In Dishonored, you step into the shoes of Corvo Attano, the Lord Protector of the Empress of the City of Dunwall. Set in something resembling the Victorian era, Dunwall boasts a real steampunk-ish vibe... just replace steam with whale oil as the main source of power. It may sound fishy (ha!), but it works.
Dishonored's "oilpunk" style is an appealing one and paints a world not totally unlike Bioshock's Rapture (developer Arkane Studios also created Bioshock 2), but unique enough to establish itself as its own. With an excellent voice cast that includes talents like Susan Sarandon, Michael Madsen, Carrie Fisher, and the absurdly talented Brad Dourif, and a haunting soundtrack from Dexter composer Daniel Licht, Arkane Studios has created a vivid world in Dunwall that's not only like Rapture in its design, but also in its quality.
After the Empress is murdered and her daughter kidnapped, you find yourself blamed and locked away in a cell where you await your execution. It's not an unfamiliar premise for a video game, but it's an easy way to establish an underdog and the whole righteously busting out of prison to prove your innocence thing is always pretty awesome.
Justice or Revenge
Dishonored is played from a first-person view, and while there is shooting involved (if you choose to use it), it doesn't feel at all like a first-person shooter. It carries a much more Skyrim-esque vibe with a dash of Mirror's Edge thrown in. Remember Mirror's Edge? You probably don't, and that's a shame. The game can be played a number of ways in pursuit of two different things: justice or revenge. Some would argue that revenge is justice. That morally wonky ground is what you have to traverse in Dishonored.
The adjustable narrative is another element that the game has in common with Bioshock. And while Bioshock's "choices" were a disappointment, Dishonored comes closer to fulfilling that promise, but doesn't manage to completely break out of the "hero/anti-hero" framework that restricts so many choose-your-own-adventure games. To be fair, I don't know that a developer could ever really come through on that promise, but Dishonored's methods of pieced together outcomes come the closest so far. That vague line will make more sense when you play the game, but in short: it's not perfected, not even close, but it's an admirable effort.
Never mind all of that. The journey is more important than the destination. Yada yada yada. Several games offer the choice to utilize stealth or go in guns blazing, but more often than not, one of the two methods is clearly favored over the other. In Dishonored, they both feel like two complete, different, and--most importantly--fun games. That alone is a feat that deserves a lot of recognition. It makes the most of this expertly crafted world, giving you two very unique ways to explore it. Never before have I been so eager to replay an adventure.
I plan to replay Dishonored a third time, this time with the difficulty cranked way up, but for my first two playthroughs I kept it on the easier side of things. During my action playthrough, I felt practically unstoppable when I wielded by full arsenal. I would shatter doors with violent gust of wind, rewire security devices to work for me, and summon swarms of rats to devour my enemies. I was Corvo the Destroyer and I couldn't be stopped.
The second time around, I vowed never to be seen and to never hurt a soul. My sword and pistol were useless. My crossbow's sleeping darts came in handy when I found myself in a tricky situation, but I mostly relied on my arsenal of powers, which would allow me to teleport between rooftops, look through walls at surrounding enemies, and when things were really dire, freeze time itself and run right through a crowd of unmoving and unaware enemies.
When executing a stealth playthrough, I ran into one of my very few issues with the game: body disposal. It's possibly to put enemies to sleep through either a choke hold or the aforementioned sleep darts, but hiding the bodies is a whole different operation. There are nooks and crannies and dumpsters, but they're a little few and far between. A few more options, perhaps maybe some bushes or closets, would have really come in handy. If you're doing a stealth/lethal playthrough, you can conjure rats to eat the body or even magic it away through a power called shadow kill, but a lack of imagination on the part of the developers certainly becomes a hindrance for those looking to exercise a little restraint. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the game favors lethality, but they certainly don't make it easy to take the high road.
A Bit of Fry & Laurie
Graphically, there are plenty of games that look better than Dishonored. However, from a design perspective, there's a lot to enjoy. Some people haven't been too happy with the game's character designs, but I think they look fantastic. Dishonored doesn't aim for realism in its cast, instead opting for a more caricature-based aesthetic. Each character's design fits their personality well, with the snootiest of the bunch looking like something out of a dry British sitcom.
While I stand by my description of Dunwall as vivid, the world doesn't feel as alive and authentic as I would like. The "missions" take place in different sections of Dunwall and sometimes they feel more like set pieces than an actual living city. There are buildings you can explore, but most of them are sealed off and feel like painted backdrops on a studio lot. This only applies to some stages. There are more than a few very well done portions of Dunwall.
An Honorable Achievement
Last year I reviewed the detective simulator L.A. Noire and walked away with a feeling very similar to the one I got from Dishonored. If you give it a thorough deconstruction, you'll find lots of little flaws in its various parts, but to point them all out and, worse yet, act as if they hinder the experience in any meaningful way would be disingenuous. As a whole, Dishonored is a terrific experience that, if nothing else, succeeds on ambition alone. It's a game lovingly crafted by fans of the medium, a successful emulation and amalgamation of several similar titles. It manages to borrow some of the best elements from those that came before and incorporate them into of the freshest and most satisfying gaming experiences of the year.