Though I’ve barely played past the first proper mission, I feel compelled to write about Dishonored. Or Dishonoured, to spell it correctly.
Other than the very first trailer and the 3 part prequel short film, I’d carefully avoided all details of this game before release, without really knowing why. I think even from its initial announcement it had the whiff of something special.
Partly it was due to its lineage: a designer from the original Deus Ex; one of the visual geniuses behind Half Life 2; and the team that created Dark Messiah a good few years ago. Those first two games rightly hold reputations ad classics, but Dark Messiah felt like it was largely overlooked, perhaps due to its mostly inept storytelling and the naff Might & Magic brand.
Beneath the generic styling, however, was a visceral and very satisfying blend of magic and swordplay. The dual wielding mechanics were far more successful than Bioshock’s a few years later and are still decidedly more fun than the superficially similar sword & magic system in Skyrim. Dark Messiah was slick and very fun, even if it wasn’t especially memorable.
It seems that developers Arkane realised this, with the addition of Deus Ex and Half Life alumni plugging exactly the gaps the held back Dark Messiah from being great.
Which brings us to DishonoUred. Based on the first few hours at least, it’s good. Very, very good.
There’s a lot to talk about with this game, but I want to focus on one particular aspect. And to do so, I first want to rewind to the first Deus Ex game, over a decade ago.
Relatively early on in that game you find yourself in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. You’re on the streets hunting for terrorists, prowling between apartment buildings, poking your nose into seedy bars and back alleys. There’s a ton of story to discover.
Then you spot a manhole cover. Opening it up, you lower yourself into the sewers. And, if you’ve picked the right one, uncover an underground base of heavily armed militants. They’re not part of the main mission. You don’t have to o go down into those sewers. Some players will never see that entire area. That kind of level design does something to your brain. Behind the scenes, it pulls at your imagination. You’re no longer in a linear game space, going from A to B as the level designer intended. Suddenly you’re in a world.
Sure, it’s all still designed. But that knowledge in the back of your mind, that there is probably stuff you’re not seeing, is hugely powerful. It opens up possibilities and makes you think more strategically. What’s behind that door? Can I get on the roof? Does this staircase go somewhere? Importantly, it’s not about finding secrets or hidden collectibles: it’s about physical spaces that make sense.
DISHONOuRED absolutely gets this. Exploring the city streets and then an Overseer’s mansion, I realise that I’m missing huge chunks. Whole buildings and rooms that I’m not going to see. I can take the time to explore everything, or run straight past. The game leaves it up to me. And, just like that, I’m no longer playing Level 1 of a game. Instead, I’m walking the streets of a real place. The sense of location is palpable. It’s New York all over again.
Other than Human Revolution, which was specifically aiming to recapture the magic of the original Deus Ex, we haven’t seen much of this kind of game. The last decade has been about polar opposites:either the dull linearity of a Call of Duty corridor shooter (a format still capable of being made into something special, as with Half Life 2 or Spec Ops: The Line), or the broad, unfocused sweep of the Skyrims, GTAs and Arkham Asylums.
Dishonoured and the original Deus Ex fall into a third category: focused and directed but with player options within that design. It’s the best of both worlds, combining freedom with purpose.
The idea of player freedom in the last decade had been derived primarily from GTA and Elder Scrolls games. Despite Deus Ex being so revered, few games seem to have been inspired to carry on its ideas. Dishonoured has done just that, and taken it even further.
At least, that’s going by it’s first 4 hours. Here’s hoping the rest lives up to the standard it has set for itself. And let’s hope that, this time, it’s the first of many rather than a one-off anomaly.