Thursday, October 25, 2012

A shorter REVIEW - Dishonored.

If you, like me, fell in love with Thief (1998) and its sequels, you will love Dishonored.  It's as simple as that.  Go buy it.

Still reading?  Didn't play Thief? 

If the mention of Thief does not thrum deep, baritone chords of pleasure in the recesses in your soul, the experience may be harder to explain.  How to put it...

You can summon rats.  That's pretty boss.

There is a unique and resonant sensation, deep in one's innards, that can only be stirred by exposure to the finest of first-person stealth mechanics.  The feel of genuine control over yourself and your abilities, which demand and allow that you wait... wait... wait... and strike, perfectly.  Strike beautifully. With intention and foresight and art.

That's important.  That's of paramount import, and Dishonored nails it.  If there's one thing a stealth game from devs behind Thief requires, it's the indescribable, exquisite feel that Thief granted ohhh almost fifteen years ago, and was only ever really replicated by its sequels.

The power and grace one feels when leaning out, reaching through a grated window and gently lifting a key from the belt of a distracted guardsman, which unlocks the side door at a mansion hosting a party you already have an invitation to.  And then disappearing. That alone is enough to flutter my heartstrings, as such mechanics' kinetic, expressive feel... have been sorely missed.

And, well, here it is.

The breezy controls, the ingrained understanding of line-of-sight and shadow and sound and searching every nook and cranny of every room, nodding with grim satisfaction when tearing a three-hundred-coin painting from the wall, but still enjoying a rush of glee at spotting a single, gleaming coin behind a chaise lounge or plague victim.

Samuel just drives the boat.  We love him.

It also does combat way, way better than any other dedicated stealth title I can think of.  It feels like someone looked at the mechanics of Dead Island last year and extrapolated that sense of enemy control and power, as you blink into one enemy from twenty yards away to cut his throat, slip a crossbow bolt into the gut of the next to put him off-balance for a fatal strike before finally spining aside to riposte a third.  It's a beautiful moment, when your sword slips under his and you fling it aside.  He staggers back, flailing and stumbling on the cobbles.  Open for a fleeting, gorgeous instant.


This comes at a cost, it seems - if you want to rip through Dishonored while killing everything you see, the game will certainly allow and encourage it - but it doesn't provide you with equally compelling abilities to see yourself through its challenges non-lethally.

Oh some of it's clever, to be sure - but the variety isn't there.

It likes to think of itself as a game where this is a hard choice - whether to cut a throat or choke it - but the hardest part of Dishonored is easily trying to complete the title without spilling any blood.  That is, one should note, as it should be - the game's greatest challenge should be the moral high ground - but it'd be nice if the moral high ground were also as fun as it is down on the killing floor.

Once you see the the first-person kill animations, you have to describe it to someone.

Turns out it's impossible to do so without being profoundly creepy.

It's deeply imperfect, here and there.  The game is far too visually bright for a title that apes Thief and BioShock (particularly BioShock 2), and while its muted art and soaring architecture are gorgeous, it fails to inspire the same sense of place and atmosphere as those titles.  Also, Arkane, if you're reading this - almost any stealth game is built on trying to do a thing perfectly, failing, and trying again (unless you're prepared to be seen and kill everyone).  You need shorter load times between those tries.  The story and world aren't as well-realized as they were in Thief, the narrative payoff for your choices is a blatant, lazily-executed rip of the exact same thing in BioShock 2, but...

But here's the thing - and here's why this is A shorter Review and not an epic one; I can't stop playing it.  I'm nowhere near done playing, enjoying, and reflecting on this game.

There's nothing quite like a seriously good first-person stealth game.  And it's nice when BioShock gives you a bit of a stealth spec and it's nice to try your hand at it in Deus Ex: Human Revolution - but no one in the past fifteen years has ever done it like the folks behind Thief did.

'Till now.

I've read a lot of reviews that point out that Dishonored is excellent in terms of design and gameplay, but "isn't a classic" - and maybe that's true.  I know that, as much as I love it, its pretty-but-bright atmosphere and iffy narrative will disallow the game from being as meaningful to me as Thief was, but here's the second thing...

I can guarantee you.  I promise you.  There's a kid out there who never played Thief, who will pick up Dishonored and discover an experience unlike anything they've ever played.  That kid will fall straightaway in love, and one day, years from now, they'll tell their friends how the latest first-person stealth game is nowhere near as good as Dishonored was, back in 2012.


  1. How does Thief 3 compare to the first 2? I never played them...

  2. Actually, Dark Shadows is the only one I didn't play - reviews have it as not-quite-as-good-as Thief II, but keep in mind it was made lonnng after Thief and Thief II - the originals are now old, old games.