Bethesda Softworks has a surprise in store for later this year. It’s a game from Arkane Studios, the developer behind Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, called Dishonored. You’ve likely heard about it, but the surprise, I think, is that it will deliver in a way that you might not be expecting. One of those “perfect world” new IP scenarios where the new world being laid out before you feels both fresh and familiar. I’m basing this entirely on an eyes-on-only preview that Bethesda brought to New York City earlier in April, so bear that in mind as you read the following.
Dishonored feels like the forbidden love child of BioShock and Thief: Deadly Shadows with a dash of that highly stylized Borderlands art design thrown in. It’s a stealth-action game played from a first-person perspective. You are Corvo, a disgraced royal guardsman who finds himself on the run and looking to clear his name after he’s implicated in the murder of the same Empress that he was once charged with protecting.
The game unfolds in the fictional city of Dunwall, a sort of Victorian-era steampunk vision of London, only without all of the steam and brass that you might expect. The two environments I got to see definitely exuded their own sense of character and place while feeling very different from one another. You won’t have the freedom to explore the entire city — Dishonored follows a linear path in this regard, with discrete “levels” for each mission — but it seems like you’ll be seeing a good mixture of locations as Corvo works to clear his name.
Don’t let the idea of a linear set of missions fool you, however. Dishonored is built on the idea of multi-path gameplay. You’ve got a select set of tools that you’re constantly adding to as the story progresses, and the upgrades you select for yourself determine how you’ll often find yourself approaching a given situation. You’ve heard that sort of talk from other games, sure. There’s a lot of personality in the range of options Dishonored lays out before you.
The bulk of the hands-off preview session focused on showing off two different approaches to the same mission. Corvo is out to make his way into the Golden Cat Bathhouse so he can eliminate a pair of crooked sibling politicians. Note however that murder does not necessarily have to transpire here; the game features non-lethal alternative for every, single scenario, making it possible to proceed through the game without taking a single virtual life.
For the stealth portion of the demo, I watch as the Bethesda rep teleports around the environment using one of Corvo’s unlockable abilities, Blink. Zapping from point A to B is as simple as targeting the location you want to go to and pressing a button. As long as the destination is inside Blink’s range — something you can improve by unlocking the power’s second rank — you’ll make the jump.
It quickly becomes clear that there’s no easy way inside without alerting the guards, so instead Corvo makes his way to the side of the building that faces an empty waterway. Using another of his powers, Corvo takes possession of a swimming fish and guides it through an open grate, into the building’s basement. Possessing people and animals is another ability you can pick up, though it’s much more than just seeing through another’s eyes. You are literally transported along with them as well, so the act of guiding the fish inside means that Corvo, too, has also infiltrated the basement.
Taking refuge in a small room, the demo driver switches on Dark Vision. The world is immediately bathed in golden hues as walls become transparent. Corvo can see people walking around outside, their line of sight indicated by flashlight-like beams emanating from their eyes. It’s a cool effect, and one that you immediately get when you look at it. Stay out of those eye beams and no one will see you.
The sneaking continues as Corvo works his way through the bathhouse. We get to see his nasty Spring Razor trap, a proximity mine-like device that explodes in a swirl of spinning razor wires whenever anyone gets too close, dismembering them immediately.
After skulking around for awhile and listening in on a few conversations, Corvo discovers that the two Pendelton twins that he’s after are in separate locations. The first he goes after is in the steam room downstairs. After dealing with the guards out front, a number of options are available. In this case, Corvo chooses to make the death look like an accident. He shorts out the steam valve after sealing the room’s door, cooking one of his marks alive.
The other twin is upstairs enjoying the loving embrace of one of the bathhouse’s female employees. There’s no indoor entry point that Corvo can use without raising an alert, so he instead heads outside onto a ledge, working his way around to the balcony outside his target’s room. After sneaking inside, he possesses the other brother and walks him out onto the balcony before relinquishing control. As the confused mark tries to figure out how he ended up outside, Corvo unleashes his Wind Blast attack, shoving the doomed man off the balcony and down to the cobblestone street below.
The bathhouse attendant is understandably distressed when Corvo walks back inside. Before she can get too worked up, Corvo brings a small, one-handed crossbow to bear — you swap weapons and powers in a radial menu that slows down time when it’s opened — and knocks her out with a sleep dart. He could have killed her, but that’s not how this portion of the demo is being run.
The more action-oriented approach to this assassination shows off the first-person combat in Dishonored. Corvo is not an unstoppable killing machine, though you can make him extremely deadly in situations where the odds are stacked against him with the right set of skills and tools. There are basic blade attacks, which lead to some cool execution animations (that is assuming the sight of a knife stabbing through someone’s neck qualifies as “cool”). There are also more supernatural powers, like the ability to summon a rat swarm and sic it on any nearby enemies.
When all of the moving parts are working together in concert, Dishonored‘s combat starts to feel like a deadly ballet. Corvo moves easily through a crowd, stabbing one enemy, sending rats after another, and then dropping a Spring Razor at the feet of two other enemies, slicing them to bits. Another power brings time to a stop, giving our assassin the breather he needs to break free from the pack and pull out his pistol, which hits with a hell of a punch.
There are two kinds of powers in Dishonored. The active use ones, like Blink or Rat Swarm, which are tied to Runes that you collect. Then there are Bone Charms, which allow you to activate a variety of passive abilities. This could be something like enemies turning to dust when you stealth knife them from behind, removing any need to worry about hiding bodies. Arkane says that the game features around 50 of these passive abilities, but you’ll only encounter maybe half of them on a typical playthrough. They’re all randomized too, to amp up the replay value.
We also get a brief look at another area of Dunwall, the so-called Flooded District where the powers-that-be keep a quarantine on living victims of a plague that’s spread across the city. This is a markedly different location. The Golden Cat was very bright and cheery, with lots of ornate architecture and innocent bystanders. The Flooded District looks more like a post-apocalyptic urban setting; buildings in ruins, rubble all over, barely a soul in sight.
Here we see a squad of the game’s Tallboys, the stilt-walking enemies armed with incendiary arrow that you’ve seen in screens and concept art. A single Tallboy isn’t a huge challenge, but taking on one alerts a whole group of them. The sustained fire quickly overwhelms Corvo and the demo comes to an end. Afterward, we learn that one option would have been to possess a Tallboy and turn those fire arrows against the others. If it’s alive, you can possess it, provided of course that you’ve unlocked the power.
As you might have gathered from the length of this preview, there’s a lot to talk about with Dishonored. It’s not so much that Arkane showed everything; more that this is a new IP and it features many moving parts. Those moving parts all seem to come together well, however. It’s impossible to make any definitive judgments, but this is one game you’ll want to keep an eye on as the year progresses.