Life in Canada is pretty great. I have a beautiful wife and three energetic dogs. Health care is free and the air is clean. So the only thing that really stresses me out is my massive backlog of games. For reasons we’ll leave unmentioned, I have more games still in their original packaging than games I’ve finished.
With this many unplayed games, it can be impossibly difficult to determine which new games will garner my attention, purchase, and ultimately, my play time. Every now and then, I’d like to update you on my backlog progress in the Diaries of a Backlogged Gamer. Some of you may laugh or cry or poke fun, but if I’m truthful with myself, I should probably be writing something to evoke some sort of reaction, right?
Have you played a game that ruined your day and threatened your marriage? I have. It’s called Dishonored.
This game is presented as one with admirable sheen. The title: cool. The publisher/developer duo: very cool. Unreal Engine powering the visuals: super cool. The characters, world, and story: oozing with cool. But the net experience is much less than the sum of these parts.
Dishonored tells the story of Corvo Attano and his disgraceful exoneration and exilement after being framed for the murder of the woman he is tasked with protecting, Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, and the kidnapping of her daughter Emily.
So far, so good. Great story. You’ve got my attention, Dishonored. Just don’t mess it up.
Corvo. It means ‘raven’ in Italian and Portuguese.
My wife’s biggest fear is being accused of a crime she didn’t commit. Think about how tirelessly you would be claiming innocence? How frustrating would it be to know you are guiltless and have nobody believe you. If it were me, I would be furious!
But here’s my impersonation of Corvo’s voice. Are you ready? It sounds exactly like Gordon Freeman or the Little Mermaid when she gets her legs. Here it goes:
Did you hear that? Bang on! It seems to me that Corvo takes his role of “silent assassin” a little too literally, which makes any and all character interaction horribly awkward. Progressing the story is, and will always be, a major challenge if the protagonist has his/her vocal chords ripped from their throat. And it’s not like we’re talking about a ton of dialogue here — certainly nothing like Skyrim or Mass Effect.
I purposely mentioned Gordon Freeman earlier because Half-Life is clearly an example that our heroes do not need to be voiced by Nolan North (or anyone) to pull us in to the game’s universe. But Corvo’s silence in the face of such injustice doesn’t come off as a stylistic choice, but rather a sacrifice. Truly, this encompasses my overarching issues with this game. Clearly many gamers have found the good (which we’ll get to) overshadow the bad. But for me, the good came too late. Making it to the credits on this one felt like a chore for the most part.
I’ll take a large texture and a side of mud
Never before has a game fooled me like this. What beautiful vistas, I thought. What tremendous architecture, I marveled. What detailed textur…wait – what the heck is that?!
I realize this makes me come off as a little shallow, but the visuals in the game – especially considering the Unreal Engine is under the hood – look to be on par with the most average iPad games trying to mimic the console experience. Textures and textiles are shockingly muddy. Character models are awkward, and the lip sync — why even bother?
These shortfalls would be forgivable if they seemed more intentional. And it’s not for a lack of resources; the game recommends/requires a massive install on Xbox 360/PS3. One might think this would help things out in the visual fidelity department, but instead lifts the load times from egregious to mostly tolerable. (Note: some of the more pretty gameplay videos you might see are likely from a PC). Additionally, when you play a game like Grand Theft Auto, you understand the visuals will take a bit of a hit in lieu of an unimaginably massive world to explore. But in Dishonored, the missions are wholly self-contained and the mediocrity does not appear to be in lieu of anything tangible.
When I look at Dishonored, my body stiffens, and not in the good “ooh, this gameplay is so tense” kind of way. It’s a natural human reaction to try and fit in with your environment. After such achievements like Mirror’s Edge, we’ve (well, I have at least) come to expect a more fluid motion from both the on-screen NPCs and the playable protagonist. Bethesda’s influence is apparent here as Dishonored presents and feels like classic titles but not in a graphically flattering way. When characters speak to you, they appear to be six inches taller. And apparently Corvo is a bit of a close-talker because our view moves right close with the conversing character a la Elder Scrolls or Fallout 3. Although by my own admission, at least these are clearly intentional style choices.
Take your time. Hurry up. The choice is yours. Don’t be late.
Dishonored is a stealth first-person experience. You can kill your enemies. Or not. But you should(n’t). Confused? I was. And herein lies my biggest problem with the game: it makes an attempt at the “choose your own adventure” premise, but there is no reward for making a choice and sticking to it. Now before the Dishonored veterans jump all over me on this one, yes, I will acknowledge the achievements/trophies for not killing anyone in the whole game or upgrading your abilities. But the problem is an example of one aspect of the experience outshining another. Dishonored is a stronger shooter than it is a stealth game. Corvo’s arsenal and powers offer signs of hope but the game doesn’t appear to want you to use them. With every kill, your “chaos” rating increases, making future missions more difficult as enemies become more aware of your presence. I suppose if you’re inclined to be shooting up the room, more enemies might make for more fun. Dishonored simply fails at truly offering you the option to play as you like and seems to prefer the minimalist approach over all-out indulgence. The genius in presenting both as options is vanquished by their imbalance.
Remember when I said this game threatened my marriage? Well, I don’t think my wife was about to leave me, but she would’ve had every reason to after the foul mood Dishonored evoked in me. This game ruined my day on more than one occasion.
I love a useless side-mission as much as the next guy. But if I mark “show navigation” next to the corresponding quest in the menu, that navigation cue better show up on screen! Before I move on, let me be clear: sometimes, the little marker — showing where your side quest goals can be found — does not appear. So when I finish a mission only to realize a few optional objectives have been missed, the grumpiness sets in. When something is my fault, I’ll own up to it and rarely will think twice about it. But the less-than-mandatory missions are actually rewarding when you’re able to complete them, and missing them deters from the overall experience. They offer deep insight into the world and present you with (at times) an undeniably vile supporting cast.
For a stealth game to work, the movement has to be fluid and uncompromisingly accurate. Unfortunately, Corvo moves as robotically as any NPC hulking along. Part of the problem stems from the commitment to the stealth genre where a distinction must be made between walking and running. Corvo’s gallup feels fairly natural but understandably garners the attention of the enemies on guard. His walk, on the other hand, should feel more tuned – particularly because you’ll be relying on it through most of the game. Instead, you’ll often find yourself falling off ledges or springing traps.
With a handful of supernatural powers combined with a variety of admittedly cool weapons at your disposal, strong comparisons can be made to the Bioshock series. But Dishonored never exceeds nor approaches the level of mastery achieved by Ken Levine’s team. Plus, imagine if Bioshock gave you all those plasmids but suggested you never acquire any new ones or use the ones you have? Is it fair to compare a game to arguably one of the best of the console generation? Sure it is, Dishonored is five years Bioshock’s junior and shouldn’t be playing catch up.
You know when you were a kid and your parents would say “I’m not mad, just disappointed”? Aside from the few days I spent crippled with blinding anger, Dishonored mostly left me sad it didn’t achieve what it set out to do. It has so much potential but didn’t apply itself.
The real tragedy here is by the end of the game, I learned to deal with these problems and experienced moments of enjoyment. This is particularly unsettling because it makes me question everything I know about games and what makes them good or bad. The abilities available are empowering and the story engrossing. But ultimately, the sacrifices in visuals and protagonist vocalisation coupled with a stiff character movement and a less-than-riveting reward for good behaviour system coagulate into a massive obstacle for gamers to hurdle before getting to the good stuff.
Dishonored is a better game during the second playthrough. But it will challenge every fibre of your being to crave an encore. And with a backlog of games, who has time for that?