Having emerged from our respective turkey comas, the mad trio are all back together for Jumping the Shark #153. Bill gives us the lowdown on The New Science’s success at BGG Con, the latest developments in Tomorrow, and a few other cardboard bits and pieces that have been on his carving plate, including Spartacus, and the first deck-building game in a long while to grab his attention, Legendary. I spend a few hours with Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition (PC version) and find that, yep, it’s pretty much Baldur’s Gate, only it runs better on modern hardware. I’m also reminded just what it was like to play a so-called hardcore RPG in the 90s era of game design. Things really have changed and, it turns out, some of those changes were for the better. Finally, Brandon wraps up his time with Dishonored and finds a few more shiny spots behind the blemishes of Halo 4.
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.
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.
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!
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.
It’s E3 Day 2, so that must mean it’s time for Jumping the Shark E3 Podcast Day 1. (Surprise!) Hear some Dishonored love, some Elder Scrolls Online hate, Arkham City Wii U surprises, and quite a bit more as Bill, Brandon, and I sum up our first day on the show floor.
It’s late and I’m exhausted, but I wanted to throw up some quick points about Borderlands 2 and Dishonored, two of the best games I saw today, and two games that will probably end up being some of my favorites of the show.
Bill and I played both games, cooperatively in the case of Borderlands 2 and separately in the case of Dishonored. In fact, they had to usher us out of the room when we were playing Borderlands 2, so enamored were we.
Don’t worry, this won’t be my last word on either of these games. I just wanted to throw up some quick impressions.
All four playable classes were available but I stuck with my Siren to see the differences. We were given 20 skill points to allocate but without a lot of time to see what you could play with, they were somewhat wasted. Ditto for the combat load-outs. I like to be able to compare my gun stats and pick the best tool for the job but we were on the clock so Bill’s gunzerker and I went to town.
The new phaselock power is cool, essentially trapping an enemy in a ball of energy and holding him/her aloft like a giant pinata. I picked a power that released health orbs when a phaselocked enemy was killed. It worked wonders. Unfortunately phaselock does not work against robots and we fought a huge number of robots. Like, lots and lots of robots.
The color palette was very bright andeverything was extremely detailed. The same Borderlands sense of humor was present and as an added bonus, I got to chat a little with Gearbox writer Anthony Birch. Nice guy, that one. The gunplay was still very fast and chaotic, teamwork was still very important and respawning still sucks when that aforementioned teamwork didn’t work out.
In other words, it’s Bordelands, just more of it and by God, I couldn’t be happier.
This was a game that I really didn’t take notice of until the last two trailers. The hands off demo we saw showed two different ways to complete an assassination mission, one where only the targets were killed and one where everyone was killed.
The game uses a central power wheel, accessible via the left bumper, to choose either powers or a weapon (crossbow, pistol, grenades) for use in the left hand. Your blade is always in your right with how you hold the blade changing depending on whether your skulking or not.
In the stealth run the devs were using short range teleports to move to higher ground as well as hide choked out guards in hard to see places and then merging (think possessing but full body, not just mind) with a fish to swim through a sewage outlet in to the building. Dark-o-vision helped with the sneaking allowing the devs to see through walls as they slipped through the shadows and killed their targets.
When it was time to kill, they went balls-out, using grenades, their sidearms and their blade to kill everything that moved. The game is a little too dismemberment crazy, but I guess that’s what happens when a supernatural assassin kills people. Bodies were flung with wind blasts, rats were called to devour people and lots of blood was spilled.
The game controls very well, picking and using powers is intuitive and the game has a really neat art style, not photo-realistic but not cartoony either. As I tooled around the level, I found multiple ways to get to my objective, even though I never completed it, having to leave to go to another meeting.
I spent a fair amount of time playing the game, don’t get me wrong, but with so many cool powers unlocked and so many paths to explore, it’s easy to get sidetracked. The game comes out on 10/9 and I know I’ll be marking that date with a big red circle.
I also saw Summoner Wars on the iPad and it looked awesome, but more on that later. Today it’s Darksiders 2, Star Trek and Of Orcs and Men. Just another day in paradise.