Dishonored: QuakeCon 2012 Hands-on preview

There are allegedly no “wrong” ways to play Dishonored, but if there were, I would have thoroughly tested a very large percentage of them. This Arkane-developed stealth/action game has a cruel learning curve that tested my creativity and coordination in tandem, but every misstep gave me three new ideas for my next attempt. By the end of the demo level available at QuakeCon 2012, I had successfully assassinated my target and escaped with the predatory grace of a roguish mountain lion. The fact that I died ten times and cowered in fear behind an ivory bathtub in the process is mostly incidental.

The Boyle estate was throwing a masquerade party and I wasn’t invited. Considering the protaganist Corvo was framed for murder of the Empress herself, that probably shouldn’t raise any eyebrows, but it made sneaking inside a real bother. It was my job to identify and eradicate a target of high society by any means necessary; which, I promised myself, would be the only murder by my hands. Arriving by boat with this challenge firmly in mind, I observed the shadowy canal from the first-person perspective.

On the streets above I spotted an armed man on mechanical stilts – a tallboy, these fellows are called – clanking over grime and filth. Stiff-backed guards posed another threat as they patrolled the bridge I needed so dearly to cross. The glamorous mansion was on the other side, obscured by cobblestone and hazy night air. Calculating my next move, I leapt from the boat, plunged into the murky waters, and was promptly killed by a fish.

Clearly I did not think this through. As it turns out, Dishonored wants you to strategise rather than stumble through by the skin of your teeth like I did. Everything in the vicinity is a vital piece of data; something to analyse and, after choosing from a wheel of supernatural powers, exploit. All of these abilities were unlocked right off the bat for the demo, but wrapping my head around two or three of them was enough mental stimulation for the time being.

They probably should have installed a metal detector for this event.

After misusing the teleportation power like there was no tomorrow, I failed to cross the canal’s chasm and found myself cornered by armed soldiers again and again. Reloading my game once more, I opted for a more subtle approach: possession. Once the guards split up on their patrol routes, I mind-controlled the nearest one and simply steered him into a dank alleyway. They were both safely out of sight, so I ducked past the tallboy and over to the mansion’s front door, simple as that. Occam’s razor was my friend in this case, but I left behind a dozen other possible solutions, including dumpsters to hide bodies and whirlwind powers just asking to knock a startled guard into the river.

Swiping a party invitation stopped people from shooting me on sight, which meant relative safety – unless I stirred up trouble myself. The opulent ball filled my vision with guests mingling in rooms of rich, garish décor that made me feel just as uncomfortable as the bedraggled city did. Dunwall is a grim place to live, but a tinge of half-whimsical colour stops it short of dreariness. I looted the detailed interior for currency when my esteemed hosts had their backs turned, but an opportunity to spend my spoils never presented itself.

Higher on my priority list was eavesdropping on the party-goers for information about my target’s identity. Snatches of conversation gave me a glimpse into the personal and political strife of the Victorian-esque world, some of which updated my mission objectives. Being thrown into Dishonored this late in the game was disorienting, but the pieces falling into place hinted at a textured world worth paying attention to.

Chatting with the haughty crowd was growing old, so I decided to sneak upstairs – an area strictly off-limits. A terrifying contraption of metal and electricity barred me from the main set of steps, but a back way thought it could deter me with only a single guard. This proved a perfect chance to try out my time-slowing power, which allowed me to slip by unseen. This sneaky bit of subterfuge was rewarded with a roomful of valuables and restorative potions, not to mention the evidence I needed to ferret out the my quarry’s true nature.

She’s either being asked to dance or assassinated. That guard isn’t taking any chances.

It took no more than a proffered drink and some empty promises to lure the lady upstairs and knock her out while she was distracted. I was mentally patting myself on the back at this point, but I still had an uncompleted objective on my hands. How to dispose of her? Killing the lady outright would be messy, not to mention boring; but what were my options? That’s when I remembered the electrical contraption. That’s also when everything went horribly wrong.

I stood in the centre of the grand hall, guests screaming and guards swarming all around me. Lugging my target down here on my back had taken time – costly time – but the electric security machine was in sight. I desperately flung the woman at the death trap, but wouldn’t you know it? I missed. Struck by sheer panic, I sliced at her with my blade in a last ditch effort and ran for everything I was worth. We both died in the process.

Many times this frustrating cycle continued as the guards gunned me down, each checkpoint reload stinging more than the last. Just when I began to lose my last vestige of hope, the lesson Dishonored strove to teach me echoed in my mind: Think. I wasn’t skilled enough to outrun the enemies, but I could outsmart them – and that meant cowering behind a bathtub until everyone went away. Pursuers can lose track of you, I discovered, and I managed to hobble my way back to the river in one piece.

Anticlimactic as that may sound, I completed the mission on my own terms and rarely bumped into an artificial wall to keep me from doing so. Everyone I spoke to at QuakeCon had a different story to tell, and that’s exactly what makes Dishonored so promising. I didn’t get a chance to test out the combat or push the other ambitious gameplay mechanics to their limits, but the sheer depth of choice backed by intelligent AI is impressive on its own. The entire level reminded me of stealing into forbidden areas in a Thief or Elder Scrolls game, and if Arkane plays their cards right, that same magic might be bottled up again in Dishonored. We’ll find out for sure in October when it launches for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.

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Written by Stephen K

A lover of video games in general, Stephen will happily play just about any sort of game on just about any sort of system, especially if it's a platformer or an RPG. Except sports games. Sports games are boring.

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