There comes a moment in every generational cycle where developers and publishers get it. When they understand what the technology they’re building for is capable of, what the audience wants, and how to pull together the real design innovations of the past few years. Dishonored, a brilliant magical shooter in which you play a vicious assassin in a weird steampunk alternate reality is that moment.
A mission from the game, the Lady Boyle assassination for which you can watch a video below (courtesy of VG247) was on display at Gamescom; where publisher Bethesda were simply letting the press and community spend a good hour with the game. Few left disappointed. I had to be peeled off the PC as the Bethesda reps started turning off the power late into the evening.
So why’s it good? Dishonored feels like the natural progression from Bioshock. You play a man with wibbly wobbly magical powers and a rucksack full of antique weaponry. Whereas Bioshock was all action all the time, Dishonored does a better job of providing alternate routes to success that aren’t just combat.
In the mission I played, I was given a simple job — infiltrate the mansion of Lady Boyle, identify her, kill her, and leave. Getting into the gardens was no easy task — I had to resort to finding a backdoor, and then using my blink ability to warp from ledge to ledge, before finally hopping over the hedge. Just the brazen inclusion of a Blink ability; the chance to teleport instantly to another spot in view suggests the ambition of the game. Dishonored wants you to think and plan and try and break the levels in new and interesting ways.
Dishonored gives you breathing room. Inside the mansion, I discovered that the route to Lady Boyle’s bedroom was blocked by a Wall of Light - an electrical field that zaps anyone who passes through. As a guest of the party, I pondered the problem while munching on canapes. Then, figured out an easy solution. I could possess a guard, walk through it, and find my way into the landing. Once upstairs, I’d morph out of his head, stab him, and hide the body. Easy.
I pondered further. I could, actually possess a rat. And climb up this little air vent and get inside from the opposite direction. Or I could halt time for a moment, and sneak past a guarded door. The options available were intoxicating. Better was the chance to poke around, speak to the guests, and gather intelligence before I acted.
Dishonored doesn’t demand stealth, but it does let you enjoy the sensation of power that comes from being a predator. And its stealth is easily the match of a game like Thief. Upstairs, I took great delight in sneaking into the bedrooms by watching patrols via X-Ray vision, occasionally applying a narcotic dart to the back of a guards neck, and dashing past when their back was turned. As I tumbled through the hallways, I’d rip paintings from their frames, pinch goblets and plates, leaving nothing valuable behind. Dishonored mixes brutal assassination with grand larceny: an intoxicating brew.
But there’s something else. Dishonored’s brilliantly weird. Its setting is baffling and bizarre - a kind of steampunk, turn of the century fascist whaling town in which men on stilts patrol the streets, zombies spit flies at your face, and rats, so many rats, tumble out from the alleyways and snap at your heels. It’s so off-key, so odd that it’s difficult to know what to expect, to know what’s about to happen.
There was a moment I knew I was going to love Dishonored. I’d been asked to deliver a sealed note to a contact. That contact opened the letter, read it, and then presented two pistols. I’d just delivered a challenge to a duel. The guards led us to a duelling station, asked us to turn and look away. Then, they counted down.
“Holy shit! I’m in a duel!”
It was somewhat unexpected. And brilliant.
I’ve fallen head over heels for Dishonored. I want to play more, and more and more of it. I want to try and better combine the abilities at my disposal. I want to better understand the swordfighting mechanics and how to block and parry. I want, as the Bethesda rep, explained, to go through the game without killing a single person. I want to use its baffling clockwork heart to discover the runes that lead to you upgrading your powers. I just want to play it, again and again and again.
It’s out in just a few weeks.