PC version reviewed. Some spoilers below, so beware.
The city guard at the foot of the lamppost has just stomped another wandering rodent into a red smear. He hesitates for a moment, then resumes his patrol up the deserted street, eyes peeled for more. If he should have the misfortune to run into a pack of them, they'll probably eat him alive. At the top of the lamppost I perch, like some improbably large crow, silently thanking heaven for the rats that keep everyone's eyes glued to the ground. High in the air, I might as well be invisible. The citizens of Dunwall, the crumbling London/Edinburgh plague pit where Dishonored is set, don't often look up, so unless I do something noisy like fire a pistol, I'm relatively safe.
Using my Blink ability, a short-range teleport, I cross the street to another street light, from there to an air conditioner on the side of a building, and from there to a third-floor balcony. No one has seen me yet, but I don't know who's behind the balcony door. It turns out to be two more guards, with their backs to me, discussing a body on the table before them, the man I've been sent to find. Before they can turn around, I shoot both with sleep darts and they topple. I toggle my Dark Vision ability and look through the walls and floor to see if anyone else is there. Two guards on the floor below, but they can be ignored. I pick up my snoring victims one by one, and toss them on a table in the next room. If I don't get them off the floor, they might be eaten by the omnipresent rats before they wake up, and the game will count them as my kills. This is not a good thing. For a stealth assassination game full of inventive ways to eliminate your enemies, Dishonored has a remarkable distaste for blood.
See, them Pendletons got these rock mines. Have hundreds of souls working down there, half a mile deep below ground. So I'm gonna shave their heads and cut out their tongues and put 'em in one of their own stinking mines! Then they gonna see life from a different angle.
Which is what your character is doing, though a bit less painfully, seeing life from a different angle.....for details, follow us below the orange springrazor trap.....
Dishonored is a deliberately, almost perversely paradoxical game. It gives you an elaborate set of abilities, but then demands you use most of them as little as possible. It is chock full of lethal potential: you can shoot your opponents with bullets or arrows, stab them, drown them, cut their throats, set them on fire, knock them out, possess them and force them to commit suicide, blow them up with grenades, slash their legs off with springrazor traps, conjure a wind blast that will hurl them off ledges or slam them into walls, detonate the power cells in their machines, pull out the cells and throw them (they make excellent improvised grenades), cross the wires on their electrical traps so that they fry their makers and not you, and call up a small army of rats to eat them alive. Or virtually any combination of the above that you can imagine. Most of your targets are brutal, vulgar, offensive, hypocritical, treasonous, ugly as sin, and in all other ways seemingly deserving of an unpleasant end. You'll be able to get away with killing a few, now and again, if you are careless or unlucky enough to be left with no other choice. But the game turns on you if you try to make a clean sweep. The "chaos" rating will increase ("chaos" signifying not only kills but disruptions such as the discovery of bodies), and this entails a variety of consequences, none of them good. If your chaos rating goes to High, you are guaranteed to run into more and larger swarms of hostile rats and more Weepers, zombie-like plague victims who have gone insane and attack anyone who gets too near to them. Future levels will be harder, with more fortified positions and guards that are more alert. Some side missions become unavailable, and NPCs are less cooperative. If you persist in violence to the end, your allies betray you or become corrupted, and the game ends unpleasantly.
The chaos rating offers carrots as well as sticks. Choose the less violent alternatives and characters assist and reward you: a third Pendleton brother, for instance, one of your allies, will slip you a couple of gold bars for at least keeping his brothers alive, however miserable they may be. Others give you keys, or tell you about hidden treasure, or disclose the locations and combinations of safes. Going out of your way to help others – rescuing a woman being robbed in an alleyway or a civilian trapped by a horde of rats, for instance – usually pays off in money or information, sometimes very handsomely. On the other hand, it can be tricky to combine altruism with stealth. Every encounter becomes a judgement call where you have to weigh the possible gain of information or equipment against the risk of using up resources, attracting attention to yourself, and increasing the chaos level.
Your saviors, the Loyalists, are based at the Hound Pits pub, inside an area abandoned and condemned for plague. This will be your home base and hub. The conspiracy is a rag-tag affair, and it quickly becomes evident that other than telling you where to go and what to do, its members do little but sit around and talk. The only exceptions are Piero the inventor, who makes your gear and ammunition, and Samuel the boatman, who takes you to and from your missions and sometimes supplies useful background information. You're going to have to do all the real work yourself.
Fortunately, your predicament has attracted the attention of a much more powerful entity: the Outsider, by reputation a demonic figure, but here manifesting himself as a genial young man whose chief complaint is that everyone he observes is so damned dull: he later dismisses one aspiring acolyte with the line, "If he really wants to meet me, he could start by being a bit more interesting." You visit his realm in sleep and are granted his Mark and the first of your powers, Blink, with instructions on how to find more powers and upgrades by collecting the runes a former civilization carved from whalebone and inscribed with the Outsider's Mark. The problem with the runes is that they are tucked away in odd places, you find them only gradually, and you will never have enough to get all possible powers. You have to choose what to spend them on, and the powers your choose will shape your play style. You will also be looking for Bone Charms, which confer small but sharply focused benefits, such as quicker chokeholds or slightly more health. To help locate these two items, the Outsider gives you a gruesome toy: a human heart with various mechanical additions that you squeeze to indicate the location of runes and charms. It will also whisper secrets about places and people when pointed at them. Its voice and comments soon make it clear that it is in fact the dead Empress's heart that the Outsider has recycled, and her affectionate phrase to you, "When you are near, my heart is at peace," becomes more than a little ironic.
The villain of the piece, at this point, is the new Lord Protector, the Empress's former Spymaster, Hiram Burrows. He has the heir Emily in incognito captivity and controls the armed forces and the Overseers, an unpleasantly inquisitorial group of metal-masked religious nasties devoted to combating the menace of the Outsider through witch trials, burning at the stake, torture, purges, and other forms of sanctified unpleasantness. For the next five levels, about two-thirds of the game, you go to a series of separate areas to remove the Lord Protector's allies, rescue Emily, make off with key personnel and documents, and in general undermine his position to the point his troops begin to desert him. Your progress is punctuated by the sardonic remarks of the Outsider, delivered whenever you locate his hidden shrines. (He seems particularly pleased when you decline to kill your targets, at one point exclaiming "You fascinate me!") Finally, the Lord Protector becomes vulnerable to a direct attack. This you duly deliver, but the results are not quite what you anticipate, and you end up having to dig yourself out of another hole before the action concludes and Emily becomes Empress – or not.
Play balance is better than it might seem at first sight; you are not as overpowered as you look. You can do an impressive amount of damage, and usually have the advantage of surprise, but if someone sees you and sounds the alarm, there will be enemies all over the place trying to surround you. Those with pistols will fire at you even if you're engaged in melee combat with another guard, occasionally killing their own men, but usually hitting; those without will throw bricks and stones if they cannot close with you. You have only a modest amount of health and limited ammunition, and cannot afford to slug it out with a crowd even if there were no chaos rating to worry about. The more powerful effects expend a large fraction of your available magical potential, which will not fully recharge by itself, but has to be boosted by potions that are sometimes hard to find. A few of the Overseers have a device that negates your magic within a limited radius, and some enemies in the later part of the game have magical abilities of their own. No matter how all-destroying you seem to be in theory, it's never prudent to test your limits in practice.
Play is vaguely reminiscent of games like Bioshock, Thief, and Hitman, but the resemblances are mostly superficial. Corvo's suite of magical abilities sets him apart, with Blink being particularly addictive – more than one reviewer has said that this is the video game ability that they would most like to have in real life. Blink makes most of the board a three-dimensional puzzle, with Bend Time and Possession supplementary tools to use in particularly challenging areas. If you bring Possession up to Level 2, you can even possess and control one of your adversaries for a short period of time, very useful if you suddenly come face to face with a patrolling guard.
The play area remains in or near the city of Dunwall at all times: you never venture out into the countryside. And Dunwall is a ruin, with far more damage than could have been done in only six months of plague. As you move through wrecked buildings, overhearing the conversations of survivors and reading books and memoranda, it becomes clear that the city has always been a dark, merciless place, and that the plague has merely intensified trends that were already present. You and the Empress up in Dunwall Tower have been living in a dream world, closing your eyes to reality. The economy is based on whaling and whale oil: the whales are stripped of their fat while still alive, and they have been hunted to the edge of extinction, bad news since virtually everything in the city runs on whale oil. The Overseers and their church have terrorized the population while trying to enforce their own idea of religion; organized crime rules everywhere that the city guard is not physically present; and the city's rich consider their inferiors subhuman and expendable. Indeed, you discover at the end that the present Lord Protector deliberately introduced the plague rats to kill off the poor, whom he considers useless moochers, "begging for the coin that the rest of us have to earn through hard work." Unfortunately for him, the plague failed to stay in the slums, moving beyond them to destroy the middle class and besiege the rich, who can at least afford the expensive drugs necessary to render themselves immune.
One of the more obvious borrowings from the Half-Life universe in Dishonored.
The replay value of Dishonored is limited, since after three or four run-throughs you know too much about the map for it to remain challenging unless you go out of your way to make it so. The "sweet spot" for playthroughs is probably the second time around, since one passage gives you the level of information that Corvo would probably have possessed about the city he lives in, information that you need if you wish to deal with the game's challenges with grace rather than brute force. The much-vaunted "randomization" between playthroughs that is supposed to enhance replay value is almost completely pointless, since too few items are affected – for instance, in one level the color of the target's clothes is randomized, but the NPC you have to question to obtain that information remains the same. Still, one can easily get thirty to forty hours of play out of Dishonored if you explore it thoroughly and vary your play style, and quite a bit more may be needed to get some of the achievements/trophies, such as Shadow, which requires you remain hidden from all enemies for the whole game, or Mostly Flesh and Steel, in which you complete the game using no magical powers apart from Level 1 of Blink.
Thankfully, the game, which is built on the Unreal 3 engine, is almost bug-free. Crashing on scene changes, an early annoyance, seems to have been drastically reduced by the latest patch, and in the course of jamming myself into odd corners over the whole series of maps, I only encountered two or three places where my character got stuck in the geometry (Blink got me out of all of them easily) and one corner where an attempt to possess a rat led me to fall through the floor and be propelled out the rear of the building into the sea. A few people have avoided the game since Bethesda's name is on it, but Buggy Beth is the publisher, not the developer. This is a game where someone must have listened to the play-testers, and it shows.
Single-player games with a fixed linear narrative have an uncertain future, since by their very nature they cannot offer as much variety for money as an online game, or even a single-player sandbox-type game such as Skyrim. In trying to explore its every corner, I got about 200 hours of play out of Dishonored, far less than for Skyrim, Oblivion, or Fallout 3, but about the same number of hours I've spent in Half-Life 2. Dishonored is a fascinating game, despite its didactic tendencies, with relatively few flaws. It is well worth acquiring, especially if you enjoy stealth. Just don't expect to be playing it years into the future, the way people play Morrowind or Oblivion.