Walking through a heaving press area at an international game show is always an interesting affair. During this year's gamescom there was always one word that you kept hearing journalists saying: Dishonored. They were discussing it in other game appointments, walking between publishers and, in one disturbing occasion, while in the toilet. If a game is so good you even talk about it while on the loo, it must be doing something seriously well.
Bathroom-break conversations aside, Dishonored was easily one of our most rewarding appointments. After last year's hugely impressive gamescom presentation, having the opportunity to sit down for a full hour with a game mission was extremely welcome. Being able to absorb the rich environments, complex, rewarding gameplay and the dark atmosphere felt fantastic and it is safe to say the game lives up to high expectations.
Set in the dark and sinister city of Dunwall, you play as Corvo Atano a former bodyguard of the Empress framed for her murder. Granted mysterious supernatural powers Corvo then sets out for revenge against those responsible for incriminating him. While it isn't the most inspired or unusual story, the panache and style with which it seems to be handled is undoubtedly impressive. As we mentioned in our preview from last year one of the most exciting elements to the game is its fantastic backdrop.
We were lucky enough to get the chance to play one of Corvo's missions which gave us the opportunity to see how varied our gameplay approaches could really be. Each time the murky streets of Dunwall were incredibly atmospheric and it felt like a living, breathing place. However, this was no industrial utopia and the ambience was thick with oppression courtesy of a fascistic and sinister regime.
Stilt-wearing "Tallboy" police roamed the world searching the shadows with suspended searchlights. Huddles of blood-weeping plague victims lurked in decrepit buildings ready to pounce on anyone foolish enough to stray too close. One of the most disturbing scenes was the packs of infected rats that scuttled through the streets picking the flesh from groups of rotting corpses. It's an uncompromising and chilling alternative history with an intelligently crafted fantasy undercurrent running deep.
Arriving into this gloomy, threatening atmosphere in a small boat via the stagnant canals was initially daunting. Equally, getting used to the control scheme was something of a challenge and it was somewhat disappointing to realise they weren't as intuitive as some contemporary titles. However, after spending more time with Corvo and his abilities this became a little easier but still didn't feel as smooth and perceptive as it perhaps could have. In particular your magical abilities and skills were all mapped to a single wheel that was rather cluttered during the more intense portions of the missions.
We were also rather sad to learn that Dishonored isn't the open-world experience that was initially described. Missions are instead open areas confined by external limits, similar to the hub-areas in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Before you complete one of these levels you are given the option to go back and explore for any items or collectables that you may have initially missed. To begin with it's something of a disappointment but once the intricacy of these zones dawns on you it is understandable.
After assuming control of Corvo the array of different options available to us was notable. We were tasked with tracking down and assassinating a prominent female socialite during one of her own parties. It soon emerged that word of an attempt on her life had reached her ears so security was on high alert. To make things far more interesting her two sisters were clothed almost identically while wearing masks: the only differences being they each wore a different colour (white, black and red). It was a simple but brilliant concept that gave plenty of choice for a variety of tactics.
First, we needed to find a way into the revelry which wasn't going to be easy with a Tallboy and several officers wandering the streets. Analysing our various options we could have explored underneath the brackish water of the canal (complete with carnivorous fish) or any of the numerous alleyways that led away from a nearby set of stairs. We decided to test out the stealth system and aim for an undetected playthrough, which the nearby Arkane developers were keen to watch.
Entering a crouched stance we snuck up behind a police officer and a guard discussing the party and the security precautions taken. By sticking to the darkness and slowly making our way along a nearby wall we were able to evade their attentions and also cross over the river towards the venue. As a Tallboy was reaching the limit of his patrol we didn't have much time to avoid his searchlight and had to duck behind a mechanical device at the last second. The tension mounted as he examined the street but fortunately we went undetected.
The Tallboy soon moved back off and we used the opportunity to slip into a gutter and were lucky enough to find a boarded up gap underneath the main entrance to the party. Taking care to ensure any patrols were out of earshot we drew Corvo's dagger and broke our way in, taking care to sheath the weapon and appear like another guest. Here, the dark humour of Dishonored shone through as our infamous masked-assassin was met with varied reactions from his fellow revellers.
Many were appalled at the tastelessness of what they perceived as a recreation of a ghoulish killer from the wanted posters dotted over the city. Others found it to be an amusing and risqué joke. Another nice flourish was the ability to sign your name on the list of guests which no doubt would have an impact once the mission was over.
Not long after entering the soiree we stumbled across a rather sinister rabbit-masked gentleman who subtly bid us to follow him to a quiet ante-chamber. Initially we were hesitant and were assuming this might have been a clever trap by security. However, it soon became very clear that this strange man's motivations were different. He was aware that Corvo was there to assassinate the target, with whom he had an obsessive infatuation. Pleading that he would make it worth our while he implored us to spare his love and instead incapacitate her. If we could then deliver her sleeping body to the kitchen undetected he would smuggle her out of the city, although to what sort of life we had no idea. It had potentially dark and disturbing undercurrents that resonated with the murky environments and ambience of Dunwall.
Working our way carefully through the party, talking to the guests, we began to formulate a plan. A rather inebriated couple were busy gossiping and immediately looked like an easy way to the target. By rudely barging into the middle of their conversation we separated them and then focused in on the drunken woman. Sizing her up, we quickly walked to the nearest champagne fountain and returned with a full glass. This was exactly what we needed and she soon let slip which colour dress our target was wearing. Rebuffing her advances we slipped away and began stalking the soon-to-be victim.
After reaching a rather quiet and secluded area of the party we casually approached and initiated a conversation. Dialogue in Dishonored is straightforward and traditional. As in most role-playing games you are presented with a range of options and you select the most appropriate. In this mission these were as diverse as directly telling your target that you were there to murder them to acting seductive. Being the malicious and emotionally manipulative bastard that GameGrin are known for we went for the latter.
In a few moments we had been escorted by the blissfully unaware target to her private boudoir. Finally alone and out-of-earshot we then made our move, in a rather different manner than she was expecting. Slipping quietly behind her we initially aimed to simply knock her unconscious but a slip of the finger (honest) had us kill her instead. It was an incredibly brutal execution with Corvo slipping his dagger into her spine and then finishing the lady of with a gruesome and shocking facial slash.
Standing there stunned at our own violence it was very safe to assume that our non-lethal playthrough was well and truly done for. Taking some time to loot her corpse and to explore the room for items we decided leaving the way we came was not the best idea. Instead we opted for a nearby door that exited to a balcony. As we emerged into the gloomy night with the festivities continuing oblivious it seemed a good idea to get to our escape point before someone discovered the freshly-stabbed corpse.
Jumping down, we slipped out of the sewer exit we had used earlier and began to sneak down the street but were stopped in our tracks by the sound of an alarm and an enormous gate shutting off a section of the canal where we were due to meet our getaway rower. It was difficult to determine whether this was a pre-scripted event in the mission, regardless of your actions and stealth skills, or a reflection of our less than subtle removal of the target. Either way it was a tense and dramatic end to the level as we were radically forced to adopt a new strategy.
Moving swiftly but silently to the other side of the river we slowly manoeuvred through a series of rank, decaying buildings filled with staggering plague victims. Taking great care not to attract their attention we reached a lowered alleyway that gave us the chance to creep past a patrolling Tallboy and several officers. However, our exit was blocked by a constant searchlight which we were unable to turn off. Gritting our teeth we made a mad sprint for the canal, avoiding several explosions from the stilt-walker's weapons, jumping into the water below at the last second. It was a satisfying and epic conclusion to our playthrough of the mission and we were eager to play it through again and try differing approaches.
Sadly our time with the game was rather short and we realised we wouldn't have time to get a further full-run done. Instead we reloaded the mission and decided to explore some of the surrounding alleyways, tunnels and streets near the party. It proved to be rewarding and gave us the opportunity to try out some of the combat mechanics. Entering one of the dingy buildings in a secluded part of the map we came across a solitary police officer who caught sight of us and gave chase.
Using the slightly difficult power wheel of Corvo's abilities we summoned a swarm of plague rats that rapidly overwhelmed the struggling man and began to tear at him accompanied by a horrific screaming. Using the distraction to escape we stumbled into what can best be described as a pack of plague sufferers, dubbed "Weepers" owing to the blood that leaks from their eye-sockets. Here we had to use a combination of a wrist mounted crossbow and our dagger to maintain control and whittle their numbers down.
The combat felt much more natural than the control scheme would have indicated and mixing ranged with close-combat was surprisingly efficient. Magical abilities, while troublesome to select, were also satisfying and varied. They seemed to include the ability to play with time and move rapidly over short distances giving further options to Corvo for separating and killing his enemies.
During our time exploring Dunwall's streets we stumbled across various "Runes". These mysterious items allow for the upgrades of your various supernatural abilities and seem to be carefully hidden throughout each of the game's missions. We were also told about "Bone Charms" that can be used to boost specific powers and abilities though we didn't find any during our playthrough.
We were really devastated to reach the end of our time limit with the game and the Bethesda representatives had to prise the controller from our sweaty palms. Dishonored felt fresh, unusual and, most importantly, different from the slew of generic and uninspired games that tend to litter the stealth-action genre. We cannot wait to dip into the game proper when it's released in August. Hopefully this time we won't "accidently" viciously shank a society woman to death in extremely cold blood. Hopefully.