Dishonored’s foreboding city of Dunwall bears more than a passing resemblance to Half Life’s iconic City 17. Arkane Studio’s new first-person, action adventure, blends steam-punk design with more traditional 17th century architecture to create a familiar, yet unique look and a semi open-world design that boasts many impressive landmarks.
The similarity to City 17 is quite deliberate as art director for Half Life 2, Viktor Antonov, also worked on the setting for Dishonored. However, this new title is a re-imaging of London in the 1600's and doesn’t depict the post-Soviet harbor city of Half Life 2, which featured mostly Eastern European architecture. Here, structures are more Western European in style - yet Half Life 2’s influences are clear as you stumble across a harbour, cobbled streets and abandoned alleyways.
Taking place in the midst of a fictional industrial revolution, Dunwall is a rat-infested city that is the grips of a plague epidemic. Nonetheless, it’s still teeming with life as bowler-hatted gents go about their daily business trading in Dunwall's most precious commodity, Whale Oil. Each day they run the risk of being hunted down by a pack of hungry rats, who will pursue anyone that gets too close, before feasting on their skin and leaving nothing but a pile of bones lying in the street. There is a hostile atmosphere on the streets of Dunwall, born from a clever mix of haunting audio, moody visuals and the disgusting rat-infestation. That anxiety looks to be intensified by a fusion of slick stealth play and intense action combat.
In Dishonored, players step into the role of Corvo, a bodyguard falsely accused of the murder of his beloved Empress. By becoming a supernatural assassin he seeks revenge and justice on those who killed his mistress. Judging by the first ever demo, gameplay will largely involve gathering Intel to clear your name, while attempting to assassinate a number of high-profile targets. The mission we’ve seen, for example, tasks you with taking out a lawyer who is heavily guarded and locked away in a fortified mansion. Okay, so the storyline and kind of missions we’ll end up involved in do seem rather generic, but Dishonored is all about giving you choice - and the open-world design, multi-layer environments and weapon/power variety enables you to tackle these missions in a variety of ways. In fact, with Harvey Smith of Deus Ex fame on board, it’s clear that this inspiration may well have been taken from the popular RPG series.
You can, for example, play the game entirely without killing anyone for a slower-paced, strategic experience that requires use of the environment and shadows to sneak past people. Playing stealthily also involves executing enemies silently and then hiding their dead bodies out of the way so that other guards aren't alerted to your presence. Or you can, if you wish, use your array of sorcery powers and more traditional weapons to attack enemies head-on for a more aggressive play-style. Alternatively, you might opt for a combination of both – the choice is entirely yours.
Abilities, such as super jumps and increased agility, allow you to traverse the city with a free-flowing parkour style, while powers such as teleportation and a rat shape-shifting ability allows you to access areas otherwise impossible to reach. These supernatural powers sit alongside a range of other abilities such as bullet-time and more offense-based powers that allow you to use sorcery in a similar vein to Dark Messiah Might And Magic - another top tier title that Arkane Studios has previously worked on.
The Chaos system serves to compliment each player’s style too, and depending on whether you side with stealth or combat, the branching storyline arcs in that direction and the gameplay follows suit. This might, for example, make for a more aggressive enemy A.I. if you try and blast your way through. However, the latest gameplay demo really shows Dishonored’s strength as a stealth game, with a lot of sneaking around in the shadows and watching enemy A.I. behaviour before sneaking past unnoticed or committing a stealth kill. The influence of Dark Messiah Of Might and Magic is clear when indulging directly in combat, but creeping across roof-tops and working out the best way to break into the fortified mansion is more in line with the brilliant Thief series.
Dishonored is still early in its development phase, but what we’ve seen so far is encouraging. The Half Life 2 inspired locations, the sneaky Thief-style gameplay, and the hard-hitting visual spectacle of the Dark Messiah of Might and Magic-type sorcery looks to be a great combination. It’s also going to be interesting whether the rats that flood the city streets and play an integral role in the game bring something different to the genre, or just out to be plain annoying.