Despite the fact that ‘classic’ stealth franchises like Hitman and Splinter Cell seem to be reaching out to the Call Of Duty crowd of late, it’s not as though those that enjoy sneaking around have had nothing to play. XBLA gem Mark Of The Ninja fused Metal Gear Solid with Hitman on a 2D plane to create something truly special, for instance, while hands-on access to Io’s latest proved that Agent 47 hasn’t quite embraced the all-out action approach suggested by early footage of Absolution. In the meantime, though, stealth fans would do well to check out Arkane’s Dishonored, if only because it’s probably the most traditional and focused sneak-’em-up to hit the market in years.
Welcome to Dunwall, a city that feels like all the most iconic elements of Victorian London crunched together in a Steampunk vice. Perhaps the most striking thing about Dishonored is how much Arkane invests in its fiction and lore, developing Dunwall and its residents as real places and people despite the quirky art style and supernatural themes while allowing nothing to creep through from Videogameland to break that fourth wall. It’s a world in which it is easy to get lost – both literally and metaphorically – and one that truly rewards exploration as much as it demands it.
With early open world misnomers long since shelved, it’s not hard to see why Arkane was so keen not to have its game lumped in with the likes of Assassin’s Creed and GTA. Each of Dishonored’s nine missions takes place in its own little section of Dunwall, a walled garden made up of two or three decent-sized areas joined together by load screens. It’s for this reason that the game doesn’t hesitate to recommend a full install of the disc, a suggestion we’d second if you want exploration to be as painless and fluid as possible. Within each of these areas, there are myriad routes to take in reaching your eventual goal, though which you settle on will largely depend on which skills you’ve been investing discovered Runes into – initial power Blink allows you to teleport short distances (once you learn to keep the mischevious target cursor in check, at least) while more offensively-minded abilities are better suited for those not really looking for the pure stealth experience.
But between a 100G Achievement for reaching the credits without killing anybody and the way it clearly advises against full-on assaults by both outnumbering and outgunning over-eager players, Dishonored deserves to be approached on its own terms. Sneak around properly, take in all the nuance, atmosphere and narrative-nourishing side quests and the game will take maybe twice as long to see through – a far better investment and easily the best way to enjoy the game. It’s not an approach for everyone, mind. Old-school stealth mechanics can be cripplingly unfair (allowing you to hide in plain sight one moment while sounding the alarm the second you bat an eyelid the next) and Dishonored demands real patience, whether it’s waiting for just the right time to Blink past a guard or giving two enemies time to finish chatting so you can slide in for a silent takedown. Waiting is a crucial aspect of the game, something worth bearing in mind if you’re the kind of person that would rather keep their trigger finger busy.
Although the range of weapons and powers available isn’t exactly huge, there’s so much that you can do within the confines of this concise arsenal that it’s unlikely you’ll ever find yourself wanting. With creative use of two or more abilities, there’s even more you can do, too – stop time when a guard fires, for instance, then possess him and move him into the way of his own bullets for a flashy (if somewhat wasteful) kill. That’s something of an issue with Dishonored, actually – although the mechanics lend themselves to such creative takedowns brilliantly, they’re nothing more than showing off when a well-placed sword blow can do the same job in a fraction of the time. Those fishing for the game’s equivalent of a Silent Assassin rating especially will find that they only really use Blink, and maybe the odd Possession when the need to be a rat or a fish for a bit just gets overwhelming.
With just nine main missions on offer, you’d hope for a slightly better hit rate than this, too – it’s a slow start for the first as the game introduces itself, while it quickly finds its stride for the second through fifth missions, all of which are excellent. But then it starts to fall apart a little, laying on the extra guards a little thick and introducing ridiculous new enemy types that detract from the notion of this being the pure stealth game it appears, as well as breaking its own rules in the name of upping difficulty – spawning new guards in a sealed room at the sound of an alarm is a cheap trick, guys. It all winds up a little suddenly too, though at least you can go back and play the better missions again, looking to improve on your previous performance. It’s a pity, then, that retreading old ground is exactly that – there’s no option to go through old missions with your end-game power setup, nor (outside of starting a whole new game) is there a way to respec your abilities. New Game+ would result in an overpowered Corvo, clearly, but a Hitman-esque pre-mission loadout screen would make it far more appealing to try and go from an action playthrough to a stealthy one without having to battle against your own character build to do so.
For its soaring highs and captivating hits alone though, Dishonored comes as an easy recommendation. With the Thief franchise stuck in a lab somewhere having numbers spliced into its title and Deus Ex still on the naughty step after those boss battles, Arkane has come good with arguably this generation’s finest stealth title and a game so lovingly crafted that it begs to be played.