E3 2012: Dishonored Hands-On Preview

By Jordan Douglas on June 11, 2012, 1:33AM EDT
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Arkane Studios' original property Dishonored - which brings together developers from Deus Ex, Thief, BioShock and Half-Life - was one of the hot commodities heading into E3. We saw a guided demo showcasing different approaches - stealth and action, in this case - players have at their disposal, then played another level to put Arkane's promise of player freedom to the test. After experiencing all of that, it's safe to say Dishonored is on the right track, and should be on your radar when it comes out this fall.

The world of Dishonored takes place within the intriguing context of the Neo-Victorian, or alternative Industrial Revolution-inspired city of Dunwall, whichever you prefer. Needless to say, it's a period not typically explored in games, which immediately makes me eager to jump into protagonist Corvo Atano's mysterious world. Beyond that introductory note, our demo didn't delve into Dishonored's narrative too much, instead focusing on the various powers and options each mission presents.

Before getting into the varying ways Dishonored can be played, let's quickly go over the basics. This is a first-person game, but beyond that... it's difficult to pin down with genre labels. Dishonored features shooting mechanics, brutal melee combat, stealth elements and a linear progression of miniature sandbox levels, so it's in the realm of a Deus Ex or BioShock. In addition, players can change abilities, and thereby, play-styles on the fly by pulling up the power wheel, a la Mass Effect and many others. It's a clever combination of influences, one which still allows for Dishonored to have a unique personality - the game's impressively crisp, stylized cartoonish art style also helps add to that.

Arkane demonstrated this emphasis on choice by running through the assassination mission, which took place about a third of the way into the campaign, twice. First, by remaining entirely undetected, followed by an action-oriented route where Corvo stubbornly refused to take prisoners.

The stealth playthrough required Corvo to skillfully maneuver around an industrial courtyard / complex, avoiding a series of guard patrols along the way. This could be done a number of ways using mind-bending abilities. For starters, he could teleport short distances - in between cover and onto high vantage points - by making use of the Blink power. Corvo could also choose to possess other humans and briefly use their identities to pass security checkpoints. Finally, the environment could be used to discreetly eliminate enemies. In this case, Corvo was able to find a hidden valve, which subsequently activated a steam room and cooked his target alive.

After that gruesome encounter, Arkane reloaded the level to show how those same objectives could be completed using a Call of Duty-esque, balls-to-the-wall approach. This time, instead of using Blink and Possession to avoid attention, Corvo pulled out a crossbow and pistol, then proceeded to stop time to easily dispense with the guards. When engaged in combat, Corvo must combine attacks and defensive blocks to survive. Of course, these powers have limits, so they must be used judiciously. The Dishonored demo also unlocked every ability in the game for dramatic effect, which won't be the case in your living room.

Finally, it was time for us to get our hands on the game. I ended up spending most of my roughly 15 minutes or so experimenting with the numerous aforementioned powers in Corvo's tool kit. The controls were fairly easy to pick up and the realtime wheel mechanic has become a tried-to-true way to quickly adapt to your situation, which are both positive signs. That being said, it's always a bit overwhelming when you're thrown into the deep end of such a complex game, so I didn't progress very far toward my objective. Playing around with the powers made it tough to tell whether Dishonored's promised freedom will hold up over the course of multiple missions, but the game seems firmly pointed in the right direction.

Bottom line: I was impressed with Dishonored and am looking forward to seeing much more from Arkane over the coming months. You'll get a chance to check out Dishonored for yourself when it hits store shelves on October 9th for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.

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