E3 2012: Dishonored [Preview]
No matter how jaded the annual E3 event might leave you feeling, a game or two that seem tailor-made to your tastes will almost always emerge. Dishonored fits that bill for me. Everything fits neatly into place. It’s an original idea (always a plus); it’s in development at Arkane, a studio that can count Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah among their previous games; it features first-person melee; and every level appears to have been designed with multiple approaches and replay value in mind.
The proof is always in the playing, of course, but having that sort of design pedigree and philosophy behind a game is a sign of considerable potential. Forgive me for getting just a little excited about it.
Dishonored, if you didn’t already know, takes place in the fictional city of Dunwall (conceptualised with the help of Half-Life 2’s art director Viktor Antonov). You play as Corvo, a former bodyguard to the Empress who has been unjustly (we can only assume) framed for her murder. Since you’re fairly miffed about this, it seems like a good idea to get out of prison and wreak terrible vengeance upon those responsible.
Arkane has used E3 to demonstrate two key things about Dishonored. One, the multitude of ways that mission goals can be approached and fulfilled, and two, the variety of special powers at Corvo’s disposal in the pursuit of those goals.
The design philosophy at work here is “play the way you want”, within the framework provided by the title. Dishonored will give you the skills and it’ll give you the location, but how you go about achieving your aims is up to you. This isn’t an open world title in the sense of having a gigantic play area (like, say, Just Cause 2), but the freedom within each specific mission area will feel sufficiently broad. Anyone who’s familiar with the first two titles of the Thief series should know what to expect; self-contained maps with the freedom to do as you please within them. In fact, Dishonored’s interplay of magic and technology is also rather reminiscent of the medieval-steampunk world found in Thief.
If you’ve paid any attention to press coverage of this game, you’ll already know about the Golden Cat Brothel. At E3, Arkane used this level (which tasks you with bumping off two brothers who happen to be members of parliament) to show off the different ways it could be played.
The first playthrough demonstrated was more on the stealthy side. Incidentally, Dishonored doesn’t really look like a binary ‘stealthy / not stealthy’ title, but more like a game where you can mix-up your play style and land pretty much anywhere on the stealth spectrum at any given situation.
In the demo, Corvo’s ‘Blink’ ability (a short range teleportation skill) was used to hop beyond a pair of guards hanging around the building’s perimeter, and out of their sight. After this, Corvo possessed a fish and swam his way inside the Golden Cat through a drain. You didn’t misread that, it is possible (indeed, encouraged) to possess animals and even people. Doing so doesn’t just control the target’s mind; instead you actually become the target for a short period of time, which is how it’s possible to navigate inside a location inside a fish.
Once inside, it became necessary to locate the brothers. Arkane is keen to emphasise that the placement of these targets will be semi-random. They’ll have a number of locations where they can show up, meaning you won’t be able to just waltz up to the same room every time you play. Finding out where they are could be a matter of eavesdropping on conversations, or (as was shown here) reading the brothel register.
After a deft use of ‘Dark Vision’, another of Corvo’s skills which allows him to see people through walls and observe their cones of vision, the first of the brothers was found in a sort of bath house area. The entrance was locked and inaccessible without a certain key, but an alternative method of assassination was open in the form of the deadly power of steam. One quick twist of a valve later, and the target is dispatched (along with, sadly, his innocent companion).
Here, the developers noted that killing a lot of innocent people will propel players towards a much darker ending than for those who refrain from taking civilian lives. It was also confirmed that, though it involves “a lot of effort”, it’s possible to get through the whole game without killing a single person. Given that several missions involve assassinations, this prospect is quite intriguing. Presumably there are other ways of dealing with these would-be hits.
Back in the demo, the second brother was dispatched with a spot of possession (to walk him to the edge of a balcony), followed by a helpful pat on the back.
The second playthrough displayed was far more violent. Blink was used in a much more aggressive fashion, to close the distances between guards in order to use a ‘Windblast’ and toss them off the rooftop to their deaths. Another hapless employee got a crossbow bolt to the face, while a third henchman was dispatched by dropping from above and jamming a knife through his neck. If you fancy playing that way, Dishonored certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to graphic on-screen gore.
A further power, ‘Rat Swarm’ was used to devour a set of three guards in a highly disturbing way, and a pistol shot took out another in a central area of the mission’s map.
Target number one was ended with a Windblast, and two more security staff (who’d be a guard in a videogame?) were finished off by slowing down time (yep, another power) and dropping a Spring Razor trap next to them. As time wound back up to normal speed, this trap triggered and sliced the poor chaps to ribbons.
Each of the powers mentioned is tied to a pseudo mana bar, in order to prevent you simply dominating every confrontation you find yourself in. Indeed, towards the end of this second demonstration the player was running out of power juice and had to resort to standard melee attacks to hack up a couple more foes. The second brother was located (as promised, in a different area to the first playthrough), grabbed by the neck and introduced to a knife in the throat. Delightful.
Arkane has explained that Corvo’s powers are tied to a system of runes that players will find throughout the game, which are spent to acquire new skills or upgrade current ones. You won’t be able to stock up on every single power though, because there won’t be enough runes laying around the place. That should further encourage multiple playthroughs for those eager to experiment with every skill. Though not shown in the demonstrations, a further power “Turn to Ash” was also described. This one turns bodies to ash when you make a surprise kill, removing the awkward problem of body disposal.
Anyone yearning for a return to the golden era of ‘immersive sims’ (the catch-all term for titles like Thief, System Shock, the original Deus Ex and other), Dishonored presents a fascinating link back to that period. Judging by Arkane’s development history and the gameplay demonstrated at E3, they may be just the right studio to deliver on that tantilising promise.
Dishonored is coming to PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 on 9/12 October (US/EU).