Dishonored preview - looking for a unique game?

We didn’t have any reason to be excited about Dishonored since we knew nothing about it going into our recent demo, but now that we’ve seen the game, we can tell you that you need to be excited, because we sure damn are. Dishonored is a first-person action/adventure game, or perhaps a first-person stealth/assassination game. It’s difficult to pin to a category, which is fine by us. It also takes place in its own unique universe that is fully realized down to the tiniest details. After watching it played for an hour, we truly think it looks like nothing we’ve seen before – not that everything about it is original, but that its parts come together in a way that feels really, really brand-spanking new.

First the setup: you play a supernaturally-enhanced assassin who was once the Empress’s personal bodyguard, but then she was assassinated and you were wrongfully accused, turning you into a mercenary on the lam. Our first impression of Dishonored’s universe was steampunk, but then the devs specifically told us it’s not steampunk. See, steampunk involves all kinds of pipes and turning gears in the technology, but Dishonored’s world is what the devs call “retro-futuristic” but it’s more original than that vague notion. This is a totally alternate universe where Earth doesn’t exist – and this is a universe where the very laws of nature are different. The cosmos itself is hostile – the animals are aggressive, disease runs rampant, and the very ocean works to make life difficult. The planet that Dishonored takes place on is dominated by an ocean, so life is never simple for the human-looking inhabitants. There is one mega-continent, but the main part of the game takes place on an archipelago of smaller islands, and the economy is based entirely around whaling.

When the demo began our hero crept out of a sewer to emerge at the waterline of a harbor, where a huge steel ship with bizarrely-shaped sci-fi design came lumbering from off screen, and hoisted inside a framework on the ship’s deck dangled a gigantic whale with an anatomy like no whale we’ve seen (we thought it was a giant shark at first). We learned that whales in Dishonored’s world contain immense power: whale oil is volatile, which means it can power advanced technology as if it were some kind of super gasoline, and whale bones contain magic properties that can be harnessed to fuel superhuman abilities.

We soon saw such an ability when the player made a super jump to circumvent the prying eyes of enemy guards. The jump itself had speed and agility to it you don’t typically see in a first-person game – it was more akin to a jump in Ninja Gaiden. Up on a cobbled street, we saw some kind of crackling field of energy wreathing the entrance to another street. Then snaps of electricity shot from the metal edges of the entryway toward the ground. Panning the camera to the left, we saw a pair of rats running toward the portal, and then more snaps of lightning shot down and vaporized them. The hero, needing to get through this trap, found a nearby control box and removed the whale-oil battery inside, shutting down the electric field. Immediately a swarm of rats surged through the gap, and we saw what they were going for: a human corpse lying against a nearby building. The rats poured over the body, creating a grotesque gushing of blood. In a surprising twist, we learned that the rats are not merely window dressing – oh no – for as soon as the player came near, the swarm turned from the corpse and began attacking the player. A mad dash into a pool of light provided protection from the shadow-stalking vermin.

See, a version of the Black Plague has taken hold of Dishonored’s world, so you’ll find lots of cast-aside bodies in gruesome funerary wrappings, along with a lot of aggressive rats. But these rats are not your typical early enemy found in RPGs – they are an environmental hazard to be avoided… and used as a tool. It’s possible to draw the attention of a rat swarm and then lure it into attacking guards. The rats also have their own realistic behavior – if you encounter just a few of them, they’re not as bold as a full-on swarm, so they’ll just run away from you. You even have supernatural powers to use with the rats – we saw a summon spell that conjured rats from thin air, producing a large enough swarm to horribly devour an entire group of men.

The other ability made clear the inventiveness that the game’s designers have brought to the multi-path assassination missions. In the level we saw the player needed to assassinate a corrupt lawyer, and we saw a direct, but stealthy approach, whereas it would also be possible to go in with dagger and pistol blazing, or to go on side missions to first gather evidence against the lawyer, changing the outcome of later events. In the stealthy approach, our hero used his possession ability to jump inside one of the rats. Now we had a ground-level view, creeping along gutters as a filthy rodent. The key to sneaking into the lawyer’s compound was a tiny vent that only a rat could fit through. However, since the citizens know that the rats are dangerous, you’ll still have to employ stealth or face the bottom of a giant boot. We should note that the possession ability is not of the spirit form – your entire being goes inside the rat, so once in an out-of-the-way corner you can explode, full-size, from the rat and continue your mission. We’re told you can possess other beings, including people and fish.

In order to get further into the compound our hero had to employ his Blink ability – a short-range teleport. He used it to skip across a well-lit corridor and stay hidden in shadowy nooks, and he used it to teleport from rooftop to rooftop. Inside and close to his target, he chose to pickpocket a key from a guard, but could have easily killed the man. The game has a Chaos system – the more people you kill the more Chaos you build up. It’s not a reward or a punishment, but rather a tone-changer: if you like playing a more in-your-face brutal game, then this behavior will cause the game to become more brutal and chaotic.

Reaching the inner sanctum, our hero peeked through a keyhole to spy on his intended target. He decided to unlock the door, slip inside, and then briefly stop time to slice the lawyer’s throat. Alternatively, he could have used a cyclone to blast the door open and partake in a shootout. Either way, the alarm was raised and it was a frantic scramble to return to the sewers. Along the way he encountered strange thin-legged walker machines that reminded us of the striders from Half-Life 2, bringing shooter elements into a game that is still not at all a first-person shooter.

Above: But these walkers have human pilots you can snipe

It’s difficult to capture what really makes Dishonored feel different and exciting. We hope our words and the screens capture some of it, but you really have to see it in motion to get the full effect, and of course we’ll need to play it to say for sure. Make no mistake – this game should be on your radar if what we’ve talked about sounds at all interesting.

Aug 9, 2011

Matthew Keast
My new approach to play all games on Hard mode straight off the bat has proven satisfying. Sure there is some frustration, but I've decided it's the lesser of two evils when weighed against the boredom of easiness that Normal difficulty has become in the era of casual gaming.