Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review: Dishonored

Despite what any paid reviewer will tell you, the stealth genre is practically dead. Most of the old guard have degraded into action games with maybe the odd stealth segment or some minor stealth influence – the biggest offender being Splinter Cell: Conviction. Ugh. That's not to mention the fact that Metal Gear Solid 4 was more concerned with boring you to death with 30 minute cutscenes than actual stealth gameplay. Worst yet, I'll probably be collecting social security checks by the time Thief 4 comes out. But there's always hope. Meet Dishonored, a product by Arkane Studios... who brought to you Dark Messiah Of Might And Magic (which is a pretty good RPG if you ask me). But whilst being marketed as a stealth game, you can play this as either that or an action game, and unfortunately, the action route is significantly better. Not that the stealth route is bad because it's still playable, but playing it like an action game is undoubtably a million times better.

One thing I didn't like is the story. Corvo is the royal protector of the empress of Dunwell. But after he returns from a trip elsewhere to find out a way to stop a plague that's killed half of Dunwell, he finds out that the empress had been assassinated and her daughter got kidnapped – and to top it all off. he got framed for it. From there, he has to take revenge on them while rescuing her kidnapped daughter. The story's biggest strength is its lore. As you explore around the city, you'll find various sidequests, books, journal pages, notes and audio files laying about that will tell you more about the background of where you are and what situation you're in. However, when it comes to the present and future, it's not quite there. Revenge is often a good beginning point for something bigger, but Dishonored sticks with it throughout the entire game with maybe a twist towards the end. Said twist is... pretty bland as the characterization beforehand is virtually non-existent and the delivery felt like it was written on toilet paper after the writer ate McDonald's.

There are two endings that you can acquire – one is attainable through playing the game as a sneaking pacifist, and the other is attainable through killing a lot of people. It's all calculated by your Chaos score, which is determined by how many people you kill. If you're going for the good ending, you'll pretty much need to avoid detection and the urge to kill any plague victims (yeah, apparently there's a plague going around Dunwell), but if you want the bad ending, eh, go nuts. Having said that, even the multiple endings aren't good enough to get you to play again as there's just nothing to them that makes them worth watching outside of... well, them being endings, I guess. Even then, both are quite abrupt and basically amount to “game's over guys, go play something else now”, rather than actually concluding the experience. Neither of them are even a “see you next game” kind of ending – just “Jack and Jill went up the hill aaaaaand Jill came tumbling after, the end, good night”!

The idea is to do a series of missions in each of Dishonored's nine big levels for you which involve finding and killing certain targets. You can go about these by either either sneaking around, or getting in there and going postal with your powers. As a stealth game, it's got all the right ideas, but not exactly the right execution. The levels manage to give you plenty of options as to what path to follow without so much as alerting a dust mite, and given their sheer size, there's a fair amount of level to explore. The only real reward is just not getting spotted – no conversations to overhear or super secret weapons to find. Just alternate routes. Still, it at least gives you an option, so it's not all bad. However, what is all bad are the enemies. Simply put, the enemies' AI is ridiculous. If they are in your line of sight, you're most certainly in theirs and there's no way to tell if there'll be one behind you or not due to the lack of a radar or a light gem.

To make things worse, regardless of whether you're skulking in the dim and dark back alleys or running in the middle of a sunny town center, you'll be spotted if there's an enemy anywhere near you. There's no sense of lighting. To you, there are light bits and dark spots; to them, it's all one light so it's irrelevant whether you're in darkness or you're under a spotlight. To compensate, if you're behind cover, you're basically invisible. Add the fact that their footsteps are quieter than Britney Spears's dietician, and let's just say that the enemy AI in regards to stealth is not very good. The only other real advantage you have here is that you have a power that lets you see through nearby solid objects so you can see enemies and where they're facing, but since that requires mana, you can only use it so much and for so long. It is rechargable though – keep that in mind. Due to all of this, if you're going for a pacifist gameplay, expect to reload your last save about as often as the average human blinks. Also expect some frustration. It's a shame because the levels actually lend themselves to be good for sneaking and from a fundamental standpoint, it does function. But going for a pacifist playthrough is where you'll see the majority of the problems.

Thankfully, this game is also playable when you're more violent and it's actually a hell of a lot more fun. If you still want to implement stealthy measures, it's easy enough to sneak up on enemies and slice their throats as long as you can find places to hide behind. But no, you want to be the ultimate badass, don't you!? Yeah, of course you do - the game's mechanics accommodate towards that style anyway! See, even if you get spotted, not all is lost, because you can simply use your magical powers or your weapons (either your guns, crossbows or your retractable sword) to take down the guards. That... is not good stealth game design. Combat is supposed to be discouraged, either because you're frail and wouldn't last five seconds in direct confrontation, or you'll have enemies on your ass if they find dead bodies! But in Dishonored, you can fire a tornado to blow guards away, slow down time, teleport right in front of them, shoot them with a pistol and summon plague rats to feast on the dead bodies – mind you, you'll need to find runes throughout each level in order to even unlock them and even more runes just to power them up, but they aren't too hard to find if you explore. That's not to say that Dishonored is terrible – Christ, I even said that it's a hell of a lot of fun at the beginning of this paragraph, but it really goes against stealth gaming conventions when combat is not only a lot more satisfying than sneaking, but that sneaking only really nets you an Xbox Live achievement or a PSN trophy. Oh and I guess there'll be less enemies in later levels if you don't go postal, but let's be honest, you'd want to kill a bunch of enemies, wouldn't you? Exactly!

The elephant in the room here are the graphics – god, this game is ugly. It wants to be cartoony, but it comes across looking like something from an early PS2 game. From rampant screen tearing to some jerky animations, lag and some very low resolution textures, not to mention that the FOV slider is a joke because you don't have much peripheral vision even with the slider up past 11, and there's nothing about this game that's technically any good except for the fact that... well, it at least functions.. The character models are all uglier than Quasimodo, as everybody seems to have disfigured or just plain weirdly shaped heads and faces. Look, I understand that we all need to go our own way, but after looking at games like Borderlands 2 and New Super Mario Bros U, Dishonored doesn't even do the cartoony style any justice. It just looks ugly. Not ugly enough to make you want to kill it with fire, but certainly ugly compared to its competition and not even remotely good looking on its own terms.

The sound design is pretty hit and miss. What misses is the music. I guess the idea is to create suspense with the tunes being more in the background, only to get more intense during confrontation, but in all honesty, it does nothing except for existing. It never really conveys any suspense, it doesn't really sound foreboding and it can never excite you, maybe except the final boss theme. Said theme actually does make the fight fairly exciting due to the louder, faster composition. However, everything else is bleh. The voice acting is where it hits home, though. Generally speaking, everybody is voiced in a way that at least helps you to care for the story despite its bland premise and just as bland writing. Everybody at least sounded like they wanted it to work and because of that, there's a decent amount of conviction put behind their voices. Not quite academy award winning, but it's good enough regardless.

Dishonored really wants to be a stealth game, but given all of the cool gadgets and weapons that prove advantageous in combat with no real incentive to sneak around outside of some forced moral elements, it's more appealing to play as Corvo the powerful sorcerer, master of the universe, and son of god. That doesn't make it a bad game, but what it does become is a flawed game that favors one style well above the other. That, and marketing tends to be pretty dishonest anyway – I guess I was just starved for a good stealth game in this day and age. Making things worse is the uglier than sin graphics and the lack of a compelling story. Really, where Dishonored hits the mark is its level design and how you utilize the tools you're given to turn the levels into bloodbaths. On that behalf, it's a good game as what it does right more than makes up for the lackluster stealth mechanics.

6.5/10 (Above Average)

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