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Dishonored Review: The Modern Day Thief Shuffle

Dishonored is a pretty good game. It’s likely not something that will have a lasting impact because much of this we already experienced years ago in the Thief series and to a lesser extent in the Assassins Creed games. Sure, this time around you have better technology driving the game compared to Thief and there are those neat-o superpowers you have access to such as teleporting, animal and human possession, and the “go to” power of seeing bad guys through walls.

The bigger story in my view is that Bethesda has finally published an externally developed game that doesn’t suck. The list of mediocre to downright bad games that Bethesda has pushed on the public that isn’t an Elder Scrolls/Fallout game is long and varied. And this stuff matters. Track records matter. Decisions matter.

New Vegas defined the term “buggy release”, Brink is love it or hate it, Rage was supposed to be this huge Bethesda/id success story and other (decent) games like Hunted: The Demon’s Forge sort of vanish upon release. Seriously Bethesda’s’ track record here is spotty at best. Dishonored changes all of that and while I don’t think it’s nearly as good as its buzz would indicate, it’s clearly Bethesda’s best outside the studio project in a long, long time and the company deserves some credit for it. I hoped this distinction to go to Prey 2 but…well…yeah.

Dishonored is at its best when you’re skulking around and either quietly killing guards or putting them in the MOTHER of all sleeper holds and knocking them unconscious for hours at a time. The game was clearly developed with sneaking in mind although you certainly have the option to go balls out and kill everything that moves.

However, as a first person shooter/action game, Dishonored is by the numbers. Sure it’s fun to call upon a swarm of plague rats to distract bad guys or to “blink” behind an enemy and stab him in the neck, but the actual “action” bits are nothing you haven’t seen before. The tense moments nearly all come from playing the role as master assassin and trying not to be seen. Using “Dark Vision” to see enemies through walls and seeing their ‘view cone’ which shows you which direction they are facing – yes it’s all very “Thief” but who cares? I haven’t played Thief in nearly a decade and a modern spin on that idea is fine with me.

The modern comparison is really Assassin’s Creed. In Dishonored you get all of the neat powers and admittedly cool art direction whereas in Creed you get a more “realistic” (to a point) take on the world and a world that is much more “alive” than what you get here. There’s a lot more to do in an Assassins Creed game than Dishonored. The hunting AI in Creed is also a bit better – how many guards does it take in Dishonored to commit pseudo-suicide running into an insta-kill lightning trap before they stop?

Answer: more than one.

Dishonored is also a bit on the short side. You can even make the case that the length of the game has been inflated buy the mini quests of locating Runes and Bones, both of which grant you certain powers and will cause Achievement Hounds like Brandon to follow the little arrows to their location until they track down each and every one. I just wish the bones did more. It’s annoying to hunt for an artifact only to find out it grants you a “slight resistance to rat plague” – uh, thanks? You’ll never equip the majority of the bones you find and will likely stick to the no-brainers of increased mana, regen, etc.

Where Dishonored earns huge points is that while the campaign is on rails, the way you approach a problem is entirely up to you. A lot of games boast that you can “play it your way” but here developer Arkane Studios really means it. You can play this game without killing anyone. Even your assassination targets usually give you an “out” which will allow them to live. Going even further than that there are always multiple pathways to get to where you need to go – perhaps a rooftop? Maybe through an open window? Hell maybe you can possess a rat and scurry right past the guards? It’s up to you, as long as you invested runes into buying certain powers.
This is where the game shines—in sneaking around, trying to dodge guards and finding pathways that aren’t at first clearly visible. The game does a superb job of making you feel like an intruder albeit one with the ability to teleport and freeze time.

A quick note: I do wish there was a bit more enemy variety – you spend the vast majority of the game sneaking/killing the same guards over and over again in different set pieces. You may get the occasional zombie (sorry plague infested “Weeper”) and maybe a poison spitting plant thing but that’s about it.

So Dishonored is a good game. It’s not revolutionary and it’s not going to make you forget about similar games such as Batman, Assassins Creed or the classic Thief games. It’s not going on my short list for Game of the Year but I’m glad I played it and actually might go back and play it again trying to play as it as a true shadow. My game ended up turning into a bloodbath. Hey look, when you have exploding bullets and the ability to stab a guy while he’s in stasis what’s a guy is supposed to do?

Run away?

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.

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.

Mark of the Ninja in Review

I absolutely hated Klei’s 2011 digital release Shank. I think it is a disgrace, an embarrassment to the video games medium that wallows in joyless, cynical immaturity and dully moronic violence. Its humor and tone are straight out of one of those mid-1990s post-Pulp Fiction “indie” crime or action films and the look was a cheapjack imitation of pretty much any “edgy” adult cartoon you’ve ever seen. The gameplay was stultifyingly stupid, rife with button-mashing and little to offer but mindless and unappealing lowest common denominator bloodshed. I gave it the lowest score possible at Gameshark, and I stand by that. I ignore the fact that a sequel exists.

So it’s a big surprise that Mark of the Ninja, their latest now on XBLA, isn’t just good- it’s one of the best games of the year. It’s a brilliantly conceived and executed stealth action game that makes the daring assumption that the genre doesn’t have to be relegated to a third- or first- person presentation. It’s a 2D platformer that feels like a classic of the form overlain with an index of the best sneaker mechanics. It’s not hard to go through and sort out the bits came from Metal Gear Solid and which from Thief or Splinter Cell. It also borrows liberally from Rocksteady’s masterful Batman titles- not the least of which is that incredible feeling of bad ass empowerment that comes from scaring your enemies, hiding in the rafters, and stringing them up. They even borrowed a couple of riffs from Elevator Action. Shoot out the lights so they can’t see you. Or just drop the lights on ‘em.

As much as has been appropriated from previous sources, Mark of the Ninja is one of those studied, academic games where it’s more innovative than imitative. Working out how to put stealth gameplay in a 2D platformer is a compelling design goal as it is and many indie developers would have called it a day there. But Klei brings in multiple gadgets including distraction devices, upgradeable techniques in both lethal and nonlethal varieties, and a plethora of visual cues and signifiers to enable players to play strategically. Light, sound, color, and iconography are surrogates for your own lacking ninja skills and intuition. As in the best stealth games, a little risk-taking is often necessary and that thrill of hiding behind a door while a patrolling guard walks by is a source of nail-biting tension. Foul up, set off the alarms, and either try to mitigate the breach of stealth or start again at one of the generous checkpoints.

There’s often more information than is actually necessary and it can be a little gamey. I’m not sure that even the best ninjas- even Sho Kusogi or Stephen Hayes- can see a dog’s sniffing radius. And the AI can be pretty easy to fool, but that’s not uncommon in the genre. Some of the puzzles, particularly deeper into the game can be tiresome. But these are small complaints in a game that is otherwise outstanding in every way.

Except for the story. It’s stupid, and to be honest I lost interest in it during the first cutscene. The animation style is back, but it looks more refined and confident. It’s typically lame Z-grade piffle about Ninjas, clans, honor, magic tattoos and whatnot punctuated by completely unnecessary violence that makes the game feel far more teenage Xtreme in your face than it needs to be. But you’re not going to play this game for a great story. You’re going to play it to find all of the hidden scrolls, secret puzzle levels, multiple pathways, and to complete objectives that essentially let you organically select how hard you want the game to be. And of course, you’re always going to want to replay a level you hacked and slashed your way through to get the no-kill bonus. High score leaderboards add to the fun, I’m not sure how in the world one guy on mine consistently scores so high on every level. Maybe he’s really a ninja, I don’t know.

Every year for the past several years there have been two or three XBLA games that have really exceeded expectations and blown past their AAA retail peers in terms of presenting us with interesting concepts and new ways of enjoying classic gameplay models. Last year it was Bastion and Outland. This year it’s Sine Mora and Mark of the Ninja. Another game this good and Klei will be well along the road to redeeming their earlier transgressions.