Dishonored Disowned

This morning I traded my copy of Dishonored in for credit toward a couple of Wii U games. The GameStop clerk asked me what I thought about it and I told him bluntly “It’s awesome for about the first third, and then it just runs out of whale oil.” That opinion might surprise NHS readers who recall my first impressions article that I wrote a month ago, in which I was really impressed by the first couple of hours. I stand by what I wrote then, and Dishonored does pass my one hour test. It is a good game, definitely not crap. However, I came to realize seven missions in that it wasn’t a good game worth playing.

There’s a lot to like about Dishonored. The art style is awesome. The retro, Thief-inspired gameplay that values exploration and experimentation over carnival ride-like linearity and reduction of player choice can be lots of fun. The setting is original and the sci-fi is compelling. But there are some rather tragic design-level issues that ultimately undermined all of the good things in the game and resulted in the game sitting in my to-trade pile.

First and most significantly, the development curve of the game is completely screwed up. This is a root cause of most of my other grievances with the game. But at a fundamental level, this is a game where you are so advantaged and over-equipped halfway through the game. The poor AI, which fluctuates between Superman-level heightened senses and the awareness of your 90 year old great grandpa, just can’t keep up once you level up your gear and talents. The problem is that it never feels empowering or cool, like it does in the Arkham games. It just feels like the game is too easy (and I was playing on hard). It turns out that there isn’t really much to develop or explore in terms of ability or equipment development.

Adjunct to this complaint, I found all of the abilities, equipment, and bone charm perks to be staggeringly dull.  I didn’t really care about any of them. Yeah, it sounded awesome in the early previews, all this talk about possessing rats. But in practice…it’s really kind of lame. I possess a rat, run through a hole, and come out somewhere that I have three other ways to get to, none of which are any more challenging or interesting. Initially I was playing a no-kill, all stealth game. That completely ruled out about two-thirds of the available weapons and skills. Why do I care about upgrading my pistol or burning bodies to ash when I’m trying to just make ‘em go to sleep? Better yet, why would I bother plunking a guard with three crossbow bolts when one sleep dart will put them down for the one, two, three?

I never even really paid any attention to the bone charms and their minute benefits, and four missions in I realized that I also didn’t care about collecting the runes. I didn’t see where it was really improving my abilities all that much. But more damning, I didn’t see where finding them and using them was making the game any more fun.

The abilities are also an issue because they made the game feel incredibly game-y. I’m borrowing a board game term here. That means that artificial, necessitated mechanics disrupt the dramaturgy, setting, and atmosphere of the game. The blink teleport ability was actually more game-y than Batman’s detective vision in Arkham Asylum. Having to cower in a cardboard box and hope that a guard doesn’t see you is awesome stealth gameplay. Being able to blink up to a street lamp and sit there until they go away isn’t, nor is knowing that you can just kill them with a brutal finishing move if it comes to blows. It got to the point where I was just blinking constantly just to avoid everything, particularly the clunky combat. It’s not like the vials that refill your mana are hard to come by.

So I found that I didn’t really care about Corvo’s abilities or tools, and it even got to the point where I was really kind of actively ignoring  almost everything on the selection dial other than blink, the sleep darts, and the occasional dark vision. And those three overused tools reminded me of what I really liked about the opening of the game. At first, you don’t  have all of this stuff.  You can’t see cones of vision (that’s gamey), you can’t blink past a guard, and you can’t just sleep-snipe everybody in sight. It felt raw, tense, and instinctual.  I felt like I was doing something cool, sneaking around. Once I hit the screwed-up development curve and plateaued, it didn’t feel cool anymore. It felt boring.

I knew that my time was at an end with the game when I literally ran through the mission where you have to nab Nikolai Sokolov in his greenhouse. I think I spent fifteen minutes on that one, whereas I had spent an hour or more or some of the earlier scenarios. I just did not care about the bone charms, whatever the hell that heart was saying, or figuring out ways to be sneaky around the Tall Boys (who are not PBR cans, as you might surmise). The mission after had me going back to Dunwall tower, and to get to it there was a part where you have to blink your way up through this waterlock in a terrible, terrible bit of platforming. I turned the game off and said “that’s it”.

I don’t regret playing it, and I had fun with it for quite a few hours. There are some really cool scenes, like a poisoning early in the game and  a great scene at a party for Dunwall’s elite where you have to sort out who your target is with three ladies. That one in particular had one of the coolest, most ambiguous outcomes I’ve ever seen. A guy asks you to bring the target down to the basement because she’s the love of his life. You have to knock her out to do so. Once you’re down there, he loads her on a boat and says “thank you, I know that in time I can make her love me”.  He rides off on the boat, and there’s this really chilling realization. You basically just aided a crazy man in an abduction. That was pretty twisted, and it demonstrates the quality that this game is capable of in its best moments.

But most of the writing is dull, predictable, and not particularly inspired, despite allusions that your actions will result in certain consequences or a change in the game’s tone. The only detectable tone two-thirds of way through is one of depleted energy, dullness, and a sense that the game’s given you all that it’s capable of and you’re in overtime. In the end, Dishonored is a disappointment. It’s definitely a good game and I think the development team definitely had their heart in the right place. Dishonored 2 might be one to watch, but for right now the stealth game to play remains Mark of the Ninja.

16 Responses to “Dishonored Disowned”

  1. Dorkmaster Flek November 9, 2012 at 4:27 pm #

    You know, the comparisons to Thief really got me going because the first two Thief games are some of my favourite games of all time. Once I looked closer at Dishonored, I started to see similar issues as you with the design. The blinking teleport ability immediately made me go “Wait, that’s going to make the stealth way too easy. It might even ruin the whole thing.” Apparently I was right.

    The stealth in Thief is so effective because you’re vulnerable. You have no saving throw if you get discovered, and you sure as hell can’t fight your way out of anything other than a single guard, maybe two at most. If it’s a Hammer haunt, forget about it. You’re dead unless you can run and hide. Your gadgets and items are specifically to get you out of sticky situations. There’s very, very little in the game that is actually designed to increase your offensive capabilities. The fire arrows are one of the only things that come to mind, and they’re extremely limited. Plus, they make a shit ton of noise and draw every living thing to you.

    I think the problem may have come from the open-ended do-what-you-want design. They thought it would be a good idea to allow you to choose a non-lethal stealth route, or a guns blazing route. The first problem is that if you have effective offensive capabilities, why bother sneaking around? Your ability to get out of any situation makes the stealth downright boring. In order to fight this, they implemented a system where the world gets “worse” and more shit spawns and whatnot if you kill people. But the second problem is that now you’re effectively forcing people to play stealth by punishing them for being aggressive, so there goes your whole “do what you want” approach.

    The end result is just what you said. The design doesn’t gel. Compare this to something like Deus Ex, where you have a similar choice of approaches. If you make your character a hacker who takes the stealth route, you don’t have the offensive capabilities to survive a fire fight. I think that’s what they needed in Dishonored. You can’t have access to everything.

    • Michael Barnes November 9, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

      Yes, I think that’s exactly right. There is no exchange, trade-off, or need for compromise. You can have it all. And if you pursue the runes, you literally can. It’s not enough to have an achievement that pips you 10 points or whatever if you don’t upgrade any of the physical skills. There needs to be design-level reasons why CHOOSING one way or the other results in deficiency elsewhere.

      I LOVED it in Thief that they made melee pretty much a last ditch, practically worthless endeavor. Garrett was no good with a sword, and most of the time you’d block a couple of blows and try to RUN AWAY. Not perform adrenaline-fueled finishing moves. The option to kill was still there…but the design didn’t just say “have it your way…or all ways”.

      When I gave into what the game was telling me to do (sneak around until you get noticed, then turn the place into a butcher shop), I never even noticed the chaos level go up. It stayed low, and I was killing plenty of people, Throwing bodies out of windows, stabbing unconcious maids, the whole thing. Didn’t matter.

      But yes…access to everything and a “do whatever you want” design results in something pretty uninteresting.

  2. Mark E November 9, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    I am exactly in this position, except I plan to finish it off.

    I am a total menace with blink and sleep darts and intend to do my no-kill run and trade it in for Halo 4 along with the new Professor Layton (once I finish it as well, being amazingly fun as Layton games tend to be).

    It’s totally an excellent setting, and an okay story, that just screams that interesting things are happening and then doesn’t let you take part in any of them. I do love the non-lethal assassinations and I know I can blow through it in a few sessions with Blink.

    There’s obvious love for this game and I think a tightened up sequel could really make something amazing.

    • Michael Barnes November 9, 2012 at 6:18 pm #

      Agreed- I keep thinking that this game may have that Assassin’s Creed Syndrome…first game is a kind of proof of concept, rough and not really where needs to be…and the SECOND try is the one that counts.

      But yeah, upgrade blink all the way and it’s the jetpack in Scribblenauts all over again.

  3. Kez November 9, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    Same boat as you. Traded it in a couple of days ago and it’s literally the first game in 5 years I’ve traded in. It just got old and I realized I would never touch it again, which is sad because as you said it started off so wonderfully.

    Combat was the killer for me. After an hour I went for an all stealth run just because I’m pretty sure I’d seen everything combat had to offer within that hour. Attack, block, counter. Crossbow=quiet, gun=not so quiet.

    • Michael Barnes November 9, 2012 at 6:21 pm #

      I actually rented it and did the “keep” option from Gamefly ($45 on launch day). I thought for sure it was going to be a favorite…I can not see ever touching it again.

      Yeah, the combat was just trash. Completely not interesting at all. Yet the game WANTS you to get into it so badly, giving you all of these practically useless melee skills, pistol upgrades, grenades, and whatnot. I never once even threw a grenade. Why do I have a grenade in this game, anyway? It goes back to what Flex was saying up there…they give you EVERYTHING and don’t take away ANYTHING, so it turns both the stealth and the combat into an unfun mush.

  4. Drunken Pandaren November 10, 2012 at 3:24 am #

    I think you’ve summarized all my gripes about the game and why it turned me off after doing the first mission and a half of it. It’s funny to say that even the ZP sorta-review mentioned a handful of these points.

    • Michael Barnes November 10, 2012 at 11:38 am #

      Wow, you checked out a lot earlier…I was still thinking this was going to go the distance at that point. I suppose when you get magic powers is when it starts to go south, really.

      • Drunken Pandaren November 10, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

        It wasn’t even getting the powers that threw me off. It was just simply figuring out that in any scenario that I was playing, could potentially acquire all the powers and upgrades. After the first mission I had blink 2, super jump and being able to turn people into ash. Before that I think I invested into the sleep darts being amazing. Shortly into the second mission I realized that I’m going to be carrying a lot of powers that I really don’t care for but I’ll only be holding onto them because there isn’t anything else to spend these points on. Dark Messiah had the talent trees but didn’t stop you from being a magic archer or a fireball thief, Dishonored had the outcome of turning into a potentially small God in the second mission.

  5. Brandon Dumsky November 10, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    I stuck around for the end, but it was another case of “story > game” for me. The Runes and Bone Charms were arguably filler content (just like the treasure in Uncharted games; strictly added in the game to prevent it from being a quasi-movie). The real challenge the game presents is to see whether you can go throughout an entire mission undetected. I liked the characters and that Victorian/Steampunk, dystopian setting, but plot-wise it was predictable and mediocre overall. It’s receiving high praise because we haven’t had a stealth title in awhile, and this generation has been sparse with them, too. Here’s hoping for a sequel and a subsequent vast improvement in terms of mission design and features.

    • Michael Barnes November 10, 2012 at 11:34 am #

      Yes, I think the reason the game is tracking so highly is because there is a desire for this KIND of game, even if Dishonored isn’t nearly as successful as the Thief titles or No One Lives Forever, those games from that period that this game draws so heavily on. I don’t know that it’s the stealth part that people are reacting to so much as it is a very story-driven, adventure-oriented first person action game with a variety of approaches at any given time. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was another that got high marks and had similar- but much more balanced and well-written- gameplay.

      I appreciate that going undetected is the real challenge and ultimately the “best” the game has to offer…but there again, why is the game going out of its way trying to talk me into shooting, stabbing, or exploding people? Sure, most stealth games (like MGS in particular) have that “fight or flight” thing going on…but in Dishonored, neither option feels particularly rewarding or robust.

      • Helios Krestel November 10, 2012 at 4:23 pm #

        I got the distinct impression from the marketing of Dishonored that it was targeted at Bioshock/Assassin Creed crowd rather than the Thief/Splinter Cell player.

        I think overall the game is generically dyslexic. Am I playing something that wants to be Thief ? Bioshock ? Fable ? Half-Life 2 ?

        I’d amend the No One Lives Forever to XIII. It felt very XIII from “I could be a stealth game” while the Bazooka was in my backpack.

  6. Plum November 11, 2012 at 5:15 pm #

    I agree with what you said about feeling godlike but it didn’t break it for me. If I wasn’t happy with a power I just wouldn’t use it and in the end treated it more like a puzzle game, working out how to unlock the most interesting results in each mission. The one where you have to deal with the high priest guy is a case in point – I must have played half a dozen times, seeing all of the different permutations before picking my favourite and continuing.

    I’m currently playing through on a no-kill, no-sightings, no-powers run and it’s very satisfying and challenging (no super jump, blink, time stop or vision means it’s about classical stealth – timing, hiding and distraction). Yes, making your own rules for games means that the designers didn’t get it quite right but that doesn’t mean you can’t still have fun

  7. rainynight65 November 12, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    Strangely enough, I finished Dishonored last night. While I do agree with a lot of your points, I disagree with others.

    The thing for me is, I don’t play games for challenge, or because of the mechanics. Most of the time when I hear a game is ‘challenging’, I think ‘ ah great, another game that forces trial and error until I figure out the *one* way to resolve a situation’. That’s the kind of game design that turns me off anyway. Granted, I may be wrong about these things sometimes, but more often than not I found myself giving up on games and never going back for precisely this reason – some or other ‘challenge’ (usually a boss fight) that frustrates me and I just couldn’t be arsed to figure it out.

    Similarly, most of the time I don’t care how ‘deep’ combat or other game mechanics are. Some people have the ability to figure out mechanics and timing – I don’t. Either I’m too impatient or my brain just doesn’t tick that way, but 99% of the time, combat in games is button mashing for me. (One of the reasons I enjoyed the combat in the first Witcher game so much, while the rest of the world seemed to think it was dull and shallow – it didn’t take me long to figure it out, and it stayed consistent throughout the game).

    The reason I enjoyed Dishonored a lot, was precisely for the lack of these things. It did what any good stealth game should do, and what so many games don’t: it gives the player options. Don’t feel like doing it this way? Go another route, use one of your abilities. Breaking stealth is not an instafail. This is where it reminds me of Thief. There are multiple ways to an objective, some of which don’t have to involve combat or confrontation at all. Even though Thief is less forgiving when it comes to breaking stealth, it’s flexible enough to allow a way out without necessarily having to reload. (lest we forget, the AI in any of the Thief games wasn’t that great either ;) ). Yes, the abilities were a bit too easy to max out, and the bone charms were downright dull (I didn’t notice a difference no matter which ones I had equipped). While I didn’t necessarily force myself to go all stealthy, I tried to go peaceful as far as I could. To have the option to fight your way out was kinda refreshing for me – Corvo is an assassin after all.

    I feel that Arkane took a risk making this game. So many single player titles shepherd the players through their content, anxiously making sure that nothing is missed. And here we have a game that has options and choices (more so than 95% of games out there), where it is entirely possible to miss sizeable chunks of content on the first play through. It doesn’t do everything right – but then again, isn’t that what we want developers to do? To take risks, bring out games that try to break the mould, even at the danger of not getting it 100% right the first time around? Yes, it’s not perfect, not by a long shot. But I don’t regret spending money on this game (and I can’t trade it in – PC version). For me and my gaming habits, that says something.

    • Michael Barnes November 12, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

      Sounds like you and Plum were on the same page here, both speaking to the gameplay that’s on display in the game…both of y’all have great points about what makes the game good- and why I’d certainly not say that it’s a bad one at all- but I think that when you’ve got multiple paths/approaches…it kind of breaks down if they’re all more or less equally advantageous. The ONLY thing that provides any kind of limitation on how you play this game is in the upgrades. But the upgrades are so thin and some are of such limited utility that there’s not really a long enough development curve to really build out a specialist character. The result is you get a guy that’s pretty good at everything.

      There was an article about fail states and how games shouldn’t have them on one of the teenage blogs last week, which I think is complete nonsense. But that said, i think one of things that makes stealth games interesting (and the new XCOM for that matter) is when there isn’t an instant fail (which I HATED in Splinter Cell, in particular) but rather the game allows things to go pear-shaped and lets a situation develop.

      The problem with that though is rewarding players with no-kill playthroughs, because then the player just tends to let the combat end the attempt and restarts. Thief and MGS are both realy good about encouraging the player to play through alerts, combat, or sightings.

      Some interesting issues in designing this kind of game…I do really, really appreciate the risk taking and effort Arkane put into this game, no doubt.

      • rainynight65 November 12, 2012 at 7:59 pm #

        I generally like the idea of a game allowing a situation to go pear-shaped and requiring you to find a different way out of it. Kind of a branching objective, with different outcomes for the same mission. No actual failure or success, no right or wrong way of doing things. A bit more like real life. But I think we’ve gotten so used to the fact that a task in a game either succeeds or fails, and to the whole try, fail, reload, try again approach, that the above would be a difficult sell.

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