The world of gaming owes a great debt to sci-fi author William Gibson. As the author of Neuromancer and coiner of the term ‘cyberspace’, he helped create cyberpunk, that high-tech/low-life species of sci-fi that encompasses everything from Blade Runner to The Matrix, and as the co-author of The Difference Engine he created steampunk, the kind of sci-fi in which robots and spaceships run on clockwork and steam, and everyone wears a hat.
The game designer Harvey Smith has obviously read a bit of William Gibson: early games such as System Shock and Deus Ex are pure cyberpunk, with their hacker heroes and neon-lit megacities, and his latest triumph, Dishonored, is pure steampunk. In the port city of Dunwall, everything runs on whale oil, aristocrats summon servants using bell-pulls, and most people have either a hat, or a moustache, or both.
Atmosphere and setting
There is, however, very little that’s cheesy or clumsy about Dishonored’s steampunk aesthetic. So much time has been spent on the design of the city and its inhabitants that Dunwall feels believable, cohesive and, best of all, genuinely original. Even if the gameplay wasn’t any good, this would still be a game worth playing to marvel at the work done by designer Viktor Antonov (who also designed City 17 for Half-Life 2) and his team.
Where the setting and characters are original, the plot is fairly by-the-numbers stuff – you’re the Empress’s chief bodyguard, you get framed for her murder, you set out to clear your name. What makes Dishonored special is the level of detail: the books, letters and diaries you can read (a very Deus Ex touch), the big environments to explore, the characters to talk to. And the plot does hold a couple of nice, believable twists.
Thankfully, the gameplay ranks among the best stealth games we’ve ever played. It’s Deus Ex with a crossbow – you sneak past guards, steal from safes, creep along ledges and drop like a cat on your enemies, silently knocking them unconscious and hiding their bodies in stairwells. Just as in Deus Ex, there are multiple paths through every level and you can choose to go in guns blazing if you like, but open combat is difficult.
At normal difficulty a couple of swipes from a sword and a single bullet will finish you off, so the emphasis is on taking out the guards one by one. If you’re the type of gamer that likes to ‘ghost’ their way through a level, completing the assassination without ever being seen, then Dishonored is made for you.
You can complete the entire game without killing anyone, discrediting your enemies rather than killing them, which is an excellent challenge (then again, a couple of them really are asking for it). Our only niggle is that experienced stealthers might find it a trifle easy, so we’d recommend playing it on Hard difficulty.
Powers and abilites
Early in the game, you’re given supernatural powers by the mysterious Outsider, a slightly camp man in a purple jacket who has none of the gravitas a supernatural entity should have. He does give you some pretty sweet abilities, though, such as stopping time, teleportation over short distances (which is extremely useful but well managed, so it doesn’t make the game too easy) and possession of animals and people (if you get enough power-giving Runes). Our favourite, however, is Dark Swarm, which lets you summon a horde of man-eating rats. Nasty.
All in all, this is a really superb game: it has originality, depth and intelligence, but it also pleases with superb gameplay. If you’re a Deus Ex fan, you’ll be all over it like Barry White on a waterbed full of hamburgers. Top marks and a spot in our ten best games list.
Tested on: Xbox 360