Plenty of games release on a wave of hype, but few of them ever deliver. Dishonored did with aplomb, and Mark Seymour’s stabby tour through the city of Dunwall was the best gaming experience he had all year.
Empowering is the word best used to describe Dishonored. It’s an unflinching muddle of Thief and Half Life 2, with the former’s stealthy hijinks spilling into the latter’s totalitarian-style world to magnificent effect. In a year that played host to more quality first-person games than any since 2008, Dishonored emerged king of them all.
Dunwall was the star, an industrious steampunk-inspired hell shot through with the essence of City 17. It was a world in thrall to a plague that had reduced it to a land of smoke and death and little real beauty except for those of us who viewed it through the lens of Corvo Attano. For us, it was a place of wonder and intrigue, a place with an exhaustive history, with rules and systems we could believe in and iniquity and perversions we could abhor or admire. It was a seductive world largely because it was so utterly corrupt, so deliciously wrong. Few videogame worlds have felt so elaborate.
It was also an ungrudging plaground and Corvo’s knack for teleporting about Dunwall managed to scar all first-person games that followed (and even some that came before). Blink unlocked the city vertically, paved the way for the excellent stealth system and generally made getting around Dunwall bloody good fun. I groaned as I trekked through the verdant jungles of Ubisoft’s magnificent Far Cry 3 and bemoaned the lack of teleportation in Gearbox’s sensational Borderlands 2.
Arkane romanced the senses, massaged the ego and, best of all, demanded you brought your imagination to Dunwall (not just your trigger finger) and there was one scene that, for me, captured the spirit of Arkane’s IP better than any amount of cloying prose could ever hope to (spoilers ahead).
It was a scene that saw disgraced bodyguard Corvo take part in a pistol duel not unlike those you might find in an old Sergio Leone film. The wanton murder of another man is something of a spiceless crime for any videogame character to commit, but in the context of this duel it proved both strange and exciting. Corvo as I knew him traded in jugular surgery and do-or-die retreats, visiting violence on his foes from the safety of shadows. An honorable fight was a concept as foreign to Corvo as it is to Agent 47 or any other of videogame’s esteemed lineage of wily executioners. And yet here he found himself party to the most honorable of fights.
The scene went a little like so:
Corvo and his challenger (who we’ll refer to as The Wolf) take to their podiums at opposite ends of a courtly garden. With pistols primed, an arbiter counts down from three. On one, Corvo commands time to a halt. He pirouettes with practised grace and fires twice at The Wolf. Time has turned to treacle so Corvo is able to pluck his bullets from the air, reload his weapon and fire off all over again. But such hubris is not befitting of my Corvo Attano, so instead he releases time from its iron chokehold and watches life itself abandon The Wolf.
“Impossible!”, the arbiters cry in chorus. I thank them both kindly for the ego boost and then stab their necks real good.
Having reduced The Wolf to a mound of broken dreams and spilled guts I reload and repeat the scene, opting to pause time, leg it over and strap a device packed with barbs to his face. Offal and gib scream through the air like crimson fireworks as the guards cry out in Groundhog Day shock. I reload again and again, determined to see how many ways I can rob The Wolf of his life.
As a crescendo to many, many deaths Corvo brings time to a final standstill, butchers the arbiters and places poor Wolfie in a sleeper hold. The notion of a fair fight perished a while back and for The Wolf I imagine this is powerfully unfunny. But for me this was the precise point at which Dishonored’s treasure trove of wonders unlocked; the point at which I’d successfully reprogrammed my brain, blunted by years of stupid AAA games, to treat each battle not as a race to see how quickly I could murder everyone, but as an experiment to see how outrageous and slick those murders could be.
And so, with quarry slumped over a shoulder, Corvo teleports to a great balcony overlooking most of Dunwall and, without an inkling of ceremony, dooms our pal to the cold embrace of the concrete below.
The sound of bones evacuating through skin and muscle marked, for me, one of the highest points of the gaming year.