Dishonored is an odd bird. There is no one genre or adjective that entirely describes it. Is it action-oriented, with both ranged and melee combat? If that's your approach. Is stealth a gameplay factor? Sure, if you want it to be. Do you have magical powers? Believe it or not, yes, you do. Does it take place in a steampunk-themed city?
You get the idea.
"We here at [developer] Arkane Studios are very into creating games with first-person action, strong storylines, and stealth," said Harvey Smith, one of the two co-creative directors of Dishonored, before I spent some time playing the demo. And despite the fact that Dishonored is such a bizarre amalgamation of different gameplay facets and themes, for the most part, it works.
In Dishonored, you play primarily in the city of Dunwall as Corvo Atano, a former bodyguard of the city's Empress. Unfortunately, you're framed for the assassination of the Empress and you find yourself on the run, seeking vengeance against the man who framed you, Lord Regent. The objective of my mission in the demo was to abduct a man named Sokolov (note: not kill) and transport him to the docks of the city.
Sneaking around in the shadows and grimy streets of the city is highly reminiscent of the Thief games; the influence here is obvious. But perhaps even more noticeable is how much the indoor environments possess an art style similar to that of another title that Arkane designed: Bioshock 2. So again, even in terms of the visual style, the game comes off as a bit of a Frankenstein monster. But that's not to say that Dunwall isn't a sight to behold. Its steampunk style and unique architecture certainly adds to the game uniqueness. "We wanted the game to have a visual identity," said Raphael Colantonio, the game's other creative director. "We wanted it to look like a moving painting."
As soon as I began playing, it became readily apparent that, between the layout of the environments, my weapons, and my magical abilities, there were at least half a dozen ways I could go about accomplishing my goal. This power of choice and the option to approach a given situation from a number of different angles seems to be a popular theme these days, what with very similar principles being reflected in the new Hitman and Splinter Cell titles as well.
"There's a lot of vertical space in Dishonored," said Colantonio, pointing out this feature as a means to circumvent enemies and infiltrate certain buildings. As such, your path doesn't always need to be on the ground or strictly linear, and indeed, this was basically the bread and butter of my approach to kidnapping my target during the demo. One of Corvo's spells is Blink, which allows the player to teleport short distances. You better believe that I immediately started scaling buildings like Spiderman as soon as I could to avoid armed guards.
But there are plenty of other creative ways to break and enter, too. Before I played the game myself, I witnessed Colantonio playing through a different demo of the game in which he possessed a fish and entered the building housing his targets through an aquaduct. This sort of clever thinking in the game design really encourages players to think outside the box. Thankfully, however, for players like me who simply aren't that bright, taking the straightforward, brute force approach is also an option.
As I continued to make my way toward Sokolov, I hit one area that was especially dense with enemies and opted to use one of my favorite powers in Corvo's arsenal, Bend Time. With Bend Time, I could freeze time, queue up a bunch of actions -- in this case, I launched both regular and incendiary crossbow bolts at my enemies -- that remain frozen until I toggled off the spell (or run out of mana). After I turned off the spell, my bolts went from hanging immobilized in the air to sinking themselves into my opponents and everyone dropped at once.
And it's always easy to manage your resources in Dishonored. Weapons or spells (one or the other, you can't have them equipped simultaneously) are equipped in the left hand, while your knife always remains in your right. To swap out weapons and spells, all I had to do was hold down the left bumper to pull up a power/inventory wheel that allowed me to quickly switch things in and out. What I especially appreciated is that when pulling up the wheel, time was slowed, but not stopped; this prevented me from abusing the ability during firefights. I still had a moment to collect my thoughts and pick the right tools for the job, but I didn't have all the time in the world, because my opponents were still shooting (or slashing).
A note about the weapons and gadgets, though: as entertaining as they are to use, they're not meant to be relied on exclusively. In Dishonored, you'll find the most success when you blend stealth, spells, and weaponry rather than just using only one. For instance, Corvo's knife isn't terribly powerful when using it in a full-on assault, but when you perform a death-from-above execution (dropping down from a ledge to land on your prey), your knife can be used for a one-hit kill. Pistols are especially slow and cumbersome (albeit insanely powerful) and are best used in combination with spells if you have to launch an all-out offensive.
And for me, that's what it came down to. See, I kind of botched my stealthy approach when I came upon a group of enemies and, while attempting to use Bend Time, accidentally used Devouring Swarm, a spell that resulted in my target literally being eaten alive by rats. Whoops. So as the remaining enemies were alerted and began to charge toward me, I got to experience the game's more aggressive features. Aside from Devouring Swarm, Corvo also has a Windblast spell that he can use to either knock back opponents or, in the right scenario, blow them right off a ledge to their deaths. There is even a melee combat system in place, in which properly timed blocks can be used to temporarily stun enemies and launch well-placed counterattacks.
But you have to be careful about mowing down everybody in your path. "You see, killing everybody commits you to a darker endgame," explained Smith, who went on to say that the number of innocents you kill is a tracked stat throughout the game. What exactly a "darker endgame" means remains to be seen, however, as it is undoubtedly tied into the game's story.
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