Dishonored Review

(funnily enough, this review was not written for GYP)

Dishonored is a game I wanted to love. I was excited with all the features they were originally planning on integrating into the stealth system, but ultimately it all fell flat. when I picked up the game, I was glued to it. It seemed like the son of Thief, but after the initial rush, I began to notice how stupid the guards were, and the laziness in level and puzzle design.

I’m gonna start with the good first. One thing that is awesome about this game is the spotting mechanic. Frankly, throughout the history of stealth games, stealth has been really unforgiving and not necessarily the most intuitive with their spotting mechanics. Pretty much everyone knows the pain of edging into the enemy line of sight and suddenly full alert that you have to wait out until things die down. In Dishonored, guards spot you based on how close you are, what’s blocking the line of sight, relative darkness, and partially spot you or fully spot you based on how long you remain in sight, and how obvious you are. I think this type of spotting mechanic is what the stealth genre has needed for forever.
Now if only the guards were a bit more persistent.

Blink honestly is a really fun way to move and it has enabled a cool stealth design that allows for guard sweeps without any breaches to sneak through, which has really helped move the stealth in this game past the timing puzzles you commonly find. Another cool feature of blink is that even on full alert or investigation phases, you can still keep moving around enemies and trying to get better positioning. When changing anything, I’d balance it around Blink, because it’s a feature I really wouldn’t want to lose. Blink would also be nicer if it made a slight sound with a very short range around you at the start and end of it, and lead guards a bit when trying to find you. Like, if they already see you, give them a clue where to investigate. As is, it’s a get out of trouble free card that you can almost always use, which is kind of disappointing, especially in levels with high areas and no direct line of sight or way up for guards.

The bad however is everything except this exceptional spotting algorithm. Up to a level 2 alert, guards won’t investigate at all. You’re given a short opportunity to run away if you get seen at a distance, but the guards won’t even follow up by investigating. They just stand where they were awkwardly staring at where you were until they dismiss it as rats. They won’t investigate around until a level 3 disturbance, which is relatively hard to provoke without being seen. On full alert, enemy guards will chase after you, but if you find a hiding spot and they don’t see you duck into cover, it’s pretty much guaranteed that they won’t find you. Cooloff times for full alerts are short as hell too, nothing compared to other games. I once ducked around a corner, and the guards never even made it that far. I never liked waiting for cooloff times in other games, but here it feels like they’re not even trying to find you if you escape, not to mention that Blink should have solved that issue and allowed the player to keep active even during full alert while trying to be stealthy. Escapes are much too simple. After full alert, guards are still on guard for you and will make comments about finding you again, which is a nice step forward from older games that totally forgot that you were around if you escaped detection, but ultimately this doesn’t change anything. Guards still patrol the exact same routes, and they don’t patrol it any differently than they did before, just they’re always at level 1 alert and so spot you quicker if you enter their view.
A guard standing around on level 2 alert staring at where you just were is a pretty common sight
It’s almost sad to see him give up that easily

One feature they originally said the game would have but didn’t was the guards noticing missing guards on their patrol routes and adjusting their patrols to cover the missing ground. I noticed a few guards remarking on missing guards, but patrol routes never changed unless I forced them to temporarily change with a disturbance or a scripted event like guards talking to each other happened when you passed by.

Another issue I have is with how unconscious bodies are handled. There’s absolutely no difference between an unconscious and dead body except that an unconscious body is liable to become a dead body if you drop it from too high, or drown it, or have rats eat it, and therefore get a black mark on your record for killing someone. Unconscious people never wake up, either by their own volition, or when another guard tries to wake them up, which they are actually programmed to do. Not to mention that there is a hard limit of 7 bodies at any given time and older bodies disappear as you take out more guards, removing a lot of the reasons to worry about hiding bodies well. Patrol routes never change or move in any unexpected ways so there are tons of blind spots that are useful for body stashing. One of the later levels really compounds the unconscious body issue with a moral decision to either incapacitate a ton of guards or turn them to ash. There’s honestly no difference at all, and if you choose to exercise either choice, the level is over anyway. It doesn’t alter the experience in any meaningful way and that is depressing.

There’s absolutely no difference between a sleep dart and a normal crossbow bolt except that sleep darts take enemies out in one hit and crossbow bolts take a few and that you can carry less sleep darts. One of the upgrades allowed you to use sleeping darts in battle, but I used them in battle anyway and they worked fine. Frankly, this simplicity takes a lot away from the stealth style of gameplay. The game was promoted as a stealth game, yet stealth feels extremely sterile. More than half the powers aren’t terribly useful for stealth, and way more than half the weapons are lethal. Worse, you couldn’t customize your power wheel menu to only have the options you wanted, so it got cluttered fast. The inventory screen did absolutely nothing besides show your inventory. Also irksome was the sword CONSTANTLY being held out. I went through my entire playthrough using nothing but the right mouse button, yet I constantly had that sword there ready to kill someone.
I tried to make a body pile. This did not end up terribly successful as the bodies began disappearing very quickly.

The lighting system generally worked really well, but I can’t help but lament the baked lighting. It was announced late into development that the environments were very pretty and so the team elected to use baked lighting instead of dynamic lighting like the old thief games, so they could show off all the world. As a result, dark areas never looked terribly dark, and they totally lost the old element of the thief games where you could create patches of darkness for yourself to hide in by putting out torches and candles.

The entire stealth style of gameplay would be more interesting if sleep darts took a while to make enemies drop and headshots or shots closer to the head made it happen sooner, so you had to plan for where they would drop in the future so as to avoid rousing suspicion. It would be more interesting if partial alerts drew guard attention and caused them to investigate instead of staring blankly. Blink should give guards an idea where to investigate if they partially spotted you, and make a bit of noise up close too, to discourage its use or make it at least somewhat trickier. It would add another consideration if guards noticed doors opening and shutting and reacted to that in a meaningful way. It would be more interesting if discovered dead bodies kicked suspicion up a lot and caused a full search of the level, but unconscious bodies resulted in the guard getting woken up and a minor search of the area. Having guards eventually wake up on their own and resume their patrol after an investigation would also add more depth to the game. Having multiple dynamic patrol routes would add to the game. I wish guards actually noticed missing comrades and searched for them. Having Thief’s water arrows and dynamic lighting would have given the stealthy player more things to do and more ways for the guards to interact with the player. There are so many ways they could have made the stealth more dynamic and fulfilling that they completely fell through on.

This is honestly a minor issue but guard conversations bugged the shit out of me. There are a few stock phrases that guards say to each other as they pass by and unfortunately that means you’ll be hearing the same ones a lot. I heard the same ones repeating before I beat the first mission past the tutorial. Other minor issues were a lot of things with the settings. FOV maxed out at 85, when I prefer FOVs around 110 or so (not having at least 90 is pretty sad). Mouse sensitivity by default was in the toilet, and I could never raise it to a totally acceptable level. A lot of the UI elements dumbed down the game, like constant tutorial messages, objective markers, heart markers and others. I disabled the lot of them as soon as I got the game, and frankly, it was much more rewarding to search through the levels based on the clues I was given rather than having things spelled out for me, but I’m still not happy the options exist at all. There was also a hard cap on the number of save files you could have at once and I hit it only halfway through, and the save files weren’t very clear about where you were in the mission, so you sometimes had to try random files, sit through the loading screen, and see where you ended up, unless you could identify files purely by their time stamp.
Why are these even an option?

The item distribution through the level was planned well generally, except that there was too damn much of everything. There were rare loot items to discover and tons of trinkets to steal, but not much reason to, unlike thief. You could use it to buy ammo, but ammo was so common, and very frequently offered as a reward for exploration itself, so that was relatively pointless. Very soon I found myself with more money than I ever needed and nothing to spend it on, and full ammo and potions of every variety. I’d frequently only use potions when I found a new one to replace the top one in my stock. They absolutely showered the player in powerups and yet there was often so little reason to ever use them at all. Finding item caches in the level ended up feeling disappointing because it was a lump of things you couldn’t pick up because you were already full up.

Darkvision was a nice power that deserves a mention of its own. Darkvision honestly broke a lot of the information game. There wasn’t a lot of reason to not have it active at all times. Any mana it consumed simply recharged. The original developer talks on Dishonored said it would drain mana at a slow rate, but this didn’t end up being the case. Dishonored had a nice leaning system, and it was pretty fun to use in the first mission to get information, but Darkvision really killed that interesting choice by providing you with sight through walls, and highlights on areas of interest to boot. About the only reason not to use Darkvision is it’s a bit harder to spot books. I like the concept of Darkvision as it was nice for determining where view cones were and helping to teach the player that, but this fell apart as it became a mandatory tool to pick up the loot scattered through the level and there was no permanent cost to using it. They also had a really nice keyhole feature where you could peek through the keyholes of doors to be sure there weren’t enemies lurking on the other side, but it was totally pointless due to Darkvision rendering it invalid. That and Darkvision is so cheap to purchase, it’s stupid not to buy it.

In Developer talks and a lot of chats online, “Isn’t this going to break the game?” was a question that was asked a lot about various powers. The reply was, “That’s the point.” To a large degree, yes it is. You’re supposed to allow the player to come up with clever and ridiculous strategies, but Dishonored makes feeble attempts to resist being broken, even on the hardest difficulty, the only one I played. For breaking a game to be worth something, there has to be a level of difficulty worth breaking in the first place, and the game still needs to remain engaging beyond that. And as I covered, it generally doesn’t bother with that.
Nothing to it, regrettably

The story was frankly predictable and that’s your indication of a spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph. It’s predictable from the instant you get the heart. You can hear the secrets about the people around you, so the twists ahead are really plain. The other major twist is straight from the line said by Leo Gold in Deus Ex’s opening level, “I think the government made the plague on purpose to control population growth.” Subtlety is dead. I liked some of the flavor text found in books, but it’s not really a world with much mystery. It’s a world with no secrets worth sharing. It doesn’t seem like much work was really put into the setting apart from putting some corrupt bureaucrats into power. None of the characters were terribly likeable or had much dimension to them. There were no affectionate touches in any of their actions and they never really engaged with the player in any way that would enable them to become endearing in any way. You were practically encouraged to ignore them entirely when you visited the hound pits. None of them really acted out of the ordinary or showed any special strength of character, except maybe for high chaos playthroughs where Samuel is close to outright hostile towards you, going as far as to fire a flare, warning the enemies ahead on your final mission. The alternate dialog for various levels of chaos was fairly interesting in concept and execution though even if it changed basically nothing.
I almost wish these numbers were higher.

The levels are generally well constructed with a lot of Z axis focus and tons of details scattered everywhere and things to find, even if most of it is useless. There are loads of routes through and the powers you have as well as your attentiveness greatly affect that. There were a few puzzles in the levels, like getting safe combinations, and a couple of these are relatively ingenious, like the seven strictures one, because it’s impossible to know the seven strictures without sneaking into an area with a ton of eyes on you or searching the level thoroughly (unfortunately the reward for that one was completely worthless, just ammo I couldn’t use, and it was a bitch to sneak into the drop zone too, huge disappointment to not have a reason to even bother), and one with paintings in a man’s house that I honestly had a lot of difficulty realizing was a puzzle in the first place, and so greatly enjoyed when I figured it out (then to my disappointment realized it told me everything in the mission clues). But as I go over in more detail later, the level design generally never tried to force the player into confrontations or tricky situations and almost always let the player avoid whatever threat was headed their way, which lead to more dull lethal and nonlethal, stealth and non-stealth playthroughs.
A pretty genius puzzle totally ruined by the mission clues

On the whole, Dishonored is a game that wishes it tried to encourage intelligent play and discovery, but ultimately is forced to explain everything to the player. It’s like a riddler who blurts out clues and solutions right after he’s told the riddle. One of the later safe puzzles had a note next to the safe it unlocked that literally said, “If you want your share then remember this poem” and the poem listed 3 months in a specific order, then a book next to that note listed the 28 months, and solving the puzzle was literally as simple as checking the order of the months. One nice thing about the levels is the lack of a map screen of any kind, and maps being posted up in the levels for you to examine, so you need to figure out the map layout based on that instead of some sort of minimap telling you where you are at all times. With objective markers turned off, this meant that I had to use a lot of environmental clues to determine level layout and where I had to go, which was very involved and interesting, although I could have negated all of that at any time, which is depressing.
This was a neat touch, I wish they had gone to this much effort for something worthwhile instead of another completely replaceable elixir, by this point you probably have an inventory full of them anyway.

There were a lot of complaints about the length of the game, and I’d say that the total mission count felt a bit low, but really I just wish that each mission engaged you a lot more. I’m not sure of my exact playtime, but I’d imagine it was at least 15 hours if not in the range of 25, although I did a very comprehensive playthrough. I later did a lethal playthrough that I didn’t need to spend nearly as much time on. Blink and the other powers made blazing through the game a breeze.

Unfortunately, even in a lethal playthrough it’s difficult for the game to ever force you into a tough situation (I had to practically create my own), and I didn’t really have any trouble until the later missions, like the return to the tower. And that was in tight quarters with literally every guard alerted. Not to mention that I rather deliberately didn’t take terribly safe routes. Dishonored, even on its hardest difficulty is an easily cheesed game. For all the talk of the amazingly clever combinations you can do with the engine, it’s all totally pointless. Why on earth would I summon a rat swarm, stop time, and attach a razorwire trap to a rat when I could shoot the guard in the face? Bullets are a more common resource. For that matter, why bother with that silly combination when the rats will just eat the guy anyway and disappear?

Honestly lethal is more interesting to play than nonlethal, but only marginally, because it’s faster, and generally involves more of the game elements, however at any time you can pull out a pistol or crossbow and wail on the enemies. In general though, it’s easier because of that, and just because you have to be a lot less cautious with the choking and the stealth. There are many great setups you can do, but precious little reason to bother because the enemies aren’t challenging enough and the level design isn’t constraining enough to really force your hand ever. I still had inventories filled to the brim with elixirs and remedies What the game should really focus on isn’t just making open levels that can be traveled through in a wide variety of ways. Open level design is really cool, but it isn’t everything. What the game should try to do more than that is to create interesting situations with its levels that require clever thinking to pull yourself through. One of the most interesting parts of the game for me was breaking down the bunker in the return to the tower mission, then throwing the target’s corpse off the tower and diving down after him into the water and attempting to escape when literally everyone in the surrounding area was alerted to me. I ended up replaying those two segments back to back a lot to find the way through, and I ended up finding out more new information about the game in those moments of crunch than anywhere else, like how you could bake grenades by holding down the button, music boxes could be used as a weapon, and possessing a summoned swarm rat for the first time all game. Honestly, I could have bypassed all of that by just taking the stairs back down after killing the target and sneaking out the front, but to make the game interesting, I had to impose a few challenges on myself, leading to some actually interesting complex gameplay when I was being mobbed from all sides by defense towers, tallboys, dozens of soldiers, and briefly some of my own rats.
I seriously question why anyone would put the rewire panel here from a level design or diegetic perspective.

What Dishonored really needs here is better AI and general planning for player interaction so it can actually cope with the player and provide some sort of challenge and engagement. Why swordfight when I can just walk backwards and drop razorwires as I go? I killed three guards in a row this way, just dropped one after another as they came around the corner. The guards take so long to aim their pistols it’s silly. I mean, obviously they’re compensating for the melee playstyle, but why not have pistol aim times be slightly shorter all around, and twice as short if the player has already used a ranged weapon? Why should I be able to cross the border into a new area and suddenly have all the guards in the last area not bother to follow me? We had that in MGS2 and MGS3 years ago. Why don’t guards run away from grenades and rats? Why can’t guards recognize that I placed a tripwire, or that I rewired a wall of light instead of idiotically running straight into it? Why bother buying shadow kill when there is a 7 body limit anyway? A lethal character would never really need to worry about hiding bodies, and a nonlethal character would never kill. The amount of time guards spend searching when they find a body is too pathetic for it to even matter. In the golden cat mission, I killed the first guard I saw, others approached after him and found the body. I was behind the railing of the stone staircase they were standing on, and they never got as far as searching anywhere around there before giving up. Why give all these tools to the player if there is no reason to use them? Why make an engine with such sophistication when none of the gameplay demands it unless you really force yourself up against a wall? It really kills the whole assassination thing to know that you could seriously just walk up to most of the targets and shoot them in the face and be done with it.
This assassination method felt really redundant. Especially when there’s a random chance the target might not even be here, or that you might obsolete killing the target completely with the nonlethal sidequest.

Dishonored gave the player a ton of really powerful tools to use. Even the ordinary weapons are really powerful and can shut down enemies easily. I think that empowering the player this way is generally a good thing. What Dishonored truly failed to do however is give the enemies any sort of recourse against your powers. They failed to design the levels to play off them at all. Abilities like Blink should enable them to design tighter stealth than ever before, because they know that no matter what they throw, the player can handle it. Guards should recognize the razorwire trap in the middle of the floor their buddies ran into and got cut up by and avoid it if they can. If the player uses it as a wall to harass the guards, they should take cover. The guards should flee from rats, prompting the player to use mice and razorwire to lead the guards into ambushes. For every measure the player has, the guards should have better countermeasures than swinging blindly and trying to kill you before they die. There should be tighter guard patterns that need to be disrupted, rather than my nonlethal routine of choking each and every single guard to death then running around looting the level. The limits sorely needed to be pushed here in all sorts of ways but they never were. They had the framework, but lacked the substance. No matter how you play Dishonored, it ends up braindead, because it never forces you to think and easy solutions are always viable and simple. Sure, you could go for fancy sophisticated solutions, but you just end up wasting more and more valuable resources than the simple method, which is faster anyway.
In this mission, I decided to clear out literally every soldier in the entire indoor area with just crossbow, windblast, and pistol. It was no contest.

Before I wrap up, one thing that has to be praised is the way they handled the morality system and the effect it has on the world. Most games have you make blatantly black and white moral choices which do fuck-all to determine how you play the game. Dishonored has a system called Chaos that measures how much chaos you cause in the level, meaning how much violence you commit and people you kill, and whether you help civilians in need. As your chaos goes higher, events in the levels become crazier, more rat swarms spawn and more weepers walk the streets. This eventually has reflections in conversations with your comrades and Emily’s character development, as well as the ultimate ending of the game. I honestly think this is one of the best morality type systems I’ve ever seen, as it is affected by and ties directly into gameplay, determining the contents of levels, without asking dopey moral choice questions up front like other games.
Definitely one of the game’s most charming lines.

Dishonored is Thief for a modern audience in every way you think that means, and I believe it’s going to kill Arkane, being too niche of a game for general audiences and castrating itself in front of the people who would have loved it for what it was. The game is polished to a fine sheen, but in the process of making it accessible, they destroyed all hope of making it an entertaining or engrossing game, so I’m left wishing for the game it could have been and hoping Thief 4 (or Thiaf if you prefer) won’t be a similar disappointment. Dishonored really was a game that had a lot of love, effort, and dedication put into it. At the end of it, I really wouldn’t mind a return to the world of Dishonored, hell, I’d welcome it, because there was so so much untapped potential here and places in its setting that could be explored, but ultimately it fails to use any of its vast potential in any meaningful way and falls flat. I honestly hope Dishonored 2: Rehonored is a game worthy of the legacy it has inherited from the pioneering stealth titles before it and tries harder than ever to show us Arkane’s talent has not gone to waste under Bethesda. Dishonored has its heart in the right place all around, just it was forced to pander so much it ended up breaking mine.

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