We talk a lot about “open world” gaming nowadays, with games like Prototype and Dead Rising allowing players to explore worlds with an unprecedented level of freedom, at least in regards to where you go in the environment. Once you’re assigned a mission, gameplay becomes fairly set in stone, tugging you along a predetermined path with only one way through. There have been a few games that have allowed for a greater sense of freedom in how you completed missions, including Deus Ex and the criminally overlooked Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, which let you dictate just how you approached a mission, what objectives to complete, and sometimes even who you killed to reach your goal.
Dishonored takes this open-mission structure to dizzying new heights, casting players as Corvo Attano, a bodyguard turned supernatural assassin after he was framed for the murder of the Empress that he was charged to protect, running a series of missions for an underground resistance in a fascinating, retro-dystopian world.
Dishonored sets itself apart from countless other games for several reasons, one being its unique “whale punk” theme, which cribs from Jules Vernian steampunk but powers its retro tech with tanks full of whale oil, which gives the game world a unique naval feel, enhanced by a distinctive graphical style that deftly walks the line between realistic and stylized. The other main difference comes from the aforementioned paths that you can choose on the game’s many assassination missions. Despite the fact that you are an assassin (which, last time I checked, meant you were a killer), you can go through the game without spilling a single drop of blood. Sneaking up behind enemies can initiate either a silent chokehold or a vicious stab to the throat, and each maneuver has their consequences. There are several supernatural abilities that you can upgrade over the course of the game that makes either path easier, be it a sort of sonar that lets you see patrolling enemies through walls, or summon mobs of rats to tear apart your foes.
These consequences tie into the zombie-like contagion that is sweeping across the city of Dunwall, delivered Black Plague-style on the rats that fill the sewers and gutters. The more people you kill, the more bodies for the rats to feast upon, the more rats there are, and the further the plague spreads, resulting in a higher number of Weepers for the player to deal with. Weepers are plague carriers in the final stages of the disease, and their feral nature and bloody tears form a rather disturbing image. If you leave more people alive, the overall game tends to be less dark and brutal, even if it’s difficult in a totally different fashion.
If there’s one complaint about Dishonored, it’s that it’s a game that leaves you wanting more, story wise. There’s an incredible amount of depth hinted at in this world, from the supernatural mythology surrounding the Outsider who gives you your powers to the sociopolitical climate that seems to taunt you at the edges of the game’s plot. The game just seems to end without any real wrap-up, which is disappointing when there’s such rich potential in this unique world.
This mild story gaffe doesn’t detract from the final product too severely, and if anything serves as further proof as to just how involving Dishonored is. It makes me hope for another round in the stealthy boots of the skull-masked Corvo in his world of Victorian violence.