpose. I could kill a torturer for a sidequest… but why should I? There’s no in-game reward for doing it, not even any flavor text. Why was I given a zoom upgrade for a game with such tight corridors and cramped level design? Why have so many artifact upgrades when they are so poorly balanced that there is no point in using many? Who wouldn’t ignore the artifact that let them throw things farther, or restores a bit of mana whenever they drink from a water fountain, when they can just as easily get one that the one that gives a complete boost to their health. And even then, you can easily swap out these upgrades, ruining any hard choices you might needed to have made.
Abilities don’t give you any new options, just a different way to approach the same option. I can Blink past an enemy checkpoint, or stop time and run past it, or possess a guard and run past it, or exploit the AI and sneak past it. No matter what, you are forced to go past that same checkpoint. Even then, Blink is so overpowered that there is little point in using any other ability anyway.
Even though the game claims to endorse stealth, it is clearly skewed towards combat. If you’re playing as a stealth character, the only feasible weapons are the crossbow and takedowns, and non-lethal characters are restricted even further by only being able use sleeping darts and nonlethal takedowns. The abilities have some kind of combat use, but a majority of them have no use for a stealthy or non-lethal characters. And even if you play a combat oriented character, there isn’t much variety; a sword, a pistol, a crossbow, functionally similar to the pistol but quieter and weaker, grenades and an explosive trap. I expected a lot more weapons and items to find, but alas. This also means that the only things to spend money on are the upgrades, most of which just increase your max ammo, and ammo. There’s no real point to these purchases anyway, as guards drop ammo anyways.
While on a non-lethal stealth run I had very little option for playing around with and abusing the game mechanics, when messing around with I could do all kinds of hilarious things. If a guard shot me, I could stop time and then grab the bullet midair, or even better, possess the guard and move him in front of the bullet. There was something inherently entertaining about calling a swarm of rats, stopping time, attaching an explosive trap to one, and just watching the carnage. The abilities are actually extremely fun to use, it’s just that the game never really requires you to, and actively discourages you if you are trying to be stealthy and unseen. You don’t really need to be creative when the most obvious and boring path available is also the most efficient one.
I played the PC version and the port is clearly well done. No graphical glitches or slowdown, it’s very customizable in terms of the graphics options and controls, and the default controls aren’t extremely terrible. The game is very clean, sporting almost no bugs, but the polish in the programming doesn’t make up for the lack of depth.
All these issues clump together in one huge mess, and that’s really what makes Dishonored so disappointing. With some better level design, AI, and a greater focus on difficulty, the game could have been really fun. The abilities were amusing, but ultimately unnecessary. The side quests are interesting, but have no effect on the game whatsoever. The weapons are functional, but have almost no variety. The game has some really interesting mechanics like the blink, but just weren’t polished enough. You can throw items to distract guards, and even blow out some candles to make an area darker, but features like this come up once and then are never used again. If the game had been polished just a bit more, the abilities made less situational and more useful, maybe Dishonored could have been a great game.
Regardless of its issues, I’m still glad that Dishonored was released. It certainly not the rebirth of the stealth genre some may have hoped for, and its current $60 price tag is much too high, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction for gaming. For many, Dishonored will be their first taste of a game with gameplay choices and stealth elements, and while shallow, they are ultimately a good first step. If Dishonored creates more fans of a player-choice based approach to game design, we may see more games go the extra mile that Dishonored needed, or perhaps these fans will be content with what they already have. Only time will tell.