I’m not ashamed to say that I’m anticipating Dishonored to the point of absurdity. More than any other game due in 2012, this one looks like it’ll have those specific design blocks that constitute ‘Peter’s ideal videogame tower’. Walls of player agency, stairs carpeted with emergent gameplay and a charming little garden rich with the soil of an original setting. At present, there’s no telling if each of these parts will hold together, or if the … err, cement of cohesion, I guess … will be poorly applied and make everything fall over. In terms of promise, though, Dishonored has the lot.
The title will be Arkane’s first project since they were acquired by Zenimax Media (owners of Bethesda, who’ll be taking publishing duties for this). Having Dark Messiah of Might and Magic in the back catalogue is enough of a reason for me to be excited about a new game from the same team (few releases have made first-person melee such flat-out fun), but Arkane has gone one further and put together a bit of a developer ‘super group’.
Harvey Smith (of Deus Ex fame) is offering creative expertise, and Viktor Antonov (the man most responsible for the look of Half-Life 2’s City 17) has been hired to craft more architectural wonders.
Antonov’s influence is already being seen in a couple of the game images released to date, most clearly in the image showing strange, stilt-walking policemen patrolling the streets of a city named Dunwall. The world itself is hard to pin down with the information we have so far, seeming to offer a curious economy based on whale oil (no, really), a culture that didn’t really go through an industrial revolution as we know it, and a style of dress (for the military and aristocracy at least) hovering somewhere around the heyday of European colonial dominance. It’s also been revealed that plague has ravaged Dunwall’s past, leaving an abundance of rats.
Into this strange backdrop steps player-character extraordinaire Corvo (a name which I’m informed has something to do with crows). He’s a former imperial bodyguard, now turned assassin after some sort of unfortunate internal misunderstanding and a spell in prison. Hey, it could happen to the best of us.
A unique setting like this is already enticing, but what really has me interested is the sorts of things Corvo will be doing. From the snippets of detail released in interviews about the game, and reports from those lucky enough to attend demo presentations, it seems good ol’ player agency will be high on the design chart.
The developers have alluded to ‘low’ and ‘high’ chaos approaches to missions, where the former refers to a quiet, stealthy approach and the latter relates to violence and a lack of interest in remaining undetected. It’s sounding like the classic Deus Ex or Thief approach to level design, where the player is genuinely afforded multiple paths of entry and has to think and act on-the-fly once inside.
Arkane has stressed that this doesn’t just mean a linear path with a binary ‘do you want to kill this guy with a blow-dart or a machine gun?’ choice at the end, but actual freedom to explore surroundings and use the environment (within the confines of the world, at least). Corvo will be able to possess both rats and fish, which not only expands the opportunities for getting around, but also the opportunities for hilarious mischief making.
In interviews, the developers have described playtesters discovering new, absurd ways to make the most of Corvo’s abilities. One player attached a ‘razor mine’ (a sort of spiky time-bomb) to the back of a rat, possessed the creature and ran it into a packed guard room, then ejected from the poor beast. Cue a deadly explosion that takes out several people at once, while Corvo remains safely out of the way.
If that doesn’t sound fun enough, how about the person who used the slow-time ability just as an enemy fired at him, possessed the shooter, ran him in front of his own bullet and then restarted time, creating an unlikely suicide case. These kinds of experimental gameplay, enabled by the freedom to combine and play with open-ended powers, are exactly the kinds of things I’m looking forward to discovering in Dishonored.
In short, this game looks (and again, let’s stress looks) like it’ll be a return to the glory days of titles like Deus Ex, System Shock 2 and Thief. A group of games dubbed ‘immersive sims’ by someone-or-other and dubbed ‘a bloody great time’ by me and thousands of others.
Little bits of information like different floor surfaces making different noises as you walk across them, and first-person melee (remember, these guys did Dark Messiah) make me eager to dive in. Most intriguing of all, it’s been suggested that Corvo won’t even have to perform the assassination he’s tasked with on a given mission, inviting the question … what happens if you don’t carry them out? If Dishonored has a branching narrative as well as an abundance of in-level freedom, I may find it hard to play anything else next year.
Dishonored is scheduled for a second quarter (April-June) release in 2012, for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.