Friday, October 19, 2012

Linearity, Freedom, and Dishonored

I'm a big fan of games that provide freedom, or at least certain types of freedom. My favourite type are open world games that allow you to explore and discover cool and interesting things. Games like Fallout 3, Skyrim, Assassin's Creed.

The next best type are games that have a linear level progression, but allow a lot of freedom in how you approach each level, and support different gameplay styles. This would be games like Deus Ex, Crysis, and the newly released Dishonored.

Dishonored is quite a good game, a brand new IP having appeared largely out of nowhere for most people, full of fun gameplay set in a beautifully realized world with an interesting story to pull you through. The gameplay options are genuinely interesting and encouraging of replay, while the game itself is of modest enough length that multiple playthroughs can reasonably be done by people that have jobs and shit to do.

Diana and I are halfway through our third playthrough at the moment, and we're still discovering new and cool things. The game has swordplay, gunplay, an assortment of different supernatural skills to unlock, and also supports the option to not kill a single person, which is quite interesting for a game based on assassinating people!

We did our first playthrough doing a blend of all of the gameplay options, sometimes stealthing, sometimes running around killing everything that moves, and generally getting a good sample of everything the game has to offer. Second time through was full stealth without killing anyone. And now we're playing it full action without using supernatural abilities.


The game is set across 9 missions, each with primary and optional objectives, often with objectives being changed or added during each mission. This is particularly true when going for the non-lethal approach, since you often have to discover the way to achieve the non-lethal outcome by talking to NPCs or overhearing guards' conversations. I really liked this approach, since it helped make exploration feel like a core part of the game, and not just something to do to find collectibles.

There is no game map, which helps encourage exploration and also makes the game feel more immersive. So that you don't feel too confused, some missions start with a boat ride that lets you get a big picture view of the level, and some sections actually have a simple map on a wall that can help you get your bearings. Generally you don't need this to figure a level out, though I sometimes found myself frustrated when trying to reach an objective marker but finding that the door to get there is quite distant, and that I've just carefully stealthed to a location for nothing.

Missions are of variable length, which is a nice touch, since it feels as though the designers have gone ahead and made each level contain just what they wanted it to have, without an obvious 'x minutes of gameplay' target in mind.


Magic abilities can be unlocked by finding runes in the world, and the skills you choose to unlock can have a very big impact on how you play. You are started with the Blink ability, which allows teleporting over short distances, and is surprisingly useful. You can move from cover to cover without being spotted, you can navigate the world, you can cover the distance to an enemy to make a surprise attack.

Possessing things is another very useful ability. When you possess something, your body disappears, and then reappears when the possession wears out. This allows you to use possession as a way to get from one place to another undetected. You can possess rats and fish to get through otherwise inaccessible tunnels, or possess a guard to get through a security point.

Other abilities are slowing down or freezing time, enhanced vision to see enemies or useful items through walls, creating a swarm of rats, and more run of the mill ones like increased health or movement ability.


The city of Dunwall has a Bioshock / Half Life 2 feel to it, with some 19th century British Empire thrown in. I really liked the combination, feeling both familiar yet clearly not part of our own timeline. The use of whale oil as the core energy commodity was different and interesting.

There is a richly realized world here that can be learned about via books that can be found throughout the game, kind of like the Elder Scrolls games. I admit that I didn't read many of these, but it was good to see the effort put in to making an immersive world.

The world changes based on the way you play it, with it becoming darker and more hostile the more people you kill. Through most of the game this just means more rats and weepers (infected zombie-like people), but the last couple of levels have more significant changes. The overall storyline remains the same, but the differences are noticeable and welcome.


The enemies are mostly human, with a nice variety of weaponry and skill levels. Some guards just have swords, while others have pistols and are often also more skilled with swords, dodging your own strikes and kicking you backwards. There are assassins with some of the same supernatural abilities that you have, and even a type of guard who can suppress all magic use in the area until you kill him.

There are good, simple readabilities to tell you of an enemy's alert state: a sound stinger plays when an enemy gets alerted, and icons above the head show the alert level. Guards will do basic patrol and search behaviours, but there are no real group behaviours. A guard can raise an alarm to bring in reinforcements, but they all tend to act independently.

One nice touch I noticed is that when you hack an electrified sentry and one guard sees another guard get killed by it, he will keep his distance and throw stuff at you instead.

Bad Things

There aren't that many things that bothered me with Dishonored, and they are mostly minor. You can buy stuff but you can't sell, which is a shame when you're playing in one gameplay style so you may have a full load of sleeping darts or crossbow bolts that you'd love to switch for something else, but are forced to just uselessly carry the whole game.

There are a small number of save slots, and once full, the game will always default to the most recent slot, rather than the oldest, which to me seems much more useful, rather than having to scroll to the bottom of the list every time I save.

They use some levels more than once, though with large changes to them. This isn't such a bad thing, since the familiarity can be useful, but with such a pretty and interesting world, I wanted to see more of it, not the same places!

Final Thoughts

I would definitely recommend Dishonored. It reminds me of so many other games in different aspects, which gives it a certain familiarity while also being new and unique at the same time. Lots of good ideas have been put together into a pretty, fun, and well polished package.


  1. I'm looking forward to this. Arx Fatalis was cool and since then Arkane Studios has been on my radar along with the other ex-Looking Glass alumni.