Let’s Talk Dishono(u)red: Gameplay

The game’s been out for a bit now, and I expect most everyone with the intention to do so have played it, and even written about it, so I’m behind the curve as usual. Probably not a surprise for any regular readers since most of my stuff is retrospective. And yes, I know the official title is Dishonored, but I’m too European to not write it as Dishonoured.

It hints at the mystery.

Now I already did my piece on the world and the lore surrounding it, so this post will focus largely on gameplay. I’ve been trying my best to assemble my thoughts before starting here, so let’s see how it goes.

Again; there will be some spoilers.

While I’m sure most of you already know this, I will state it nevertheless: Dishonoured is a first-person action game with a heavy focus on stealth, set in a steampunk world with certain similarities to Victorian-era England. And apparently more than a few similarities to the Thief games as well, though I’ve only played the demo of the first one, so I can’t really comment too much on that, but I felt it warranted mentioning.

You play as the well-known Corvo Attano: Personal body-guard to the empress and her daughter. Things go tits up fast and you have to seek revenge for the murder of the Empress (which is blamed on you) and work to restore her daughter Emily to the throne. There will be sneaking; there will be assault; there will be betrayals; there will be magic!

About to enter the picture that I didn't screenshot: Emily.

The environments are really well styled, I’ll give them that.

While there were some neat things in there, I didn’t really feel that the actual plot was that interesting. The decision to make Corvo a silent protagonist was probably part of that. He has a name, a face and a genuine relationship with other characters in the game. There is a lot of dialogue, so making him a Gordon Freeman doesn’t really make much sense, and instead feels silly and out-of-place.

Seeing where they were taking things was of course part of my motivation for moving on, but I have to say the betrayal scene was one of those things I saw coming since practically the beginning, and yet kept hoping wouldn’t happen for the longest time. So when it finally did occur I felt rather disappointed. The overall impression was that they could have done a lot more with it.

On the plus side I quite enjoyed the Heart, and the insights it would bring on the areas I were in and the people I pointed it at. And the really, really heavy ‘hints’ that Emily was actually Corvo’s daughter added a nice touch to their relationship which I think they really could have enhanced with some nice dialogue lines, rather than undercutting it with complete silence.

Or is it the sunset? I can't remember.

Enjoying the sunrise with my beloved.

Like Mark of the Ninja; Dishonoured is a stealth game. Unlike Mark of the Ninja; it does not give you as much visual information about sight, lighting and sound, so you will largely have to use your own judgment and keep a close eye out for awareness indicators from enemies. Also unlike Mark of the Ninja; if you do get discovered, then combat is a completely viable option. Combat is hard and you can’t take many hits, but with well-timed parries and strikes (and pertinent use of off-hand items) you can dispatch several foes without suffering personal injury.

The upgrade system does allow you to get some magical powers that help get the visual information you need to see cones of vision and even where enemies are through walls. Though there are upgrades to simply enhance sneaking an non-lethal efficiency, most upgrades (again like Mark of the Ninja) help you murder people easier.

I have to wonder if it makes your eyes itch?

Magic now gives you funky vision.

See, the gimmick here is the chaos rating. If you kill few (or no) people, don’t get discovered and the people you do kill/knock out don’t get found either; the game gives you a low chaos rating. If you just kill anyone in your way; the game gives you a high chaos rating. As things stand now I’ve done a complete low chaos playthrough, and about half of a high chaos one (that I most likely won’t finish any time soon). I wouldn’t say it’s a morality system as such, since the non-lethal ways of taking care of your targets tend to be a lot more vindictive and cruel than out-right killing them.

With the variety in your tools of murder; the different kill animations, the juicy-looking necks, the different firearms and ammunition, the numerous upgrades and amusing magical powers; it can feel like the game is encouraging you to cut loose and experiment with the best ways to murder your way through the game. There can be some rather crafty traps, like summoning a bunch of rats, sticking a spring trap to one of them, and possessing it to have it stroll over to a guard who will step on it for a nasty surprise.

The noises they make are horrifying.

Or be more direct and just have the rats eat people.

Even so I consider that to be the easy route. This game has what I like to call self-imposed difficulty, in that you decide for yourself how tricky you want it to be. Just getting through the game and completing the levels is not that hard, but the goals you set for your own behaviour complicates things to your own liking. Maybe you want to go out of your way to not be discovered? Maybe you want to murder everyone on the level without being discovered? Maybe you want to duel everyone? Maybe you don’t want to kill anyone? Maybe not even your targets? The game has options for you in each scenario, and that basically sets the difficulty for you. There is a difficulty selection as well if you don’t feel it’s tricky enough, or that it’s too hard even if you go for the easiest route.

This comes down to personal preference for the most part. For some the non-lethal methods are not satisfying enough, and for others it could be the murder that makes it all too dull. My personal preference was to play with the aim of no-kill and no-detect (and an unhealthy dose of kleptomania). While I did get two kills total over my playthrough that I couldn’t be arsed to replay the entire mission to make up for (Arkane: please add a way to check kill counter in-mission), I usually considered being detected or causing someone’s death to be a loss condition that required a reload. And I discovered during my playthrough that rats finding and eating an unconscious body did not make the game blame me for their death, while if they fell into water the game acts as if I drowned them personally.

Sword got bloodied on quite a few rats though.

Hello there, gun that I’ll never use.

There are certain quirks to how the stealth works. It’s not always easy to determine just how much room you take and as such whether or not you’re visible. Judging how far someone can see, or whether the shade is helping to hide you is also as much a guessing game as anything else. The game also seems to change its mind on whether enemies/guards can see through tiny cracks or not depending on the situation and location. I tended to play very conservatively and stay high up for that reason, but it does feel really good once you’ve got a handle on it.

From the comments I’ve seen I feel like I’m in the minority here, but I really had a lot more fun with the non-lethal gameplay than the lethal. Zipping around with blink, getting right up behind someone, choking them out while hoping intensely that none of the others turn their gazes in my direction for the duration, hoisting the body over my shoulder and zipping away to hide them somewhere I am betting my success on being safe. There was a certain thrill to the whole affair, something very personal about holding them till they fell asleep, and a lot of planning that went into my hiding spots. It clearly doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it never got old for me. I didn’t even use the sleep darts unless it was absolutely necessary because I didn’t want to forgo the personal touch.

Would have been neat if Corvo would whisper 'sshh-sshh-sshh' while doing this. What do you mean 'creepy'?

Quite a common scenario for non-lethals.

This did of course mean that I ended up with a stuffed inventory of toys I never, ever used. Well, I did use grenades to clear out swarms of rats if I thought no one would hear. And regular crossbow bolts were useful in clearing out River Krusts. I do wish it were possible to sell the stuff I didn’t need though, because there were times I wished I had more money. Not towards the end, of course. I had more money than I honestly needed by then.

I will never forget dealing with High Overseer Campbell though. I wanted to save Captain Curnow as well, so I had to put into effect a fairly elaborate plan. I smashed the glasses, of course, since I didn’t want either of them to die, and then I hid behind the wooden wall at the corner of the room as I heard them at the door and waited. As they were headed out I followed them and grabbed Curnow from behind to choke him out. As Curnow passed out Campbell started running so I quickly got him in the back with a sleep dart. I took out a nearby guard to buy myself some time, then hid Campbell in a corner while I placed Curnow out on the ledge outside the window. By the time I got back inside the guards had noticed something was amiss, so I had to carry Campbell through an area full of suspicious guards and get him into the interrogation chair and brand him before I made my escape with the sleeping Curnow and stowed him away for safety.

I guess this might be a spoiler for some of you, but he was right next to where I recovered my equipment.

How the mighty have fallen.

It took me gods only know how many tries before I got it right, but I felt very pleased with myself after I’d pulled it off. What’s that they used to say on the A-Team? “I love it when a plan comes together”? There were of course times during the game where I thought “this would be so much easier if I just killed that guy”, but I stayed the course and felt a certain amount of pride afterwards. I’d like to do another playthrough completely without accidental deaths at some point, but I need a break first.

And I really didn’t get the same feeling from playing on high chaos. Not even anything equivalent. The kill animations are satisfying, combat works well and when you have the magical upgrade that makes them turn to ash when dead that does illicit a grin, but all in all the thrill was just gone. It felt too simple, which is a bit ironic considering the variety in methods to kill versus knock out. And the plans I made on how to get to that piece of loot I really wanted just felt a lot less crazy and fun. So yeah, I frankly enjoyed low chaos a lot more than high chaos.

I didn't really want to put anything relevant here, so nyah.

Is that a whale back there? With graffiti on it?

Before I round this off I would like to mention that the parkour they added to this game is something they should put in every first-person game from now on. The ability to grab a ledge and do a pull-up is such a simple thing that I hadn’t even been aware of missing it until I played this game. I certainly will miss it in all first-person games that don’t have it from now on though. And the little visual indicator when using blink that said “you will climb onto this” felt like a stroke of genius.

That’s it for my thoughts on the gameplay in Dishonoured. I feel a little bad for not talking about the interesting art style and distinct environments, but maybe that’s fodder for another post.

~Wulf

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Posted on November 11, 2012, in Games, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’ve not read past the first few paragraphs due to spoilers, but I think there is a niche for “retrospective” reviews. I myself am skeptical of pre-release reviews where a) the reviewer is rushed and b) there are possibly some (financial) politics influencing the result.

    Those of us who are patient and sensible would welcome a source to get a more honest reflection of a game, even if it’s past the release date. There’s also the possibility that someone in 2015 has only just found Dishono(u)red in a bargain bin and they’re considering a purchase.

    • I’m hardly the only one who does retrospective stuff, but I do get what you mean. I prefer not writing about a game unless I’ve gotten a proper feel for it. Some I feel decided on halfway through, and some I think on for weeks or months after I’ve completed them.

  2. It is amazing how many things are fixed when give your highly trained protagonist the ability to do a chin up.

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