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Dishonored review: Story-driven role-playing

Dishonored is that rare RPG that makes role-playing the game, not the number crunching or the desire to create the ideal build or get that epic piece of gear. Arkane Studios has crafted a story-driven masterpiece that defies convention and is worthy of the title of classic.

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The challenge for a developer creating a game is to build a bond with the player, the kind of bond where the player as protagonist not only believes in the mission of his alter ego, but cares about the characters in the game on an emotional level. The story is the essence of any good RPG, and the developer must allow the player to feel the character's anger, frustration, joy or any of the myriad emotions through that story. A great RPG builds a trust with the player and demands that role-playing be the game. And for that reason, Arkane Studios' Dishonored is a great RPG. My emotions drove my style of game play as the bodyguard Corvo, falsely accused of killing a beloved Empress and my friend. I started with the mindset that clearing my name was secondary to finding those that killed her and kidnapped her daughter, the future monarch that I had watched grow up in my time as their bodyguard. I began play in a non-lethal fashion, fully unaware that what I was about to experience went well beyond the traditional point-and-click RPGs. Many RPGs rely on an arbitrary experience point system to get you skills that are eventually theory-crafted to death to create the best build to take down the big bad boss at the end. Dishonored is quite content to let you play without any powers or modified gear. I could have conceivably finished the game using stealth and my wits and be no stronger than when I started. You do not start the game with powers, as the Outsider comes early in the game to bestow the ability to learn them. To gain these supernatural powers, you must find runes, with a certain number of runes required to "buy" a power. Perhaps the most useful is blink, which allows you to teleport a short distance in any direction. Why kill 10 enemies when you can blink up to a ledge and go around them? Bone charms can also be found, which give you minor abilities such as increased mana or health. You can even upgrade your gear at the end of a mission if you find enough money along the way. This is one of Dishonored main strengths. The concept of abilities and game mechanics do not get in the way of the story or experience. Items you find along the way -- health potions, crossbow bolts, or even coins -- are essentially a bonus that makes any given mission easier to complete. You do not need any of them. What you do need is a creativity and a cleverness to circumvent the obstacles thrown at you and Dishonored gives you numerous ways to do that if you are patient enough to find them. Even listening to the idle banter of guards or the locals can give you clues to accomplishing tasks. Make no mistake, though: Dishonored is an unforgiving game, and you need to save often. The AI is incredibly intelligent. Leaving a body in plain sight will alert other guards. Noises or even your footsteps can put guards in a greater state of awareness, forcing you to hide for a while until things settle down. Distraction and misdirection are your friend here and the sooner you get into that mentality, the easier a mission can be. The intelligence of the guards and the general populace makes for a much more believable role-playing experience.

A beautiful setting, with an ugly underside that needed cleansing.

All of this ties back into the experience. At every turn, I found myself trying to elude discovery. At times I wasn't successful, forcing myself to kill the city guard. I actually felt remorse in the beginning, because my goal was non-lethal. But as the story evolved, and the key pieces of the depth of Dunwall's corruption became clearer, I could feel my anger rise. The non-lethal approach wasn't as important anymore, and I was creating chaos wherever I went. I wanted my enemies to be afraid of me, and Dishonored plans for that. The more chaos I created, the more guards there were, and the more obstacles I had to overcome. About half-way through the story, I was leaving bodies everywhere, and I knew I was making things more difficult for myself, but I didn't care. The story that Arkane has crafted – with various twists that constantly had me on my guard – had me so invested in saving the Empress's daughter that I cared about nothing else, or anyone that stood in my way, friend or foe. There were even instances where I did not kill intended targets if leaving them alive would humiliate them more. Near the end of the game, I had a character tell me that he didn't like what I had become and he planned to warn people of my approach. I killed my one-time friend before he could. I had become that ruthless. I'm sure that, if I had stuck to my original plan of non-lethality, the scene would have played differently, but again, I didn’t care. This is not a way I usually play this type of game, mind you. I am almost always the lawful do-gooder that tries to do the right thing by everybody, including the bad guys. But there was something about the way the story was presented that changed all that. A game that can make you alter your traditional style of play is the essence of role-playing, forcing you to come to grips with the morality of your actions and admitting it didn't matter because the stakes were too high.

I didn't have to kill the Pendleton brothers, but I wanted to.

Granted, the game is not without its flaws. There are a couple of back-to-back missions mid-game that offer little guidance on what you should do or where you should go, and it is easy to get lost. It was the one time in the game where I dropped out of character and became frustrated. There are no maps that help you locate where you are. As good as the story is, and as prevalent as information is for back story and local flavor via books and journals littered throughout missions, there are a few plot points that could have used a bit more explanation. But minor flaws aside, by the time the end credits rolled, I was emotionally exhausted and simultaneously stunned that a game could change the way I have always played. Dishonored is that rare game that takes the best of suspense novels and action movies and crafts them into the interactive experience. There is no need for number crunching or debates over ideal character builds. It is role-playing at its story-driven finest and Arkane has created a formula worth emulating.
This Dishonored review was based on a digital PC version of the game provided by the publisher.
Contributing Editor

From The Chatty

  • reply
    October 7, 2012 9:01 PM

    John Keefer posted a new article, Dishonored review: Story-driven role-playing.

    Dishonored is that rare RPG that makes role-playing the game, not the number crunching or the desire to create the ideal build or get that epic piece of gear. Arkane Studios has crafted a story-driven masterpiece that defies convention and is worthy of the title of classic.

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      October 7, 2012 9:04 PM

      This sounds like a must-play for me.

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      October 7, 2012 9:06 PM

      goddamn. this and xcom are gonna own me.

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      October 7, 2012 9:34 PM

      Sounds awesome.

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      October 7, 2012 9:50 PM

      Nice review!

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      October 7, 2012 9:52 PM

      Excellent review! Can't wait to get my hands on the game.

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      October 7, 2012 10:18 PM

      I didn't care or know anything about this game until now. Time to buy!

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      October 7, 2012 10:18 PM

      The AI is incredibly intelligent. Leaving a body in plain sight will alert other guards. Noises or even your footsteps can put guards in a greater state of awareness, forcing you to hide for a while until things settle down.


      - please retract the Line "The AI is incredibly intelligent"
      per, the contradiction between "intelligent ai" and just hiding for x time until ai stops looking

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        October 7, 2012 10:26 PM

        You might have missed a dose of meds. Please go take them.

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          October 8, 2012 1:53 AM

          To be fair the example features given were in the very first games in the genre, so they arent exactly breakthroughs.

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            October 8, 2012 8:22 AM

            Wasn't hiding bodies and whatnot in the first two or three Splinter Cells? I think you could hide bodies in Metal Gear Solid as well.

            • Ebu
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              October 8, 2012 9:14 AM

              THIEF 1

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            October 8, 2012 8:26 AM

            You're right, I just cant stand the sperglord in-comment copy editing. The line was an opinion. The 'UGH. PLEASE RETRACT THIS OPINION' bs just pisses me off.

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              October 8, 2012 2:15 PM

              A lot more polite than "take your meds." OP had valid point, I thought it was a strange superlative also.

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      October 7, 2012 10:28 PM

      Sounds like what happened to me in deus ex: human revolution.

      Play super stealth up until they tried to kill pilot lady and then fuck the subterfuge, motherfuckers needed to die.

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      October 7, 2012 10:35 PM

      One thing that got me is how good the AI's peripheral vision is, and how they will walk one way and turn their head to look around. I can see myself getting undone from that quite a few times... and I love it.

      Seems like a mix between Thief and Bioshock with some City 17 steampunk fun thrown in. Roll on Thursday.

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      October 8, 2012 1:17 AM

      saw the IGN video review. Looks like I will be buying this.

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        October 8, 2012 1:44 AM

        General impressions from reviews seems to be great, with some caveats that seem to vary from reviewer to reviewer. PCG said is gets more constrained later on, EuroGamer disliked that you can't replay missions and controls can be tricky (maybe they played on Xbox).

        I still can't wait to play this.

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          October 8, 2012 2:16 AM

          You can definitely replay missions.

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            October 8, 2012 3:24 AM

            They did seem pretty silly complaints TBH. The PC Gamer criticism strikes me as more interesting and well observed.

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      October 8, 2012 5:29 AM

      You use the term RPG a lot in there, and nothing I've seen makes this look like an RPG. It seems like anything not Call of Duty or a racing game is labeled RPG these days. I mean in a really broad way Rock Band is a role playing game, but it isn't an RPG. The problem is I can tell when something isn't an RPG, but I can't define what makes one. Did I mention RPG? Are pee jee! This looks like Thief, not Mass Effect or The Witcher.

      That said, I haven't played it yet, so maybe there is a ton of conversation gameplay I don't know about existing in there.

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        October 8, 2012 5:45 AM

        Don't get caught up in the letters. It's role playing. I could choose my style of play and getting through the missions was as much about being creative and thinking through your actions as it was accomplishing the goal. There were a few places where you could choose dialogue options but I felt I was actually able to become the character and play my way without it boiling down to a diablo or WoW-style experience.

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          October 8, 2012 5:50 AM

          It's one of those nerdy things that I hang up on, even though I don't want to. I'll be getting it at some point, but between work being bananas lately, and Borderlands eating my time when I can play it might be awhile.

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          October 8, 2012 7:37 AM

          There may be roleplay in the game, but using the term RPG in the context of a game review implies genre conventions that will confuse people. I'm not exactly sure what the right term would be.

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            October 8, 2012 8:43 AM

            Probably action-adventure?

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              October 8, 2012 12:32 PM

              Sounds like that to me.

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        October 8, 2012 7:23 AM

        This stuck out to me as well. The letters "RPG" are all throughout this review, and that was the most surprising thing about this review. I never really thought about this game as an RPG, but as you say, I haven't played it either.

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          October 8, 2012 8:44 AM

          a Really Polished Game.

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            October 8, 2012 10:17 AM

            In which case Obsidian has never actually released an RPG?


            just kidding... love their games...

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          October 8, 2012 10:48 AM

          As I said it the review, playing through the game gave me an actual feeling of my old pen & paper RPG days where you would assume the persona of a character and interact with the DM not so much in dialogue, but more in "I do this and this" and the DM tells you the consequences. And you don't have to use any powers or do any upgrades at all. To me the truest sense of an role-playing is customizing the experience for the player and letting them choose how to play

          There is so much overlap in genres these days and I think Dishonored breaks a lot of conventions of those genres. It IS an RPG, but it is also Action, and Adventure. Genre definitions aside, the game is excellent and had me emotionally invested in an outcome that I was helping create.

          Of course, Harvey said the team never thought of the game as Steapunk either, but he sees why people could label it that.

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            October 8, 2012 2:04 PM

            I hear what you are saying and I agree. Your logic is sound, it's just that the term "RPG" has a kind of baggage associated with it. It has come to mean something other than what the literal definition of the phrase implies. But, no biggie, it was a great review and it sounds like an excellent game. Can't wait to check it out.

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              October 8, 2012 2:19 PM

              I think we're seeing this as a natural consequence of game writing gradually getting better and technology and design allowing for more RPG-like mechanics in games that are not traditional CRPGs. More games are getting stories more sophisticated than "evil bads need to be shot inna face", more games are making player choice more significant in the stories, and more games are integrating character advancement aspects. The result is that you can validly say you are role playing in a game that would not have been considered an RPG ten years ago.

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        October 8, 2012 10:42 AM

        I have to agree.

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        October 8, 2012 10:45 AM

        i'm going to agree as well. by keef's reasoning, all games are RPGs because you're assuming the role of another character to play through a story.

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          October 8, 2012 10:53 AM

          I think that is taking it a bit too far, as there were other elements that factored in. I would never call DOOM or the Longest Journey RPGs. But I think there is room for plenty of discussion that the convention of genre as we know it today is blurred a lot more. But I don't want that discussion to take away from what is arguably the best game of the year so far for me.

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          October 8, 2012 10:57 AM

          Normally RPG implies levelling up, stats, equipment.

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            October 8, 2012 11:24 AM

            People have weirdly defined away all the traditional RPG elements as archaic (indirect control, stats based combat) and other genres have stolen everything else (progression, create-a-character).

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              October 8, 2012 11:46 AM

              The concept of genres in video games is pretty much outdated since we have the technology to combine all the key features of any genre you can imagine into one game.

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                October 8, 2012 12:25 PM

                You could say the same about literature (every combination of tragedy-drama-horror-satire-etc. has been tried at some point) but I still think 'RPG' is a meaningful term, at least as an antithesis to 'action game'.

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        October 8, 2012 11:24 AM

        I knew I had seen this somewhere and it seems appropriate now. Harvey Smith interviewing Gary Gygax in 2002 (the interview was about LA Online, but both question and answer apply to our discussion here) -- http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/2934/the_dungeon_master_an_interview_.php :

        Harvey: RPG's often split people into several camps, sometimes polarized between those players more interested in interactive storytelling and those players more interested in killing monsters and collecting treasure. There're also people who play for the interesting tactical challenges, seeing the game as an extended board game. (deleted specific questions about LA Online)

        Gary: Insightful, that question, and allow me comment on it a bit before answering.

        I do not, and I stress NOT, believe that the RPG is "storytelling" in the way that is usually presented. If there is a story to be told, it comes from the interaction of all participants, not merely the Game Master--who should not a "Storyteller" but a narrator and co-player! The players are not acting out roles designed for them by the GM, they are acting in character to create the story, and that tale is told as the game unfolds, and as directed by their actions, with random factors that even the GM can't predict possibly altering the course of things. Storytelling is what novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights do. It has little or no connection to the RPG, which differs in all aspects from the entertainment forms such authors create for.

        As false to the game form as the pre-scripted "story," is play that has little more in it than seek and destroy missions, vacuous effort where the participants fight and kill some monster so as to gain more power and thus be able to look for yet more potent opponents in a spiral that leads nowhere save eventual boredom. So pure hack and slash play is anathema to me too.

        Tactical, and strategic, play is a fine addition to the RPG, and if it is in-character, something I see as desirable, In this category fall such things as exploration, economics, politics, and even intrigue.


        I think this fits Dishonored perfectly, especially the last sentence.

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      October 8, 2012 5:42 AM

      Looks like I need to buy this.

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      October 8, 2012 7:21 AM

      This game sounds awesome. I don't really need another game but I'm not sure I can't miss this one.

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      October 8, 2012 10:33 AM

      The reviews have been quite positive. Somehow it flew under my radar and didn't know it released. Thx for the review.

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      October 8, 2012 11:26 AM

      Bought it at GMG for $45. Pre-loaded and ready to go. After I played Mark of the Ninja, I realized I am a stealth game fanatic. That game captured me like few have in recent memory. I decided I couldn't live without more quality stealth action in my life.

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        October 8, 2012 12:31 PM

        wait arent you british? i was about to buy retail because the game is cheaper and i would have to wait until the 12th anyway. did you use a proxy? because it that works i will fucking buy the game there now.

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          October 8, 2012 12:40 PM

          I'm in the US. GMG's got a 25% coupon for all PC downloads. Used Paypal (because my credit card balked at first last time I used it with GMG), got the steam code, and activated it. Done deal.

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            October 8, 2012 12:54 PM

            meh, i tried to trick the site with modified headers and a proxy, neither of which worked (steatlhy and modheaders failed). MEH i say!

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      October 8, 2012 12:30 PM

      Keefer: "who wants to review dishonored?"

      *raises own hand*

      Keefer: "keefer's got it!"

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      October 8, 2012 2:19 PM

      What's the story like? What's the voice acting like? I don't want to read any kind of spoiler or nuffink

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        October 8, 2012 4:43 PM

        I thoroughly enjoyed the story, even though a few spots were predictable. It was easy to get immersed in everything that was happening. I thought the voice acting was well done as well. Carrie Fisher is the Broadcaster heard in the background on the loudspeakers spouting Dunwall propaganda and news. Susan Saradon plays Granny Rags, a cool character that is not totally part of the main story line. It was a pretty stellar voice cast and the script for them was pretty good.

        But that's just me ...

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          October 9, 2012 12:57 PM

          Sold! Purchased and pre-loading :-D

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      October 9, 2012 1:31 AM

      This game looks like TimeCreed.

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      October 11, 2012 8:35 AM

      Just wanted to say, this review convinced me to get the game. Hearing that the story and gameworld made you change your playthrough is a rarity, I only ever did that with Witcher 2 where I never bothered trying reloading a save to get a different decision because I was content living with the consequences.