Dishonored PS3 review – many kinds of magic
Consider the kennels: an entire sub-level you can explore in your mission to assassinate High Overseer Campbell. In one of the game’s most sprawling and complex levels, crawling with the Lord Regent’s forces, street urchins and gangs of thugs, the kennels just kind of exist, waiting for you to stumble on them. There’s no objective marker, no obvious reason for them to be there. But if you do stumble across them, you find yourself voyeur to a guard who loves his wolfhounds to an alarming degree. Sneaking over the tops of their cages, you find a note that reveals someone’s been trying to weaponse the mutts by sticking Spring Razors (Dishonored’s tripmines) on them. Later in the game, when you’re possessing those wolfhounds, stopping time and popping said Spring Razors on their furrowed brows, you not only thank that kennel level for the tip, you feel a greater urge to explore the game’s every nook and cranny.
And Dishonored rewards that adventuring spirit beautifully. Using the Blink ability in particular – a short-range teleport that quickly becomes your bread-and-butter mode of transport – you’re able to survey an area from the rooftops, or nip through windows and into the buildings that surround your main objectives, often picking up a health or Mana vial, a painting by the great Anton Sokolov, or a safe full of goodies and accompanying puzzle to find the combination. There’s also a lot of literature lying around, from works of romantic fiction to essays on whaling. There’s an RPG-esque level of narrative depth if you’re prepared to get your hands dirty.
A level of depth that the star-studded cast brings to life with varying levels of success. Chloe Moretz’s voice work creates an instant protective bond between young heiress to the throne Emily Kaldwin and your bad self. Mad Men’s John Slattery makes a great pompous resistance leader in Admiral Havelock and Dune’s Brad Dourif makes a complex, skin-crawling presence out of Piero, creator of your deadly wares, member of Dunwall’s intelligentsia and rival of the great Sokolov.
It’s that neat combination of spirited voice acting and thoughtful writing that prevents Piero from being a glorified buy/sell window, but he does have the unfortunate side-effect of highlighting how under-developed other characters are: The Outsider, architect of the supernatural, giver of dark powers, omnipotent plane-traveller, is a particular disappointment. In the G-Man role he plays, he should be fascinating, quirky, unknowable. In execution he’s a Hollister model who pops up now and again and turns the lights all blue.
And this is my only serious criticism of an otherwise lifestyle-affirming experience: nine levels isn’t enough to let Dishonored breathe, to let you feel part of the world and to give the narrative and characters the time and space they need to develop to a satisfying level. This isn’t a playtime gripe – it took me over 20 hours to play through just once, and the first thing I wanted to do when the credits rolled was play it all again completely differently.
The real problem is that for all the backstory evident in every book, every poster on every wall and every painterly streetscape, there are only five or six distinct locations to explore. Among them are instant classics like a masquerade ball that plays out differently every time, and a kidnapping romp in a mad inventor’s riverside retreat. The game changes according to your actions in a manner that dodges the gimmicky, too: avoid bloodshed and you see fewer rats and plague victims in the world, sparser enemy fortification and a different narrative path. It really is a darker game if you’ve a taste for murder.
Sadly, two of the nine levels use the same chunk of backstreets and town squares, and the penultimate stage is a hostile version of the friendly between-level hub you and your fellow resistance fighters inhabit. Both these areas are multi-pathed, cleverly designed and rich in atmosphere, but there’s no avoiding the fact they’re recycled.
Narrative beats seem a bit odd at times, too – the game’s main story arc seems resolved halfway through. It feels like Dishonored was once a much grander project, and has been stripped back. Still, if we all go out and buy it, Arkane can make a ton of DLC (we’ve clocked the DLC prompt screen on the main menu already) and bolster that content, admittedly not in an ideal fashion. Given the scale of the world map Arkane released way back when the game debuted, we wouldn’t bet against a sequel either… again, if everyone goes out and buys it.
And we are all going to go out and buy it, right? Even though there’s no number in the name or desert gun-blokes on the box. Because the buzz Dishonored will give you is unrivalled, and the spontaneous moments of brilliance you’ll experience will be unique. It’s a wake-up call for first-person gaming, resurrecting long-lost values and casually plunging a knife into the neck of the generic sequel.
Games journalists have an innate soft spot for a certain type of game. You know the one – gutsy new IP with grand overarching concept, distinct art style, peppered with esoteric references to classic literature or history. The likes of Bioshock, Journey and, indeed, Dishonored tend to attract lovestruck admiration not just because they manage to swerve the usual comic-book clichés and resist the guiles of barely dressed gun-chicks, but because they make it so evident that the industry we write about has its own Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick-calibre individuals – creative visionaries who’d probably be household stars if they weren’t obsessed by interactive media as we are. And that makes us happy. It makes us forget about all those passionless sequels and truck simulators, and remember that – at their best – games are important, damn it, and our parents were wrong about us passing up that teaching job.