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Dishonored- First Impressions of Dunwall

If you’re like anything like I am, with each passing year you think “it sure would be nice if someone would develop adventure-based FPS games again like they did in the late 1990s and early 2000s.” I’m thinking great games like Thief, System Shock 2, and No One Lives Forever- classic titles that were much more than just rote shooters despite the behind-the-eyes perspective. These were games that had a sense of focused narrative occurring in meticulous, handcrafted settings paired with a great deal of player agency, allowing for a specific story to be told with the detail filled in by core gameplay. Games like this are rare, but when we get a really great one it turns out to be a Bioshock. Or even a Metro 2033.

With this is in mind and with only a couple of hours of play to back up my claim, I’m already prepared to induct Dishonored into this esteemed fraternity of Really Great Narrative FPS Games.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve played a big budget, high profile game that really floored me and made me feel like I was playing the next great video game. The long spring and summer drought this year very nearly broke my spirit. I was beginning to think this generation didn’t have another truly great game left in it, especially not one with a new IP and without a 3 or a 4 appended to the title.

But from the very beginning of Dishonored, which sets up a simple plot without Michael Bay-class cutscenes, QTEs, or a bunch of bombastic AAA hullaballoo, I could feel that not-familiar-enough feeling of falling in love with a game and in particular its visuals, informed largely by a painterly illustration style evocative of artists like Maxfield Parrish. Then there are the slightly grotesque, almost caricature-like faces that evoke European comic artists. And there are moments both grand and subtle even in the first 20 minutes of the game that develop Dunwall as a new game setting to be reckoned with- the sad majesty of a whale suspended in one of this world’s whaling vessels, the bits of ephemera scattered across a desk. The blubberpunk (don’t call it steampunk, please) fashion and architecture of an impossible world.

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As for the gameplay, I was shocked that there weren’t the usual array of gauges and visual indicators that most stealth games depend on. At least for the first couple of segments of the game, which include a great prison breakout, you’ve got to rely on instinct and observation to stay unnoticed rather than on line of sight cones, super-camouflage, or a magic color-changing gem. It’s only later on that you unlock a power that gives you some of these observational abilities.

I made it out of the jail without killing anybody. There were moments of great tension, of feeling like a total badass because I dipped between columns right under the noses of two guards. A couple of times I failed and wound up in combat, which is pretty tough on the Hard setting. Checkpoints are generous. The game wants you to try different things to see what works, it doesn’t want you to get frustrated by experimentation.

There were some clever moments as well, like throwing a dead body to lure rats away from a door-controlling crank. There was a blast of excitement as I blew open the doors, alerted the guards, and made a break for the sewers. I wound up escorted by a boatman to a pub run by loyalists opposed to the attempted coup d’etat that sets the story into motion. There I met the game’s crafter, who made me that wicked metal skull mask and sold me some sleep bolts for the crossbow. I’m playing nonlethal as far as I can.

Then, sleep. In dreams I meet the Outsider, who gives me the Blink ability, a short range teleport that is a master assassin’s dream. He also gives me a magic heart, that whispers secrets and beats feverishly in the presence of upgrade-granting runes. In the real world, it’s 4am and I’ve really got to go to bed. But I haven’t even thrown rats at anybody yet!

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I can’t wait to play this game again tonight, and even though I hear that it’s short I think it’s a game that I can imagine revisiting on the hardest difficulty. It’s such a confident, assured design that pretty much says “fuck you” to many of the things the second half of this console generation has done so wrong. There is no bullshit multiplayer with multiple Corvos running around trying to headshot each other with a crossbow. There is no bullshit co-op, where Corvo’s bro has to be boosted up to a fire escape or revived when he’s down. There is just you, this rich setting, this brilliant art design, and this devotion to classic gameplay. No blubber. This is a focused game that does something very specific and it doesn’t burden you down with silly filler or needless bulletpoints to appease stakeholders.

Most importantly, these guys knew better than to just mimic the successes of Call of Duty, Gears of War, and other AAA titans. They drank from a deeper, older well of inspiration. We are blessed that they chose to do so.

Fingers crossed that the remainder is as awesome as the first night.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

11 thoughts to “Dishonored- First Impressions of Dunwall”

  1. Completely got the Thief vibe last night as I busted out of the prison.

    I happily spent an hour making sure I took everybody down non-lethally and enjoyed the atmosphere.

    I love that even the early stage has multiple options. I am too nosy not to loot offices but I noticed the pipe work at one point could be used to carry you over the guards and straight into the next area. Hehe.

    Going to get around to this soon, but keeping this going with Sleeping Dogs and XCOM is proving hard. Still, the kind of gaming decisions you want to have. All three could not be more different but they are all uniformly some of the most fun I’ve had all year.

    1. Yeah, I really took my time with it too…and STILL only got about half of the money lying around!

      I saw the pipes straight away and just went for that…I guess I did miss a bunch of stuff there in those rooms.

      Hoping that Gamefly will send me XCOM right away after I send back the PS3 copy of Dishonored they sent…I think I’m gonna pay to keep the 360 one since it’s just $45.

      1. Pipes were smart, the other bit took forever as I was sorting out guard pathing.

        You missed some cash but nothing major.

        I hope you get XCOM too, it’s pretty much my new gold standard for how you remake a franchise.

  2. Played up to the first nap last night as well. The rhythm of sapping guards, then hauling the bodies out of sight was very familiar to me; Thief is one of my top 5 games ever. I’m happy that you get a bonus mark for completing the level non-lethally (and another for not being detected), but I also feel like this style of gameplay sort of subverts the idea that Corvo is supposed to be a master assassin. Perhaps a second, more Assassin’s Creed-style playthrough is warranted. (I really wanted to use that “death from above” skill, but was going for non-lethal.) The artwork, architecture, and interface reminded me quite a bit of Bioshock. All-in-all, I’m very very happy at what I’ve seen so far.

    1. I don’t know, when I think of someone who is a “master assassin”, I think less of a one-man killing machine like in the Assassin’s Creed games and more of someone like Leon…a highly professional paid killer that doesn’t just wantonly kill anyone in his way. That way of play is available, but according to the messages the game gives you is that will result in a darker outcome.

      Yeah, I really wanted to use that DFA kill right after the tooltip…I held back though. Maybe next time.

  3. I agree with the general sentiment. My only issue with the game is how the introduction is constructed in a manner of dropping you into the world. It just felt a little bit disconnecting, but it just gets better from there.

    Also I have to loot everyone’s pockets. I don’t care who. It’s like Thief all over again.

  4. I started out suffocating dudes till the passed out, and then I got the perk that turns bodies to ash…

    Dunwall’s going to be a very chaotic town in a couple days (and I have a hunch I’m going to be sorry it is when all is said and done).

    1. Also, coming across guys who are pitching infected bodies off a bridge into a boat, and then knocking them out and pitching them into said-boat, so they wake up diseased in a hull full of corpses they created?

      I don’t care if it makes the game harder, that shit was worth it.

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