Buy. This. Game. Stop reading right now, go down to your local supermarket or game retailer and buy it. Buy it and play it – you don’t need me to tell you anything else than that, really, but if you’re still unconvinced, then I’m happy to give you a piece of my mind…
Stealth games. Ahhhh, yes, I remember the days of actual stealth games; back when you had to manually control Sam Fisher’s weapons instead of ‘tagging’ targets for an automatic takedown. Back when you’d attempt one of the co-op missions in Chaos Theory thinking you could brush it off in twenty minutes or so but end up still sitting there an hour later. Back when non-violent stealth could only be achieved by a blackjack to the back of the head, where your only map was a crudely drawn estimate on stained paper.
Somewhere down the line something went wrong. Same happened to horror. Perhaps it was when Konami lost it’s footing with the Silent Hill franchise and we were forced to to turn to Resident Evil – a clunky shoot-em-up rich with jump scares and difficult camera angles. That became the norm for a while – safe, even. I found Dead Space to be the same (unfortunately), and you could throw the FEAR games in there too. Where did all the psychological horror games go!? It’s a fair question, but maybe it’s a question we no longer need to ask any more; what with Amnesia, Slender, Lone Survivor etc appearing on the horizon to save the day for us non-shoot-em-up jump scared types. (What’s the deal with jump scares anyway? It’s not horror as object, but simple surprise… a bunny rabbit could jump out at you and so long as there was a sharp noise and a difficult camera angle it would have the same effect! To me, that ain’t horror…).
Maybe Dishonored (like Amnesia) will open up the space for true stealth games again, because it’s pretty damn good.
Enough pseudo-babble, lets get into this…
Set in a steam-punk/whale-oil-punk alternative London we control the character Corvo: previous protector of the Empress turned assassin after that somewhat cliché ‘framed for murder’ mechanic we see in a number of video-games these days (oh cynical old me). But the game starts up, you run through the beginning of the story, and then you’re edged into wider and wider environments (admittedly, I’m only on mission three or so, so whether it continues to widen I couldn’t tell you). Now, when I was first given control, I was pissed. Not drunk pissed, but game-irritated pissed. There was a health bar on the screen. ‘A health bar?’ you ask, ‘it’s just a health bar…’ yes, true, it’s just a health bar, but I didn’t want a health bar. There was an awareness meter above guards heads too – indicating if they’ve seen you or not. I didn’t want an awareness meter. There was an objective – I didn’t want an objective marker. I wanted me, my knife, and whatever else I could have in my other hand on my screen, and that was that.
I was overjoyed. There’s an unusual amount of options on the 360 version of the game. You can switch between contextual health/mana bars and none at all. You can turn off the awareness meters and objective markers. You can turn the difficulty up to Very Hard (turn it up to Very Hard, I highly highly recommend doing so – why haven’t I completed the game yet? Very Hard, that’s why). The game went up from 50% cool to 220% just from twiddling with these options. It was starting to feel like a real stealth game. Then you have a odd encounter with a dreamy man who gives you magical powers, and I became huffy again. Magic? Magic and stealth? It rarely works… it shouldn’t work.
Blink is brilliant when you get the hang of it. It’s like a step up from Assassin Creed’s ‘hold A’ to do every-amazing-thing-in-existence because you actually have to do something. Like manually controlling Fisher’s occasionally difficult rifle, the Blink mechanic makes you feel like you’ve really achieved something when you use it to navigate the environment at speed. You’re running with one button, jumping/climbing with the next whilst trying to get a good blink angle – and when you hit it, you feel like a fucking god (until a brick hits you in the face, or someone pulls a pistol on you). Whilst you could describe the environments as ‘Blink-friendly’ that’s not to say that there’s obvious blink locations. Thing’s aren’t all straight cut – there’s wonky rocks and twisted pavilions, metal rods jut out from building at obscure angles and they’re still more than acceptable Blink-spots.
(Select long jump for good Blinking!)
You can only go so high, but it’s high enough to be of significant use: to plot you’re next course of action or to find hidden ledges and locations, and that leads me to my next point. Maybe I flicked a switch in the settings that turned maps off but, in my game (at least) the only maps I have come across have been nailed to walls. My character hasn’t copied them into any sort of notebook or ripped the map down from the wall, I just haven’t had a map. With the objective markers turned off and no map the game became so exciting. There were points (and still are) points where I have NO IDEA WHERE THE HELL I AM, or where I’m meant to be going. I keep doubling back into rooms I’ve already been in. Now, others would say that this is disorientating, but really, I think that’s just a cop out. We’re so used to games showing us where to go next (linearity – corridors) that when a game comes along that refuses that linearity it’s a given that we’d get lost. We have no sense of direction because we’re looking at the environment in the wrong way. I’m getting the hang of moving around now because I’ve realised how useful street-signs are. I try to remember where the ocean is. I think ‘where is such and such in relation to such and such?’. I’m thinking. I’m fucking thinking. It’s so rare to have to really think whilst playing a modern computer game.
Whilst I cared about the mission I was on and wanted to complete it as best I could, I was more than happy to just explore the environments. It helps that the game is so stylish. It has a real Bioshock feel to it, but better – rooms don’t feel like echoes of other rooms, and houses vary from you’re standard box affair to sprawling mansions, seductively circular brothels, plague-ridden slums and burnt out shells of homes with rickety floors. There tends to be something memorable to a room or a location that makes you think ‘that was that room’ – it’s not all empty grey squares.
So far, the AI’s been pretty on the ball – though, there is a certain daftness to them at points. Sometimes I think they stand about far to long in one location; warming hands against a fire, or commenting on artwork but, at other times they can really catch you out. Recently, I was spying on two guards chatting away on the other side of the door. I figured I could listen in safely then watch them wander off on their separate ways around the room. One taking the left, the other, the right. Instead, one came right towards me. I watched as his crotch came gradually closer, and only just darted round a corner before the door opened. The guards stomp around occasionally crushing rats, yawning, or twiddling their thumbs. I had a close escape when running down some stairs I’d thought I’d cleared to almost run face first into a guard coming the other way. Luckily, he’d just that second been rubbing his eyes. I slipped behind a curtain, into darkness.
I’m loving it. Seriously loving it. It’s so fresh despite its similarities to Thief (which reminds me, where is Thief 4?). The Thief games are my favourite games of all time, but Dishonored is getting pretty close – if not for it’s ‘sometimes’ linearity and sometimes simple AI it would be up there hand in hand with the old taffer.