It’s a hard life being an NPC. You wait around for hours for that sanctimonious vigilante whose face has been hogging all the advertising posters to come buy some swanky equipment off you, or examine your dialogue for some nuggets of information about their impending quest, but when they finally show up they ignore your forlorn pre-programmed cries and brush past… Or worse they hack your head off.
Spare a thought then for the NPCs of Arkane Studios’ stealthy assassination game, Dishonored. Whatever it said in the job description of the soldiers and prison officers of Dunwall City, it clearly failed to mention “Applicants must accept danger of dismemberment by bloodthirsty rats, possession, and be able to whistle at least four bars of ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor?’”
Then again, maybe it did. The NPCs roaming the dark streets of steampunk city, Dunwall, aren’t the most observant of beings. In one mission, I gravely misjudged the teleporting distance from my cushy patch of shadows to the one just past the loitering guards, and found myself aparating right under their noses. With a panicked shriek I quickly flitted to behind a pillar, looking back in time to see a bemused guard scratching his head, content to disregard the shady masked man who just vanished from under his nose as the mere frolicking of a particularly large and resourceful rat.
Dishonoured follows the plight of Corvo, an assassin who seeks revenge after being framed for the brutal murder of the Empress he was technically meant to be body guarding. The first five-minutes of gameplay taken up with sunshiny skies and innocent games of hide and seek are soon replaced by the dripping walls of a dungeon and the shambling footsteps of zombie-like citizens known as “weepers”. Turns out it can be a hard life for core characters too.
Undoubtedly, the strength of Dishonored lies in its imaginative gameplay. Each level can be completed in a variety of ways: you can smash your way into a masquerade ball and redecorate the entrance hall with spinal fluid or you can swipe a party invitation off an unsuspecting guest and slip in undercover. Need to infiltrate the hotel your mark is holed up in? Blink across the rooftops and through an open window or possess an unsuspecting fish swimming in the moat to swim through a grate into the hotel’s basement.
Magic really is crucial (there’s a nifty achievement for completing the story with no spells, but what’s the fun in that?). The abilities Corvo wields are a potent mix of explosive combat and creative cunning. When mastered, players are rewarded with complete control of time and space, meaning with a flick of L2 you can stop time, possess the unlucky guard who just fired his pistol in your face, and walk him straight into the path of his own suspended bullet. With the world still in suspended animation around you, you can then blink a safe distance away to the rooftops above, ready to unpause time, grab your popcorn and watch the ensuing chaos. It’s a technical marvel.
The beauty of this is the glorious satisfaction of playing a game that actually lets you play it, not just cajoling you down the single track of scripted levels like a reluctant horse bridled with blinkers. The freedom of crafting your own route and set-pieces is one of the game’s main successes, giving the player absolute autonomy and forcing you to pay attention to every scrap of detail in the world around you. You have to work for the answers to complicated predicaments, and each of Dishonored’s nine levels become a playground littered with opportunities for you to build glorious combos with your powers, and ransack hidden rooftops for clues to achieve your goals.
It’s a shame then that with such dynamic skillsets the actual dialogue of Dishonored is so bland. The world is so rich that it screams out for a story to match, but the trouble with a silent protagonist is he becomes the epitome of THAT nightmare guy you’d hate to sit next to at a dinner party. You know, the strong, silent type who can’t hold a conversation and, in the case of Corvo, only seems to want to eat tinned sardines he finds in sewers.
Whilst this lack of character is a deliberate ploy designed to make you project your own personality upon Corvo’s mute canvas, it actually does the opposite, preventing players from immersing themselves fully in the gameplay. What’s more, being dragged back between missions to your allies’ HQ (a rundown pub, because ALL the best plans are hatched over a pint of beer) seriously drags the pacing. It’s a shame that amid such a talented vocal cast as Mad Men’s John Slattery and Lord of the Rings’ Brad Dourif, Corvo himself is unable to find his voice.
Still, the last time we were treated to the sight of a man in an iron mask swashbuckling his way through a corrupted city, it turned out to be the choirboy face of a young Leonardo Di Caprio. Fourteen years on, Dishonored delivers an experience that is far more satisfying, mixing the decadence of Victorian London with the corruption of a dystopian state and a generous helping of arcane magic thrown in for good measure. It has revitalised first-person gaming, breaking away from the generic storm-through-pre-set-levels-and-release-all-those-stabbitty-stab-urges-you’ve-been-bottling-up to create something truly unique, compelling and downright addictive.