With Brink now released, Bethesda's moving forward with another incredibly ambitious new IP. But can Dishonored – from minds that brought you Deus Ex and Half-Life 2 – live up to its pedigree?
Dishonored doesn't have a multiplayer mode. It doesn't funnel you through a bunch of linear 'splosion shows and pre-solved puzzles. There aren't any spittle splattering soldiers or elves who use words like “hark” and “verily.” It takes place in a world that runs on giant magical energy whales, for crying out loud. If that's part of any sort of cliché, we certainly haven't heard of it. And that's our point: Dishonored's not trying to fit a mold. No, it's not an indie title in which you contemplate the meaning of existence by examining a tissue for three hours (the wrinkles represent vanity or something), but it is absolutely the game its developers want to make.
“Raphael [Colantonio] and I stand against the notion that triple-A means conservative, regurgitated settings that are used over-and-over. It doesn't have to be that way,” Dishonored co-director and former Deus Ex lead Harvey Smith told VG247 during a post-demo interview.
“And so – at the beginning of a project – you're looking at a blank page. You can put anything you want on it. And if what you say is 'Hey guys, we're going to do what the three studios down the road are doing,' I just don't understand that.”
Big words. Looking back on Smith and Colantonio's Dishonored demo, though, we can only turn our skepticism eye lasers on the duo so long before glancing away and accidentally frying a small rodent. The game's influences may be obvious – Deus Ex, BioShock, Thief, and Half-Life being chief among them – but this Frankenstein monster looks pretty damn special.
Don't call it steampunk
Dishonored's mix of sneaking, slashing, and, er, rat possession doesn't take place in a steampunk world. We tried designating it as such, and Smith nearly threw the sofa he was sitting on at us. “We never say steampunk. We say retro future industrial world,” he explained, probably remembering where the inspiration for his game's stab-heavy combat system came from. Really, though, he's right. Pigeon-holing Dishonored's world is to do it a major disservice. Sure, its tale of an assassin wrongly accused of turning his empress into an especially expensive pincushion sounds like it could be interesting, but what really caught our attention during the demo was the world itself. Which is unsurprising, considering the legendary pedigree behind it.
“Sebastian [Mitton] and Viktor [Antonov] are a really powerful creative collaboration team,” Smith told us. “It's similar to the way [Raphael and I] collaborate as co-directors, except they're the guys on the visual side. Viktor designed [Half-Life 2's] City 17 and is awesome. He gets a lot of attention, but Sebastian Mitton is also a complete badass, so he came up with a lot of the rat plague.”
"I stand against the notion that triple-A means conservative, regurgitated settings that are used over-and-over."
Yes, there's a rat plague. And it's not merely the fun killer-disease-spreading kind, either (though there is plenty of that). No, these rats are nice and direct; they like to eat people. Meanwhile, all of humanity's corralled onto four islands, which derive energy from a particularly potent brand of whale oil. And then there's the oppressive regime that's sort of raining on everybody's parade - which is, again, a parade of the horrible-flesh-eating rat variety. Things could be better, is what we're saying. And it shows. Antonov's cityscapes are uniquely gorgeous, sure, but in a muted, grime-encrusted sort of way. Guards drop bodies into the water. Thieves fish for fat purses – with pesky un-murdered people attached – on the streets. Life goes on, but you won't see anybody smiling about it.
Harrowing stuff, to be sure, but we stared saucer-eyed like a kid taking his first trip to Disneyland. Each stoney, ramshackle structure had us – at least, in spirit – hearkening back to City 17, and we wanted to explore. Unlike the largely linear Half-Life 2, however, that's one of Dishonored's central goals.
“We're not an open-world game. That's why we're a crafted mission game. Because we want that sense that people live there – that five minutes before the player got there, people were getting to work or whatever,” Smith said.
“What we'd rather do is create a space that's a linear sequence of missions. You go back to your home base, back to the next mission, etc. And it is a linear sequence of missions, but our entire goal is – within that space of the mission, that bubble – it's very non-linear. There are lots of rat paths, swimming paths, rooftop paths, multiple street paths, a character opens a door for you – whatever.”
Breaking the law
Point of interest: According to Colantonio, our demo mission could have been accomplished via roughly five completely different means – that Arkane currently knows of, anyway. On top of that, our vengeance-thirsty assassin's quarry – a crooked lawyer with gallons of blood indirectly on his hands – could have escaped from his clutches, but a Game Over screen wouldn't have brick-walled further progress. Again, life goes on. You give chase and hope for the best. After all, this is a world in which you can rescue a woman from her would-be murderers, only to watch her rush straight into a pack of rats equivalent to one Hungry Hungry Hippo. For sensitive audiences, we're replacing what actually ensues with a “Nom, nom, nom” sound effect, but you probably get the idea. It's all dynamic, too. That bit of morbid hilarity's not pre-scripted at all.
Obviously, Dishonored's brimming with potential paths to success (or temporary failure and then probably hilarious success), but where to start? Well, conveniently, you're magic. And magic, as it turns out, opens a few doors. For instance, our demonstrator chose to sneak. After using the blink ability to teleport right past some guards, he possessed a rat and infiltrated the lawyer's mansion through a hole in the wall. Then he emerged from the rat in human form – not a single hair out of place or lost in some weird possession dimension – and tippy toed onward.
"We want that sense that people live there – that five minutes before the player got there, people were getting to work."
After darting past a few servants, though, it was time to stop speaking softly and start swinging a number of very big sticks. Our demonstrator burst into a room full of unsavory types – with our lawyer fittingly in the center – and stopped time. Then he fired off a wind blast, waited for time's hands to start turning again, and watched as baddies went flying left and right. Next up, he went to work with his blade – which always rests unsettlingly comfortably in your non-gun/magic hand – and finished foes with gruesome slow-mo fatalities not unlike those found in Arkane's previous heavy hitter, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. That whole vignette, said Smith, is pretty much Dishonored in a nutshell.
“The reality is, when we do playthroughs, we end up doing a little bit of one and a little bit of the other. It's fun to sneak – for a while. When you're tolerant and patient enough to feel like sneaking, you can sneak and get this sublime tension. And then when you're bored with that – or you want to switch gears, rather, is a better way to say that – and you just want to go balls out, fly through the window, crash through the gate, kill 15 people, that's where your mind wanders. And then you get bored with that, maybe, and you sneak again,” he told us.
A multitude of powers – only a fraction of which we actually saw – help drive one of Dishonored's central tenets: choice through action. The way you go about accomplishing your goals influences the game's Chaos system, slowly changing the entire game world – for better or worse.
“We're also going to have little things – like high Chaos means there's more rats in the alley. That might just factor in. You might jump off the roof into the alley and be like 'Oh my god, there are rats everywhere!' Or that might be a good thing, because you can possess one and use it. So some of them are big branches. Some of them are little dialog differences. Some of them cause characters to reward you or not. And some of them do subtle things like more rats in the alley,” Smith explained.
“One of the things we're always trying to do by using a hybrid is muddy things to the point where the player's just playing a game. He's not thinking 'Oh, I've reached another chapter break point, where they always give me the binary choice. Am I going to go A or B this time? Well, A does this. A cost-benefit analysis of A versus B would be blah!' In our case, we approach it with 'I'm going to do a little of that, a little of this.'”
"At the end of the day, what's interesting is when players have doubts about what they do."
Granted, Smith, Colantonio, and co are walking a fine line there. Too much cause-and-effect, after all, and players might stifle their mid-mission creativity for fear of pissing off their higher-ups. Colantonio, however, told us that he doesn't necessarily view that as a bad thing.
“At the end of the day, what's interesting is when players have doubts about what they do. 'Ah, should I really do this?' This is such a strong moment for players. And then they do it – or not – and later on, there's a consequence. The more connected it is to what they did, the more powerful it feels, as well,” he said.
Of mercs and men
Everything we saw? Only the tip of the iceberg, apparently. After an intense chase saw our demonstrator go toe-to-thin-spindly-terror-appendage with two lanky walker robots, Smith and Colantonio regaled us with tales of super-powered shenanigans. For instance, it's entirely possible to stop time, affix a bomb to rat, un-stop time, possess the rat, and guide it into a crowd of baddies. On top of that, there's apparently even a way to finish off your targets mercifully – without killing them. At the end of the day, how and what you do is your call. Just remember: you aren't living in a bubble.
On paper, then, Dishonored shows absurd amounts of promise. To be sure, the rippling force of Deus Ex is strong in this one, but in the best ways possible. Wild powers, tons of options, and a refreshingly open attitude toward creativity are just a few of the bright spots here.
We have to wonder, though: is it too good to be true? Or perhaps, too much? Don't get us wrong: Dishonored is chock full of excellent ideas and exudes palpable ambition to match, but will all the disparate pieces snap comfortably together? Or will everything blow up in Arkane's face, showering its beloved fans with molten disappointment? And, of course, there are also smaller concerns that must be addressed – for instance, how upgrades, new abilities, and whatnot will actually function.
If Dishonored can keep pace with its development team's passion, though, we're in for a real treat. And we have to say, we're feeling uncharacteristically optimistic about this one. Watching Smith gesture wildly about while discussing one of his favorite videogame moments, it became abundantly clear that Dishonored is a labor of love.
"It was just like, 'Holy fucking shit.'"
“I have this crazy story from Mercenaries were I was trying to fight through this whole camp of North Koreans to kill one of the Trump Cards or whatever they called them. And I was getting my ass kicked. I was almost dead, my vehicle was blown up, and some guy was firing rockets at me. I was nearly at the tent where the Ace of Clubs or whatever was, but I was going to die. It was all over,” he said, an enthused grin devouring his entire face.
“But over on the right – like, a long way away – I could see in a bridge in a valley. A United Nations humvee was shooting at a helicopter, and the helicopter was firing rockets at the humvee. Then it drifted too close [to the camp]. Just as I was about done, I grabbed the helicopter, threw the pilot out, took it over, and wasted the whole freaking camp with the helicopter. Now, the helicopter's almost dead at this point. It's smoking, and then I flew away back to where I was going. It was just like, 'Holy fucking shit.'”
Funny. That's exactly how we felt walking away from Dishonored's demo. If that's not a good sign, we don't know what is.