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.