Dishonored was a rare exception for me: a game I did not particularly intend to play until I read its review. Actually I did not even read the entire review in fear of spoilers. I simply looked at the score, some of the closing words and knew I would have to get this game. It was in fact my very first impulse purchase of a game on its release date for a very long time. I should not be so surprised of course; the game has a setting that is hugely inspired by Victorian England, and it has a superpowered assassin. The fact that it was a stealth game (which I am often quite suspicious towards) did have an astonishingly small impact on my decision. My liking of Human Revolution likely played a major role in setting my expectations right for Dishonored. The game was indeed very charming; not only was it artistically rather unique, it turned out to be excellent on the gameplay department too.
1. Easy does not equal bad
Let's get this immediately out of the way: Dishonored is by no means a hard game. This is largely evidenced by the simple fact that I - with my rather low patience for stealth in general - was able to complete almost every missions without raising a single alarm or killing anyone. This gets me to a point I have discussed previously: not all games need to be hard. Dishonored is more about creativity than execution. The tools the player has at his disposal are simply so damn powerful that he is more or less a god of stealth (or murder should he so choose!). It is exactly this effortless creativity that makes the game feel so open. I rarely felt I was being guided to use a certain path, or even that I was given a limited number of paths to choose from. I just felt like I was doing exactly what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. Although the game is very different from Assassin's Creed, in this one particular aspect they are very similar.
"Modern games are too easy" as an argument for why they (modern games) suck is something I'm rather tired of hearing. Difficulty simply is not the only possible way for games to create a powerful experience. Even player taxonomies clearly state that challenge is the primary reason for playing only for a certain part of the gaming audience. The actual problem that often gets attributed to lack of difficulty (which I also do, and often, when RPGs are concerned) is that the player is not provided with any incentive to use their wide variety of abilities. However difficulty is not the only way to create this incentive as is shown by games that depend more on player creativity. Games like Dishonored. Admittedly, the game's primary superpower, Blink, is so damn good that there was little use for the other powers. However the game's perceived degree of freedom is so immense, that it is absolutely possible for a roleplay oriented player to go through it in a very different manner.
Interestingly, if the game was more difficult, there is no guarantee that the degree of perceived freedom could be maintained. In a way difficulty always comes with a tradeoff: dominant strategies. In a way difficulty in itself controls player choice in a way that is harmful to a game's roleplaying appeal. If a game is hard enough, certain choices tend to be emphasized because they have higher utility in beating the game or can even be practically mandatory. Although we can argue that such games should be designed in such a way that are choices are equal, they rarely are. I will be the first to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong here in a more broader sense, but if a game wants to appeal to a roleplaying audience then it must be acknowledged that too much difficulty will be hurtful to it. You might argue that the most hardcore player will always find a way to do exactly as he likes. However, the roleplaying audience is not guaranteed to have the patience for training so much! (for the sake of clarity, by roleplaying I now mean playing a role, not the act of playing a computer RPGs)
All that being said, I think in general the stealth game genre benefits more from letting the player make it through in their own style. Increase of difficulty in these games more or less simply increases the number of retries it takes to get through a given segment and can end up being more about memorizing enemy routes than anything else. By providing the player with superpowers that let's them mess with the natural order of things, Dishonored makes stealth easier in a welcome fashion.
2. Speaking of controlling the player...
One thing that I do not like about a lot of stealth games is that although they advertise freedom of choice, the game has built-in values that ineherently make certain choices more encouraged than others. Often the player is encouraged to not kill anyone and stay out of sight. The more the game emphasizes this, the less there is perceived freedom. Dishonored is by far one of the least offenders. The game does not give any in-game rewards for being a sneaky pacifist. In fact it only does one thing (in-game) to encourage the player to find peaceful solutions: the game's ending is affected by how many people the player kills. Not being detected is just gravy and makes it easier to not kill anyone. So it indeed does feel more like I actually could be killing people off should I so choose.
Although Dishonored fares quite well, this is often messed up in similar games. A lot of games offer greater in-game rewards for being stealthy which is practically saying that the player should do so. This is typically explained by the fact that stealthiness indeed is harder to do in these games, and therefore should be rewarded better. There is nothing wrong with this approach, mind you. Rewarding harder accomplishments is mostly a sound design policy. However it should then be recognized that this endorses certain ways to play and therefore effectively reduces the amount of perceived freedom in the game. For instance, a lot of people have complained about higher rewards for non-lethal methods in Human Revolution (even though there is practically no difference between a lethal and a non-lethal takedown; you just push a different button!)
It would actually make Dishonored even easier if the player chooses to kill everyone instead of passing by them, largely because of one ability which makes corpses vanish into thin air (cool). Still the game's difficulty is not drastically affected by the choice of approach. Yet one nasty controlling scheme does exist in the game: achievement system. A certain playing style (killing no one, never being seen) nets you most of the achievements in the game on one playthrough. I cannot underline how distressingly common this is for achievement systems in general: they endorse a single playing style. This hints the player that there actually does exist a "correct" way to play the game. How hard it would be to include achievements for other playing styles?
Sure, not everyone cares about achievements. But for those who do, it is important to be aware of the fact that achievements do control playing styles. For this reason I usually do not look at the list of achievements before completing the game. Although they do not contain spoilers, I know that they will definitely affect my playing style.
3. First or third?
One interesting innovation for a first person stealth game in Human Revolution was its "cover camera". When the player entered cover, the camera backed up to show the player hiding in third person. I still think this is absolutely brilliant because it removes any sort of guessing from hiding. Dishonored on the other hand stays in the first person. The character does crouch appropriately and so on and can lean out of cover (which can sometimes feel rather hilarious; it's like the upper half of your body is sticking out by no one sees you). The game does a fair job of convincing me that I am actually hidden so I do not take issue with this. I still think the system seen in Human Revolution is better though. Dishonored does have better stealth controls though.
Another thing - especially on consoles - is the first person tunnel vision. Stealth games in partciular are hurt by the lack of peripheral vision in games. It is very hard to take a quick glimpse of your surroundings with game pad controls, and even with mouse this does feel a bit wonky. Third person might feel less "realistic" (because you see your own back) but it does provide a much better feeling of peripheral vision. In Human Revolution you often want to get in cover just so you can see better. Which is a bit weird again but hey, these are games we're talking about. Still it might be true that first person does create greater immersion. I'm still not convinced that it should be preferred over third person in stealth games because peripheral vision is absolutely vital for survival.
First person stealth is still mostly okay. First person melee combat is another issue though. Every game that features excellent melee combat uses a third person camera. The problem with first person is the lack of body awareness. Not being able to exactly see your character's body makes it much harder to get a good read of the combat situation. In real life fencing, precise position awareness is key to successful offense, defense and counter attacks. Certain third person games like Dark Souls simulate this quite well precisely because the player can see the exact position of their character. It is easy to see which attacks will connect and which do not. In first person this is strictly harder because the player cannot know for certain where the character's body is physically located. It often tends to make things more boring too.
Another thing that often lacks from first person games regarding sword attacks is movement. It is very rare to attack without simultaenous forward movement but in first person games the player avatar rarely moves when attacks are made. It can be argued again that the player can of course choose to do so but moving and hitting is an entirely different matter than an actual sword attack with forward movement built into it. It's a small detail and of little consequence in Dishonored because combat is generally avoided. For a game like this, Assassin's Creed should be a suitable role model for combat mechanics. Of course, it would involve switching to third person.
4. But what makes it good
So far I have been largely using Dishonored as a vehicle to get into more general topics. There is not much in the above paragraphs to explain why this game is worth more than a few game of the year awards. One definite key strength of the game is that it succeeds in hiding the fact that it is a game. For instance, most of the time I did not feel like I was playing levels that threw challenges at me - I was merely navigating an environment. Situations did not feel like pre-arranged puzzles with several solutions. Instead they felt honestly open. There are some sections where the illusion breaks, but these are surprisingly few and nowhere the magnitude of, say, Human Revolution boss fights. Instead of levels, the developers have created a world that feels like it could actually exist.
There is a certain continuous logic throughout the game regarding how guards, civilians and plague victims are placed in the levels. Patrol routes make sense (at least to the extent that they still loop without variation). Places are never heavily guarded just to throw an obstacle to the player's way. Instead if they are heavily guarded, there is always something that is important in respect to the game world, not the game. All this supports the perception of freedom in the game because most approaches to a specific place for example are actually feasible. The player is allowed to use their eyes to see possibilities instead of being forced to search for hidden routes or discussing with NPCs to reveal new approaches. Whenever I traversed a route to my target I felt it was truly my own route. This is a powerful feeling.
Speaking of powerful feelings... superpowers! The thing about mystic superpowers is that you don't need to explain how they work, and they can do anything without feeling out of place. Sounds like a cheap shortcut and it kind of is but it works. Dishonored does not have many powers, but they all serve a purpose (admittedly, some more than others). The signature ability, Blink, is a short range teleport that has quite limitless potential. Moving around the open environments using Blink is one huge reason why the game feels so open-ended. The simple mechanism of getting from point A to B without being in any of the intermediary points is quite amazing. It opens up so many unpredictable routes that it is almost ridiculously overpowered. However the act of using it is just so delightful that the imbalance between powers did not even bother me.
There are other powerful tools. Seeing through walls has been done quite well. It is not overpowered, but highly useful. I did use it quite a bit, although of course not as much as Blink.Of the remaining powers, I did not even level up all of them, and used the animal / human possession once or twice during the entire playthrough. If you are into stuff like that, you can find a lot of use for this ability though. The remaining abilities seemed too combat-oriented for my playing style so I found no use for them. I might consider playing the game or at least some missions in a more violent manner just to see how the other side of the game system works.
Dishonored plays most of its cards really well. It is a stealth game that is actually not at all frustrating to play yet manages to stay interesting throughout its duration. It bears no significant design flaws really. Overall it is a game I believe anyone considering a stealth game should play. Overall anyone even remotely interested in the genre, or even just the game's theme, should play it. There is so much quality design to be enjoyed. Of all the games I have played recently (sandboxes don't count!), Dishonored has the highest amount of perceived freedom of choice by far. This is achieved in an almost counter-intuitive way by giving the player so powerful tools that they can effectively break the game. Another strong aspect that supports this perception is the way the game stays true to its internal logic. The game world quite simply feels like a world instead of a series of levels.