Cross Bioshock with Splinter Cell and Half Life 2 and you’d get a fairly good idea of what Dishonored, Bethesda’s latest first person adventure, looks and feels like. Developed by Arkane Studios (whose ranks include Harvey Smith of Deus Ex fame) and with art direction provided by the visionary Viktor Antonov (to whom we owe the wonderfully-realised City 17 setting of Half Life 2), it’s shaping up to be 2012’s must-play sneak-em-up.
Set in the fictional Steampunk setting of Dunwall and heavily influenced by Victorian Britain, you play as Corvo Atano, the former bodyguard of the Empress, Jessamine Caldwin. Accused falsely of her murder, you become a mask-wearing, magic-wielding assassin with the help of a mysterious benefactor, and head out into the fog-covered city to seek revenge from those who’ve done you wrong.
Much like Deus Ex, Dishonored will offer tightly crafted levels that can be approached in any way you chose. Go all guns blazing with a clockwork pistol and crossbow and you’ll alert the many guards of the evil Lord Regent, but ultimately get your job done quickly and messily. Visceral, limb-chopping attacks can be pulled off with swords in combination with a crossbow, with little finesse but maximum collateral damage.
Alternatively, you can slunk through the shadows unnoticed, taking down your targets silently or setting up scenarios that make the evil-doers’ deaths look like elaborate accidents. You get all manner of Bioshock-like magical powers to aid you in this approach, from a bullet-dodging ability to slow down time to a powered jump that lets you cross otherwise-impassable routes. You can even “possess” the minds of characters and creatures to make them act out your will. Taking control of a fish may help you find an entry point into a heavily fortified area through waterworks. Don the guise of a rat and you can eavesdrop the location of your targets from guards (and call a plague of ravenous rodents down upon them). You can even take over the targets themselves, bringing them out into the open to more easily fell them, or have them seemingly commit suicide, doing the job for you.
Whichever way you chose to play, the world (and your in-game powers) will begin to adapt around you. You’ll be able to tailor and focus on the magical attacks that most appeal to you for instance, while taking part in the many sidequests will alter the way future levels play out, and how characters will interact with you. An aggressive approach to missions will see more guards walking the streets and the downtrodden populace become even more frightened, while a stealthy approach will have your assassinations talked about in hushed reverent tones by the underclass, something like a neo-Victorian Robin Hood.
In many respects, the city of Dunwall itself is treated as a character by the developers. A beautiful fusion of fiction and the most Gothic qualities of Edinburgh and London, it’s looking like a menacing take on Dickensian tropes, albeit with overbearing science-fiction machinery and dystopian dread. This exaggerated look carries over onto the non-playable characters too, each with oversized features just shy of being grotesque.
Of the two level play-throughs we were treated to, The Golden Cat Bathhouse proved to illustrate the game’s strengths best. Here, the player is tasked with taking out the Pendleton twins, supporters of the Lord Regent and patrons of the titular, shady brothel that makes up the level’s setting.
At first, the hands-off demo showed a stealthy approach. Corvo clambered up onto the rooftops, looking for the easiest ways to silently take down targets, slicing throats without a peep from guards and dropping brutally from above with a blade. Hiding bodies and sticking to the shadows, both Pendleton twins eventually were made to have their deaths seem like accidents. The first was boiled alive in his boudoir, achieved by finding a steam valve in a locked adjoining room, accessed through a retaliation shaft. The second was possessed, led onto a high balcony before being hurtled onto the rocks and waves of a dock many feet below by a windy whirlwind magic blast.
Next, the same mission was approached with little care for secrecy. Firing crossbow blasts and dodging bullets with the time-slowing ability, Corvo cleaved in half one guard, clashing swords with another before decapitating him, sending the working girls running away screaming and tossing a grenade at another wave of oncoming attackers. Needless to say, the Pendleton twins met a grisly end.
While there will be no direct reward for playing the game silently or explosively, sticking to one path or the other will clearly provide two very different gameplay experiences, seemingly resulting in practically two completely different games. It’s worth also noting that the entire game can be played without killing a single person, with the wrong-doers’ actions punished in yet-to-be-revealed ways.
Later, we were showed a flooded district by night, inspired by the dangers of the Thames Barrier failing. Here we got our best sense of the game’s sci-fi streak, with mechanical, spider-like “Tallboys” patrolling the streets. Each was manned by a guard, moved incredibly quickly and fired missiles towards Corvo. Though he could have possessed the Tallboys and used their own weaponry against them, the developer playing through the level was killed. Dishonored will offer a stiff challenge it seems, and finding the right balance between balls-out combat and carefully planned stealth attacks will be key to a player’s success.
It’s early days yet for Dishonored, which so far sports only a “late 2012″ tentative release window. But from what we’ve seen in terms of both design and gameplay, we may have here a game every bit as good as Bioshock and Half Life 2 to add to the elite ranks of sci-fi first person adventures.