The thing about the English language is, it’s called English. Not American. Accordingly, the correct spelling of the title this game is “DISHONOURED”. With a U. The developer, Arkane Studios is French, which makes it extra galling, because the French brought all the Us to England in 1066 and whacked them into the language like an arrow in the eye. It’s not like the French not to stick to their linguistic guns. Every time the title screen came up my eyeballs kept superimposing a squiggly red line under the name … because I took the extra time to make the English (UK) dictionary my default Word dictionary because I am a civilised human being. Sheesh.
In protest at this linguistic heresy, from now on I will call the game “Corvo’s Ag-Burgs“. Corvo is the name of the character you play and sounds like Aussie slang for a bloke who steals undies off the clothesline. “Ag Burg” is Victorian cop slang for Aggravated Burglary, which is an accurate descriptor of what you do as Corvo in this game, and using the term makes me feel tough, despite my otherwise comfortable suburban bourgeois existence. I am also docking the game’s score by 1 point for spelling. You have to get the basics right.
Anyway, Corvo’s Ag Burgs is one of the only big-ticket games to come out in 2012 that didn’t have a 3 in the title and it has guts going up against some of the biggest franchises in gaming. But, just like the Greater Western Sydney Giants, while it is to be encouraged for being new, it still makes some clangers here and there. Let’s get into some details, shall we? For ease of reference I have used Cypress Hill song titles as subheadings. You’re welcome.
Real Estate: Dunwall City
Imagine a world run by whales. Well, not actually by them — where would they all meet? The whales are slaughtered because their oil is the source of electrical power. I think this is what the Japanese have been researching all these years. Whale oil is put in canisters and used to power everything an early industrial-era city needs: boats, street lights and zappy gates that fry you when you walk through them. Because we are playing a videogame, these canisters also blow up when you shoot them. Imagine the OH&S issues if your office building needed an explosive canister on every floor to make the computers work. Coal doesn’t seem so dirty any more.
Corvo’s Ag Burgs is set in the whaling capital of this whale oil powered world: the city of Dunwall. It’s rendered in a striking art style that leaves its imprint after you switch off the game. The architecture is Victorian gothic, the colour palette is washed out like a water colour painting and for the character models, the artists eschewed realism for a more expressive look — faces and hands are bigger, other features more distinct. This prevents the people from sliding into the uncanny valley. The voice acting and character work were good and they cast some impressive names: Lena Headey, John Slattery, Carrie Fisher, Brad Dourif. They even got Susan Sarandon, the hottie from the Motherlover video clip!
One of the themes of the game is a tension between technology and mysticism. It’s like David Copperfield and the Eiffel Tower had a weird cyborg baby and are fighting over custody. Technology is winning, but it hasn’t stamped out all mysticism yet. One reason is that technology has not solved all the city’s problems: it is infested with plague. The medicine for plague is expensive, so it afflicts the poor more than the rich. Because we are playing a videogame, the plague turns people into zombies. The city is run by a fascist junta, with curfews and restricted movement, providing a neat narrative excuse for the all the guards and “being where you shouldn’t” aspect of the stealth mechanics.
So with the oppressive government, wealth disparity, plague and zombies, Dunwall isn’t a joyful place to be but it is a vivid, albeit doomed, playground. Rather than being an open world, each chapter of the game takes you to a different part of the city, sealed off from the rest, and in between you hang around a homebase area. The technology vs mysticism theme is also demonstrated in the tools at Corvo’s disposal: swords, guns and magic, speaking of which …
Stealth v Action: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Corvo’s Ag Burgs offers flexibility in how you play. You can opt to be sneaky, trying not to be seen or heard. You can even try not killing anybody. Or you can treat it as an action game, careen about noisily and shoot everything you see. You can even whack your sword against a pole to get the guards to hurry up and come to you. Or you can play it as a little bit of both.
The game tugs you in different directions regarding the stealth and killing. It guilts you with narrative and loading screen messages that tell you keeping fatalities low will result in Low Chaos give you the “good” ending. Then it gives you all sorts of cool, mostly loud ways to kill people: sword, gunshot, exploding gunshot, crossbow bolt, exploding crossbow bolt, vertical takedowns, grenades, sticky grenades, spring razor traps … and eaten by rats. So the game puts a large bowl of mixed lollies down in front of you and then asks you not to eat them all.
By contrast, the only non fatal ways to take someone out are to choke them out or sleep dart them. Sleep darts are problematic: ammo is limited and they don’t work on every enemy type. You can of course just sneak past a guard and not touch him at all, I guess. These moves are available right from the start, rendering most of the magic and item upgrades unnecessary, whereas the fatality guys get to pursue cool unlocks right through the game. The lack of desirable upgrades reduced my motivation to explore levels to find the stuff that unlocks said upgrades. I couldn’t help compare it unfavourably to Batman games and Deus Ex: Human Revolution — the smorgasbord of cool upgrades in those games had me scouring their environments for the goodies to unlock them.
The stealth mechanics themselves are decent. Corvo’s Ag Burgs favours the “pick them off one by one and keep moving” stealth reminiscent of the Batman games. You can get a Dark Vision power (aka “Heaven’s Dice“) very similar to Batman’s Detective Mode that allows you to see guards through walls and their fields of vision and so on. Imitating the Batman style of stealth is no bad thing, because it avoids some of the tedium of other stealth games that require the player to hide in a spot and wait for ages to clock patrol patterns. That’s not to say lurkers won’t be rewarded: there are some interesting vignettes you will witness from the shadows if you wait long enough and you can choose to let them play out or to intervene. The cool thing is that extended lurking was not compulsory. My main gripe was that it was frequently difficult to know whether I was truly hidden or not. Then again, there are some nice touches like being able to peep through keyholes, which made me feel extra sneaky.
The shaggy stealth and lopsided upgrades are outweighed for the most part by 3 awesome elements: your core power, Blink, the level design, and the beating heart.
Rise Like Smoke: The Blink Power
Blink is like a teleport. It is the only magic power that is compulsory, and it is a must-have. It feels like the game was built around Blink. It can be used to get up to high ledges, down from ledges without taking falling damage or just to traverse space. Only when I fought other dudes who could Blink did I twig that I could use it in combat as a kind of dodge, or to get behind someone. You can blink behind a guard as he rounds a corner just before he sees you. When you play stealthy you will lean heavily on Blink, but its versatility and the smoothness of its use — just aim and release the trigger– keeps it from feeling stale. About midway through the game, I got sick of trying to do a ghost run and reloading after being spotted, and I decided I would just deal with it. I discovered that Blink is a great way to escape a bunch of guards and let them reset. I was still finding new ways to use it in the last level.
There are some other cool magic powers — the power to possess creatures being a notable one, as is the power to slow time. Powers and weapons are equipped to the left hand while your sword is in your right. I would have liked to been able to dual wielded my powers, as I didn’t use my sword much; I was choking out mofos like Royce Gracie.
I Wanna Get High: Level Design
Each level is set up as an assassination mission wherein you have a mark and you have to get to them and take them out. You can discover a non-lethal way of dealing with each of them. The levels are designed to cater for whatever set of magic powers or equipment you have chosen, with multiple paths to your target. Some of it is truly inspired and unlike any other game — the one where you infiltrate a masquerade ball is the famous level that was demonstrated before release, but all the levels are well-designed to provide a nice balance between risk and reward, with hidden goodies secreted about to reward the explorer . A few times I laboriously dealt with an area full of guards, only to discover a secret path that would have bypassed all of them. What’s especially striking is the verticality of levels, wherein each level will invariably contain numerous, err … levels, above and/or below the ground floor, which offers up many opportunities for Blinking.
Get Out Of My Head: The Beating Heart
Blink is an awesome power to use, but this feature is just weird and a big part of why Corvo’s Ag Burgs will stay with me after I’ve forgotten some other more chewable titles.
Early on in the game, you are given a mechanical beating heart which, when equipped, can be used as a radar to detect collectibles, but you can also point the heart at anyone in the game and a disembodied woman’s voice will give you a little commentary on them, such as “He once killed a man for a pair of boots” or ” He will kill again tonight if you don’t wax him, bra” (may not be actual words used, my notes are a little smudged). I found this fascinating and tried it on everyone, from high-ranking assassination targets to low level grunts, friends and foes alike.
This introduced a more personal morality system into my playthrough. Suddenly I was playing Corvo as a personal judge of these people, and there were times I decided to kill guys that I otherwise would have spared and vice versa, depending on what the heart was telling me about them. I marvelled at the way the heart could affect me like this — my decision about whether or not to kill was no longer solely determined by the predetermined imperative of “keep the kill count low” or by the strategic consideration of whether I needed that guard to be taken out to progress through a section of a level, but by narrative content delivered to me that I could have ignored completely if I hadn’t whipped out the heart. So many games these days are anxious for you not to miss any of their kickass content that they will highlight, underline, prompt and cajole you repeatedly to LOOK OVER THERE NOW NOW NOW!!! I like that Corvo’s Ag Burgs had the balls to leave some stuff for me to feel like I discovered by myself.
Overall, Corvo’s Ag Burgs — oh, ok, Dishonored — delivers a fine action stealth game that may not have the tightest stealth mechanics, but makes up for it in the flexibility and variety it provides and the way you can switch between action and stealth as required. It is also peppered with enough endearing quirks that it is charming and compelling nonetheless — a reminder about why new games are often more exciting than sequels despite their flaws.