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Released towards the end of 2012, Dishonored got generally positive critical notices but didn't seem to capture the collective imagination of the gamer world. I guess there were too many other releases vying for the attention at the time, including the reasonably similar but better established Assassin's Creed 3. Reviewers seemed to like Dishonored for the world it had created and the storyline more than for the gameplay itself, which is always slightly ominous.
It's a sneaking-around-killing-people sort of game, not unlike the Assassin's Creed series. You are Corvo, the bodyguard of the empress of Dunwall, a steampunk-style city that lives off whale oil and is currently gripped by a devastating plague and swarms of aggressive rats. You fail dismally in your bodyguard's duties, as the empress is murdered right at the start of the game. You are framed for the murder, and have to escape from prison, hook up with the resistance, rescue the empress's daughter and clear your name.
Which is all a bit predictable, really. The world is nowhere near as compelling as some reviewers seemed to believe - it's basically the same as Fable 2, only less cartoony and more grim. It is a strikingly grim world. The swarms of flesh-eating rats are a nicely unpleasant touch, as are the deranged plague sufferers who will attack you if they become aware of you. You won't see many normal folk in your travels - it's generally just guards, plague victims and evil aristocrats - but those that you do see have a beaten-down quality that is authentically depressing. And women are oppressed in this world in a way that you don't usually see - the prostitutes are miserable, and the only independent women you see around the place are evil aristos who are part of the problem, and a creepy old sorceress who you run into once or twice.
The problem with all this is that it's a bit too bleak. Your missions are very set-in-stone and deal with just the one storyline, which is all about court politics. You don't actually get to do anything to make the lives of the general populace better. Choices you make during the game affect the cut-scene you get at the end - if you do nice things then the world goes well after the game ends; if you do nasty things, I assume the world goes to hell. But I don't really want to be told how the world changed after the game has ended; I want to change it myself there and then. Which you get to do in a lot of games; why not this one too?
Your main character is one of those strong, silent types. While every other character gets a tonne of dialogue, you get none at all. Since Mass Effect set the bar pretty high for how talkative a game's protagonist should be I've little patience for characters with no dialogue. You might as well be a tailor's dummy. The few pictures you get to see of yourself suggest you look like a bit like Michael Hutchence (not a look I'd want to emulate, personally). You spend most of the game wearing a kind of cool metal skull mask, as seen on the game's front cover. Idiotically, though, you never walk in front of a mirror or get to see yourself. You might as well be invisible.
It's also annoying that you can only play as a man; I prefer games that give a female main character option, and in this case it might help to balance out the gender inequality in the game's world. Most women are horribly oppressed, so having one who stalks around kicking ass would be cool. It's implied that Corvo and the Empress are lovers (and maybe even that he's the father of her daughter), so maybe they couldn't make him female in case it upset the people who make a point of getting upset about those sorts of things.
If the game itself had been superbly absorbing I'd have been a bit less annoyed about the lack of protagonist personality. But it doesn't really offer much that we've not seen before elsewhere. Assassin's Creed is one influence, but it owes rather more to recent Batman games, especially Arkham City. It has similar stealth sequences; similar powers that let you see through walls in (sort of) infra-red; and similar villainous tannoy announcements in a dystopian city. What it sadly lacks is Arkham City's charm, and any villains that you give a hoot about. We want to defeat the Joker to see how he'll react to being beaten; we can't care about any of the villains here because their characterisations are gossamer-thin.
Another disappointment is the plot, which is incredibly linear. One mission follows another in pre-determined order. It's a bit like V For Vendetta, as your masked scourge of the establishment moves through all the important figures in the government, taking them out one after another. True, each mission features a number of side quests, but you're still stuck in one environment until you have done what you are there to do. This is no sandbox game where you get to go hang out in the city chatting to people and whatnot. You just progress from one point to another. And the big plot twist is so obvious that you'd have to be a fool not to see it coming a mile off.
You can at least choose how to progress. There's no right or wrong way of finishing a mission, although the end result is always the same. You have a largely meaningless choice between killing your end-of-level enemies or dealing with them some other way; whichever you choose, though, they're still removed from the game. You can't persuade someone to swap sides, or decide to leave them alone, because that would mess up the plot for the rest of the game, and I guess too many possible endings were more effort than anyone wanted to put in.
The 'choice' aspect of things was quite a big selling point, but choosing between going over the rooftops or going through the sewers isn't much of a choice if you only get the same outcomes whatever you do. Also, the 'not killing villains' options are often really horrible, as when you hand over a mildly evil woman to her stalker, presumably condemning her to a lifetime of rape. Not really the sort of thing heroes are meant to do.
All of which sounds hugely negative, so I suppose I should point out that it's still a reasonably enjoyable game to play. I rarely have enough patience to do stealth missions with the necessary care, so often end up running for my life, out of bullets, as three or four angry guards chase after me. But as a stealth game it's not so bad. You can choose to just knock people out instead of killing them, which is nice (and affects the numbers of rats in your next mission). Sometimes strangling people from behind (the way you knock them out) can seem a bit dodgy though, especially when you're doing it to a woman (you will need to render a number of maids and prostitutes unconscious in order to complete missions stealthily).
You also have a collection of quite fun magic powers (you gain powers by finding 'runes'. Some mystical looking goth guy called The Outsider is responsible for magic. He occasionally turns up to make the kind of observations that characters like him always make in games: supposedly cryptic and sinister, but actually banal and risible). The most useful powers are teleport and the one that lets you look through walls. You can also summon swarms of rats or possess the bodies of animals or people. Sadly there are only three types of animals to possess: rats, fish and unconvincing dogs. The game is about an economy based around whaling, but you never even get to see a whale, let alone possess one.
You can also buy upgrades to your weapons (a sword, a gun and a crossbow). In classic fashion, you pick up items and money as you progress, and these are what you use to buy new things. Happily, items are automatically converted to cash when you pick them up, so you don't have to go through the rigmarole of carrying them around until you find someone to sell them to.
Graphically it's OK. Characters look a little bit cartoony, but not excessively so. The dark aesthetic is fairly well done, although it's not hugely imaginative and the bits of the city all tend to look the same. It probably sounds better than it looks, with some quite sinister sound effects around some of the magic powers (especially the rather mournful still-living heart that helps you track down new runes). The game's 18 certificate is presumably for the violence, and you can decapitate people and then watch them being eaten by rats. But the gore is never terribly convincing and there's far less blblood than in some games of this type.
The voice acting is pretty good, as well it should be given that the cast includes people like Susan Sarandon, Brad Dourif, Michael Madsen and Chloe Grace Moretz (as the annoying little girl you have to keep rescuing). Bizarrely, and as always, the game's packaging doesn't bother to mention any of these names, so you only find out who you've been listening to by watching the end credits. Why hire famous actors if you're not going to shout about them?
Although it's fun, I don't think I'd really recommend it until it's down to about £10. There are only eight missions, and you rattle through them pretty quickly. Some online comment has suggested that you only really appreciate the game on about the third run through. This sounds like special pleading - it's a video game, not an Antonioni film.
It's designed so that you can't get all the Xbox achievements on one playthrough, but I'm not nearly excited enough about achievements to have another go. There's some downloadable 'challenge' style missions, and I think they're going to do some more missions based around one of the other characters in the game, a rival assassin. So maybe wait until a later edition which has all that new content bundled with the main game. I'm not quite interested enough to buy the DLC.
It's not that Dishonored is bad exactly; what it does, it does perfectly well. It's just too short; too linear; and not particularly original. And there's a basic lack of self-awareness about it, as if it thinks that what it's offering up is somehow breaking new ground. There just isn't that much to get excited about.