The first few days that I played Dishonored, anyone passing by me asked, “Are you playing Bioshock, again?”
Ironically, the first hour or two, in some sense, I thought I was.
While Dishonored features a fantastical world mixing a Victorian aesthetic with its clearly steampunk sensibilities and Bioshock finds its own aesthetics influenced by the 1960s and a kind of retro futurism, the first person perspective on a dystopian futuristic-looking past do give off a similar vibe. Additionally, so too does some of the basic mechanics taught during the tutorial, which has the player master a “two handed” approach to the first person perspective with a left hand dominated by a main weapon and the right with supplementary tools to aid in combat and stealth.
Many of the parallels between this game and Bioshock left me with some expectation of a plot that would contain depth and thoughtfulness, something unique and innovative like that 2007 title.
Once the gameplay opens up and bodyguard-turned-assassin Corvo Attano gains mystical powers (particularly a really nifty short-ranged teleport), I did feel like I was playing something unique and innovative. The gameplay and its various mechanisms in Dishonored work beautifully as this first person stealth-action game comes alive through mixing up a use of varied powers together and as one builds Corvo into a nigh untouchable assassin or a powerful melee fighter. Corvo’s options in exploring the world, approaching missions in a variety of unique ways, and building his own style as an assassin call to mind the open ended options of Deus Ex, making this stealth action game endlessly fascinating from a tactical perspective. The uniqueness of powers like the aforementioned teleportation ability (an incredible asset for stealth kills), bending time, summoning swarms of rats, possessing animals and human beings, and how these abilities can be used in tandem make it quite different from Deus Ex, though, since the game offers a bunch of tricks not previously considered in this style of game. Frankly, not only are these power interesting, they are fun to execute on a visceral level as one teleports in, makes a kill or steals an object, and then teleports away undetected. Such moments just feel amazing.
As a result, I have very little but positive things to say about the experience of playing Dishonored, but where the game let me down is in presenting a more thoughtful context to place this compelling gameplay in.
As much as the Victorian steampunk world appeals to me, the plotline and characters generally feel rote and uninspired. Corvo has been framed for the murder of the Empress for whom he serves as bodyguard, now he has to exact vengeance on the ones really responsible for her death and set the world right once more. A few plot twists are, of course, coming our way. There will be betrayal and the like. Ho hum.
The truly regrettable thing about the by-the-numbers storytelling and introduction of stock characters, like the crazy, old mystic lady, the eerie (and possibly sinister!) otherworldly being, and the brash underworld crime lord, is that the world of Dishonored appears to be very interesting. I know this because books and scraps of paper abound alongside something quite like Bioshock‘s audiologs, all of which contain details about religious orders, the Victorian equivalent of research into biological weaponry, and an economy based on whale oil and the energy that it produces. However, none of those interesting details seem very well explored in the moment-to-moment encounters with the world. Instead, to move along the revenge plot, I speak to stock characters that are generally badly voice acted and the compelling parts of the world quickly dissolve from my mind, held at a distance from me by their presentation only in books I can read or audiologs that I can listen to.
In many ways, I do blame Dishonored‘s soulless plot on voices. Corvo’s lack of a voice (a common enough quality in first person characters) leaves a void in terms of getting a sense of the man that I am supposed to be playing and how he might react and respond to the choices he is making and their consequences.
The voices that the player does hear though aren’t helpful in at least fleshing out those he interacts with either. Dishonored has a surprisingly long list of well respected actors to its credit, but it feels like most of them think that they are doing voiceover for a cartoon, not a video game. Drama here becomes melodrama. Susan Sarandon as Granny Rags (that crazy, old mystic lady) is a good example of this. Her performance is gratingly over-the-top as if she is voicing a creepy, possible villain in a new Pixar cartoon for the kids, not one from an M-rated video game.
As a result, I find myself torn in my final estimation of Dishonored. I love what it does as a game, and I really want to love its world. However, the same level of sophistication brought to the gameplay really needs to match the sophistication of its presentation for me to pledge my undying loyalty to what this new intellectual property could be.