After reading terrible reviews for the new sequel to Deus Ex, I went in search of other shooter/stealth hybrids and found Dishonored. Despite the game being four years old, the graphics in Dishonored look great; and because the game is four years old it performs blisteringly well at 1920x1200 resolution with maximum settings on my two-year-old gaming PC.
Forced to witness the murder of the empress Jessamine Kaldwin whom you are sworn to protect, and the kidnap of her daughter Emily, and then being framed and jailed by the corrupt figures who want to seize control for themselves, you play the role of Corvo Attano, former Royal Protector. Your first task is to break out of Coldridge Prison and flee through the sewers of the city of Dunwall to meet with loyalists who need your help to find Emily and put her in power as the rightful heir to the empire.
Dunwall is a fictional city which loosely resembles London of the industrial revolution era, though rather than coal being the fuel of choice, tanks of volatile whale oil power the mechanisation of this brave new world. Putting a smudge of grime on things is the fact that the city has been infested by a rat-borne haemorrhagic plague for months and the death-toll is rising, mostly affecting the poor neighbourhoods where the residents cannot afford to purchase the elixir which wards off infection. On your numerous trips through Dunwall's sewers and derelict districts you find countless scenes of the infected and the dead, huddling in the damp, dark corners of the cursed city.
Having escaped from prison and survived your jorney through the sewers you find allies in the loyalists who base themselves in the run-down venue of The Hound Pits pub in a deserted part of the city. After your long day you lay down to rest only to awake in The Void, a realm where time and physical law do not really apply. There you meet The Outsider, an ethereal embodiment of The Void who tells you that your actions over the next few days will determine the fate of the city. Considering that this makes you very interesting, The Outsider grants you magical powers so that you can better impose your will in the trials ahead. Before he returns you to your world, he tells you that what you do with these powers is up to you.
The first gift granted to you is Blink, a magical power which lets you move instantaneously across a short distance, unseen and unheard while in motion. This lets you throw yourself across gaps and up onto ledges which would be otherwise beyond your reach, and allows you to dart from one place of cover to another without being detected by threats. Blink is very versatile: you can use this power to outmanoeuvre enemies in mortal combat, or dart up behind targets to choke them unconscious, or sneak past busy areas by blinking up onto a balcony, rooftop, lamppost, or other high perch, and moving about over the heads of clueless soldiers.
After finding several whale bones carved with the runes of The Outsider, you can choose to upgrade Blink (to allow you to travel a greater distance) or add to your collection of powers by choosing from other options:
To help you find runes and bone charms (which confer additional bonuses) The Outsider has given you The Heart of a living being, which reveals the direction and distance to these items within each map. The Heart also whispers secrets to you if you point it at someone or somewhere, which nicely adds depth to the characters and the city of Dunwall.
Also adding to this fabric are the letters, journals, and book extracts you find dotted around, telling of the desperation of plague-struck families, the greed of street gangs, and the corruption of the elite and those in authority. But, unlike many other games which feature written logs, you also often receive spoken tales from the living beings who populate the world. A few of those presumably corrupt City Watch officers might just surprise you by saying something which reveals compassion; a plague victim might give you her cynical view of how little hope there is for the future of Dunwall; an assassin (unaware of your presence) might betray their plan to keep watch for you from the rooftops nearby. Dunwall is a rich world, and your interactions with its people, friendly and otherwise, draw you into their world.
When your cloak of stealth falls away, either by intention or accident, and the enemy are alerted to your presence, you have two choices: run, or fight. If you're trying to achieve a non-lethal playthrough then you'll need to run, using your Agility and Blink powers to get away from your (surprisingly fast and accurate) pursuers. If you have a devil-may-care attitude to creating corpses then you can stand your ground and fight to the death.
Those with reflexes and timing will do very well with the sword that Corvo carries at all times. Block at just the right moment and you throw the enemy off guard, giving you the chance to counter with lethal force. Block at the wrong time and you just look like a fool before your enemy strikes you and takes a chunk out of your health bar. Mistime your attack and the enemy will block you, forcing you to mash the attack button to stop the enemy counter-attacking. Very satisfying when it works, but given that I have all the reflex and timing skill of a clay effigy, I tend to prefer the fallback option: Corvo's pistol. At close range, blasting repeatedly will lay a gang of enemies to waste within seconds, though you'll run out of ammo fairly soon if you rely on this method of combat. At anything other than close range, Corvo's wrist-mounted crossbow can punish enemies, though it's rarely instant kill, and again you'll be short of ammo if you make a habit of attacking from a distance. For the non-lethal approach, the crossbow can instead be used to fire sleep darts which can cause the enemy to pass out instantly (though this is a bad idea if they're on an open ledge, as they're likely to topple to their death).
Your magical powers also give you a great advantage in combat: use Bend Time and then rain damage upon several enemies before they can even raise their weapons, Blink behind or above them to leave them confused, use Agility to leap several metres over an enemy and then use the drop assassination move to kill them instantly, use a Windblast to knock them off their feet (or off of a ledge), or just unleash Devouring Swarm and walk away while your foes scream in terror and agony amid the tiny biting jaws of dozens of ravenous rats.
The combat feels inventive and engaging, though ultimately the lethal approach simply has you slaughtering your way through street after street, room after room, until you reach (and kill) your target. Much more satisfying is the non-lethal, and even the undetected approach. A non-lethal approach leaves you more vulnerable: if you knock a City Watch officer unconscious and then leave them snoozing in the middle of their patrol route they are likely to be found by another patrolman who will raise the alarm, flooding the area with additional, hostile, alert people. So it's wise to pick up the sleeping figure and carry them away to a secluded spot, which takes time and slows you down when you are out in the open in your most exposed position. And the undetected approach, where you aim to complete every mission without a single enemy clapping eyes on you, is harder still because you must always make sure to manoeuvre so that you are above or behind the enemy before you swoop in and neutralise them, so that they never see what hit them. Little alert icons appear over an enemy to flash white when their attention has been raised (by a noise or very brief glimpse of you) and flash red when they're alerted (by clear sight of you), though you can usually tell when you've alerted the enemy because they call for reinforcements while hurling rocks and bullets at you.
Besides chasing the achievements on Steam, another reason to keep the body count low is that a high death toll will increase the number of free-roaming swarms of rats, and the number of infected whose illness has progressed to the point where they are called Weepers, crazed sufferers who bleed from the eyes and launch themselves to attack you if you get too close. While these perils can be overcome without taking too much damage, they do make it trickier to move about, especially if you're trying to go undetected, because Weepers will be alerted if they catch sight of you. Also, the amount of chaos you cause determines whether you reach the high chaos or low chaos ending, each subtly different in outcome and each leading to differing reactions from those around you.
It annoys me that games publishers deliberately split expansion packs (or "DLC" as it's become trendy to call them) into multiple pieces just to give them more room for pricing strategy. "The Knife Of Dunwall" and "The Brigmore Witches" are really just one new campaign, split unnecessarily into two pieces. You can even carry your powers and inventory from the first part into the second part. I see no good reason for splitting this campaign into two.
Complaint about greedy publishers aside, this expansion campaign is a solid piece of work. This time you stalk Dunwall as the master assassin Daud, known as The Knife Of Dunwall. Daud's long stream of assassinations long ago earned him the interest of The Outsider, so Daud is one of the few to wear his mark and be gifted with his powers. After assassinating the empress, Daud has become haunted by his actions, somehow unable to lump this latest contract killing in with the hundreds he has committed before. During a restless night, The Outsider draws Daud into The Void and tells him that the story of The Knife Of Dunwall is coming to an end, and that the name Delilah is a key to this. Daud, despising a mystery, sets off to find out what or who Delilah is, and take control of his own fate.
Daud has very similar powers to Corvo, though there are some substitutions. Daud cannot use Possession, Devouring Swarm, or Windblast, but can instead use Pull to drag objects towards him or levitate enemies before him. And his Summon Assassin power causes one of his league to appear at a specific spot and engage any foes nearby, useful if Daud needs reinforcement in combat or just needs to create a distraction. And Blink has been modified so that time stops while you aim the destination marker, making it much easier to make tricky jumps. (Corvo's version of Blink often can be difficult to use while jumping, so this is a handy variation.)
The scenery and missions in Daud's campaign are pleasingly different to those of Corvo's campaign. Daud finds himself in a whale slaughterhouse full of brutal whale butchers, in an abandoned shopping district overrun by street gangs, and in a country manor rife with powerful witches. Rather than trying to neutralise a string of targets, as was Corvo's primary goal, Daud instead has to travel from place to place seeking clues and carrying out favours in order to take each step closer to finding the meaning of Delilah. As before, you can choose whether Daud draws a bloody red line along his path, or slinks from place to place unseen. Again, there is a difference between the low chaos and high chaos endings, though this primarily affects just the very final scene, in a stark and singular way. And Daud's story interweaves with Corvo's so that it feels very much that you're inhabiting the same city at the same time.
I've now completed Dishonored three times: once with a fairly mix-and-match approach to stealth and gung-ho mayhem, once with a high-chaos killing spree, and once with a low-chaos, non-lethal, totally undetected playthrough. It's very rare that I replay a single-player campaign even once, let alone complete it three times, but Dishonored has so much to offer in terms of the flexibility with which you can approach each area of threat that it was a joy to revisit each scene. And in each playthrough I found alternative routes above, below, or around each area of combat, and discovered new revelations from and about the characters who feature in this tale. A lot of design and testing went into the making of this game world.
And I've completed both "The Knife Of Dunwall" and "The Brigmore Witches" twice, once each in low and high chaos, and enjoyed this new campaign very much. Again there is a lot of design and care on show, and it's very likely that any fan of Corvo's campaign will enjoy revisiting Dunwall in Daud's boots.
In total these campaigns have given me 93 hours of gameplay. I highly recommend Dishonored to any fan of stealth and/or first-person action.