I've been afraid to write about Dishonored. For weeks after I saw a guided demo in a room with other game journalists, I've looked at my notes and thought, Everything I have to say is negative. I don't want to be negative. It's too soon to be negative.
So this is me staying positive.
Dishonored is a new, original franchise from Arkane Studios, but it's the work of its lead designers, Harvey Smith and Raf Colantonio, that give a hint to the new game's direction: Thief, Deus Ex 2, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic-these guys like intricate, multilayered first-person shooters.
Good on them for launching an entirely new franchise in an entirely new world. Even if Dishonored's gameplay is a mishmash of previous ideas, even old stories told in new conceptual worlds are welcome.
And it's a heck of a new world, even if it's ever so slightly goofy. Hold early 19th century British Isles in your head, with the coast's oiled slickers and London's gas lamps, then flood the rest of the planet with ocean until only England remains. That's Dishonored's world, except it's not technically England, even if everyone has a British accent and seems to dress in semi-Edwardian garb.
It's the sort of idea that doesn't hold together if left alone. It's too simple. Thankfully, Dishonored's designers kept going, imagining what a solitary set of islands on a vast ocean world might actually be like.
Surrounded by vast, dark oceans, The Isles (yup) civilisation is powered by oil. But not oil from dead beasts who died millions of years before, but fresh, slippery oil boiled fresh from the corpses of the giant cetaceans who rule the surround seas. An alternate history of the British Isles? Boring. An isolated Imperial civilisation based entirely around whale oil? Love it. ("BLUBBER CLUB NO FLUB; WHALE TALE CURTAILS FAIL")
Still, the setting is… weird. Arkane Studios (and publisher Bethesda) have made much ado about the art direction of Viktor Antonov, best known for his concept work on Half-Life 2. (He basically created the look of that game's City 17.) It shows. While the architecture of Dishonored's city, Dunwall, is largely what you'd expect to see a century ago in London or Edinburgh, there are also hostile installations that look more-or-less exactly like something that would appear in Half-Life's near-future City 17. Towers with sloping metal plate. Men on spindle-legged mechanised suits. Men in pea coats wielding cutlasses against laser turrets. Object-enemies which appear to be cameras or robots of some sort, with the same ornate overlapping aileron look as the robots in Bay's Transformers.
It kind of makes no sense? It's not steampunk, per se. It's not near future (because it's not our real timeline). It's just… incongruous.
But I'm staying positive! So I'll say this: It's definitely a different feel than most of the first-person experiences out there today. Only Bioshock nudges into the same visual space, with a little of the original comic look of From Hell for kicks.
The gameplay is what really… stay positive!… intrigues, though. In short, it's sort of everything ever, a million gameplay ideas cribbed from every first-person game of the last decade. There is magic that affects time. There are ranged weapons and melee attacks. There is an ability to summon a rat which you can incarnate, run through drainage pipes up into a home, and then swap places with. (It makes sense as a gameplay mechanism more than it does a practical ability.)
The idea, as I can reckon, is to create a palette of gameplay options, rather than strongly try to denote clear pathways or archetypes for the player. Someone had an interview with Harvey Smith that I can't find at the moment -- I think it might have been Rock, Paper, Shotgun? -- in which he described a test player stopping time, firing six arrows toward six targets (the arrows hung in place), then starting time to watch all six enemies eat serious fletching. That wasn't a planned or taught attack from the designers, just something that sprang organically as the player assembled his attack from the tools at hand.
It's gameplay as a modular system, a sort of interactive scripting language for action. (Hey, they should call it Actionscript!) That's compelling, but it has the whiff of "Our gameplay has more widgets than your gameplay", which may appeal to our neckbeardy tendencies, but won't necessarily sell the average player who doesn't have time or patience to discover emergent play. The closer Dishonored gets to a kitchen sink simulation, the more challenging it will be for Arkane to make the game approachable.
But Dishonored isn't a sandbox game and in that there is hope. Not that there's anything wrong with sandbox games, but a branching, mission-based plot system allows for a steady drip of new abilities at a pace everyone will find digestible. (On the other hand, handing out new abilities to the player too slowly will impede creativity, just like the lack of high-level logic commands early in Final Fantasy XII's behaviour system discouraged people from tinkering with what could have been a powerful engagement mechanism.)
It's hard to say yet what Dishonored will be. It's a game both confident enough in its ideas to keep its play ideas amorphous, but still entirely too much of a pastiche of its forebears in every way from setting to experience to leave me sanguine. Dishonored reminds me a bit of a rock and roll supergroup with an overambitious debut: someone might have to tell Jack Bruce that this is still going to mostly be a lead guitar album. (Or to put it in a way that those of you not conceived in the head of a recently docked liberty ship might understand: Dishonored may need less cowbell.)
Dishonored's got a long time in the studio ahead of it, though, so it's hardly time to fret.
And whale oil! A society of whalers! It's enough to make a man forget that whale oil doesn't let a sneakthief transmogrify at will through the body of a rat and that a society with lasers typically lays down their swords and picks up their lightsabers.