Thieves cannot die the death of heroes. Life is the thief’s profit, after it come terrors. — Thieves have the right to be afraid of death.
— Friedrich Schiller, The Robbers
With Ultima Underworld, System Shock and Deus Ex all having received modern adaptations (Arx Fatalis, BioShock and Deus Ex: Human Revolution respectively), it was about time that we got one for the remaining Looking Glass classic, Thief: The Dark Project. But as great as it is to see certain aspects of Thief reappear in Dishonored, so much of what comes with it is such a bland, uninspired mess that despite it being the closest thing to a new Thief game in years, it just isn’t good enough. Better to play something actually inspired by Thief, not cloning it. Better to play a Far Cry. It’s such a shame because from time to time, the basic first-person stealth manages to be just good enough to briefly recapture that same feeling of total immersion from the original stealth classics. But it struggles to maintain it for long, failing to live up to the high standards set by its predecessors. Nor does it even attempt to reach beyond them. For all the criticism it gets, at least Thief: Deadly Shadows tried to push the series forward. Not being anywhere near as cursed by technical limitations, Dishonored dials back the ambition and settles for being little more than a functional piece of Looking Glass / Ion Storm nostalgia.
The first misstep in Dishonored’s unfortunate outcome came from casting the player as a supernatural assassin. Now there’s a good reason why the best stealth games do not do anything like this. Games like Hitman, Thief, and Splinter Cell all have you playing as fairly average people, skill-wise. They have no special powers. No great abilities beyond perhaps a slightly better than average chance of remaining unseen. This allows us, as players, to slip into these roles more naturally. Much more so than were it a pure action game. This essential contract promises a world where we, as players, are not gods, maybe not even necessarily good people, but intruders. With this approach, the usual self-delusional design principles go out the window, resulting in games that are refocused on simulating environments that are actually worth spending time in. Which more often than not means environments that wouldn’t have us in them, i.e. hostile environments. Now even though this approach tends to incur more constraints upon players than the usual “anything goes” action game design, they end up synchronizing quite harmoniously with what we’d expect to have play out in reality, resulting in a deeper engagement that feels authentic, with none of the stink of the usual virtual shenanigans. Fundamentally, this is a higher level of VR game design (the lower of course dealing with technical solutions to simulator sickness, oculomotor issues, head-mounted displays, etc.). This was the key to all of Looking Glass’s innovations — tackling VR from a software angle.
Even so, Arkane has opted for a supernatural moveset that feels wildly out of place for players expecting a Thief-like experience. Now to be fair, all powers are optional, and it’s seldom necessary to use them (as the “Mostly Flesh And Steel” achievement reassures us). But if you do want a more action packed, BioShock-like playthrough, Dishonored’s got you covered. There’s enough depth to the combat systems and their interactions to keep most action gamers satisfied. The Dunwall City Trials DLC even comes with high score leaderboards and challenge maps for you to practice all your killer combos on forever and ever. Admittedly, it is kind of neat that you can manipulate guards into shooting themselves, or strap mines onto rats, or set off deadly chain reactions using nothing but a severed head. To a certain extent, it reminds me of Bulletstorm, which also shares some of the same lineage with Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. But I’m not interested in whatever extravagant carnage Dishonored has in store. I’m here to play the so-called Thief successor. And since most of the items and powers are used primarily for destroying whatever’s in your path, many become unusable on non-lethal playthroughs. With few exceptions, the Blink power and sleep darts are all you’ll be using, resulting in an inventory that feels quite bare-bones (but at least the DLC tries to fix this). In a game all about offering the player more interesting recovery options than quick-load, it never quite achieves this goal. Creative, on-the-fly improvisation doesn’t ever happen, and sadly the game devolves into boring routine about half-way through. It becomes a real struggle to play past the Flooded District mission. Alternating between playstyles can help, but besides fighting boredom, there is a better reason for supporting both lethal and non-lethal playstyles. Comparable to what was achieved in Deus Ex, it gives the player more ownership over his actions, knowing that he could have done something different but deliberately opted not to. Here, just as in everywhere else, it amounts to the bare minimum, but it’s such a powerful effect, even in its most watered-down form, that despite it looking like a AAA compromise to increase sales, the lethal options undoubtedly improve the game by extending the freedom suggested by the city environment into the mechanics. Who knows? Maybe even on account of this design, a few achievement hunters will get to find out what makes these games so compelling to begin with. Pure, hardcore stealth games tend to make bad impressions, so if you’re going to introduce stealth-heavy action games to a new generation, maybe Dishonored’s the way to do it.
Of all the moves, Blink was my favorite, functioning kind of like a hyper Tenchu grappling hook. It allows you to zip across the environment in a spectacular flash, and it’s really cool to be able to blink down from out of nowhere, choke out a guard, mount him over your shoulder, then disappear back into the unseen darkness above. It’s a uniquely satisfying feeling that almost justifies being a supernatural assassin. All of the other powers seem tacked on to flesh out an arsenal that didn’t need to be expanded. Superheroes don’t always need more than a single superpower. Dark Vision ends up being the other most useful power since it reveals enemy locations and vision cones, but since it reeks of modern game design principles, I couldn’t stomach the idea of using it, that is, until I adjusted the brightness to the recommended, i.e. barely visible symbol, setting. At which point, it can be used to help see in the dark a little. That’s all I needed it for, but Dark Vision wasn’t really meant for this. It’s primarily an X-ray vision mode. Even though the description for Dark Vision describes it as a way to see in the dark, it’s barely functional for that purpose. It would have been much better if it actually worked as “dark vision”, you know, like “vision” in the “dark”? Something more like Splinter Cell’s night vision goggles that only revealed enemy locations if upgraded (so I can opt out of the stupid part). Now all I have to do is turn the brightness up, and it becomes a totally useless power. It didn’t have to be. There’s also a heart item that you can use to point out the locations of runes and bone charms. This is great, especially when playing without objective markers, as it can help suggest directions to start exploring via an in-game item that can be put away at any time, like the Far Cry 2 map. But because runes and bone charms are the only things worth exploring for, if the heart ever tells you that there’s nothing more to find, it obliterates all exploration incentives. I also didn’t appreciate the way in which the heart is always making up lies about everyone you see.
Even when played non-lethally, the game is quite forgiving. If you do mess up (more often the result of a button prompt failing to trigger than anything else) a quick sleep dart is all you need to fix it. At least Arkane had the good sense to limit your supply, but since you’ll always have way more money than you can spend, it’s no big deal to just max out on darts before every mission, allowing up to a minimum of 10 mistakes per assassination. If you do somehow exhaust your supply, or if you’ve simply stopped caring, an instant melee strike can just as easily neutralize the threat (since you can melee at any time, the sword cannot be unequipped, resulting in dumb-looking dual wields, and the ridiculous image of Corvo clutching a sword he never uses for 99% of the game. Thankfully at one point, you lose your sword, and if you didn’t like having one, you never need to pick one up again). If for all that, you’ve still not managed to remedy the situation, Blink is very useful for disorienting guards, either by zipping right past them or vanishing to higher ground, where you’ll tend not to get noticed. Guards are notoriously bad at looking up or noticing anything above them. This might have been more acceptable if, say, you were creeping around on pipes and such in the dark, but here, you’re often quite well lit, even sometimes moving around in the plain light of day. At the recommended brightness level, it makes a little more sense aesthetically, at least when you’re in the shadows. But Arkane, who should have known better, decided to eliminate your ability to hide in the shadows at close range. Because of this, I’ve had soldiers directly below me magically spot me while I was creeping around in utter darkness, when even I couldn’t effectively see where I was going.
To make matters worse, the sound system has been dramatically simplified from Thief’s. You can no longer gauge the relative location of guards from their footsteps or any other noises they might be making. Footsteps are too quiet and surfaces don’t make any difference. All you can tell from their sounds is that they are in the area. Somewhere. And that they enjoy gathering for whiskey and cigars. There are certain acceptable ways of dealing with this lack of information. You can either scout from a distance using your mask’s magnifying lens. Or if you’re already in a building, you can peep through most doors’ keyholes to see what’s on the other side, similar to how you’d use Sam Fisher’s optic camera. Leaning also helps. But it’s not enough (I refuse to resort to wallhacking). Since you cannot reliably locate guards based on their sounds, you’re unable to ignore anything that you hear. A cough or a whistled tune might mean somebody’s upstairs. Or it might mean he’s right behind you. You can’t tell. It’s crazy how many times I’ve run into guards who’ve sounded far enough away not to worry about, only to trip over them a second later. If you’re someplace important and can’t just avoid the area entirely, there’s really only one good way of dealing with this. Eliminate them all.
But there’s a problem with that approach. It results in the all too common pseudo-win-state that sends the whole game tumbling down — a dead environment with no active guards. As soon as this happens, the game becomes ridiculous. It’s bad enough that the convenient rat plague has cleared the streets of nearly all activity. Add to this guards who can be permanently picked off with ease (especially if indulging in some of the lethal powers) and Dishonored starts to feel completely outdated. It’s hilarious how Arkane attempted to address this by having guards notice (or at least announce) when fellow guards disappear from their patrol routes. If they do decide to do something about it, rather than raise the alarm, or search for their friend, or do anything reasonable, they abandon their previous post and take over their missing friend’s route. But the thing is, I’ve already demonstrated that not only can I disappear guards from that route at will, but that I had a good reason for doing so. And so if another guard suddenly shows up on it, well then I’m going to have to take him out too. Sorry buddy, but instead of trying to cover for your friend, maybe you should have told someone that people are vanishing into thin air out here.
But are the assassinations any good at least? Well, sadly, no. No they’re not. They suffer from the game’s all too somber tone, lacking not only the playfulness of a good Hitman mission, but also the thrill of 47’s exquisitely executed hijinks. It’s no accident that the game’s most beloved mission, Lady Boyle’s Last Party, is the one most like Hitman. It’s also the only one in which you’ll be doing anything the slightest bit different than usual, making it feel fresh, exciting, and alive. The assassination business gets dull quick in Dunwall. Getting to see another, more extravagant, aspect of the city is a welcome vacation from the bleak underbelly I usually find myself crawling around in (note the all-important see-the-world theme of Hitman (2016)). At least Arkane had the cool idea to let you accomplish all assassinations non-lethally. Too bad so many of the non-lethal solutions end up being random, lame coincidences, but hey at least it’s kind of fun to find them and figure them out. It’s supposed to tie into the game’s chaos system, which alters the world based on how many people you kill. Spare enough people, and you get the canonical ending. Destroy everything in your path, and you’ll have to deal with more rats, zombies, and bad weather. Raise enough hell and near the end you’ll be treated to a moment of genuine role-playing. Would have been nice to have seen more stuff like that without having to play at such an extreme though. The low chaos ending is such a joke, it’s like it was lifted straight out of one of those Thief anti-walkthroughs.
If there’s one thing Dishonored does do right though, it’s its level design. Arkane has done a great job cramming an open city into the Unreal Engine with no obvious duplication and nothing feeling out of the place. It’s still broken up into loading zones like Human Revolution’s cities, but that’s only a minor annoyance. For the most part, it feels like a real city. One in which people live and go about their business. Or at least used to. And once you’ve unlocked Blink, the environment really opens up all around you, being filled with all sorts of interesting places to climb onto and zip over to. You seldom feel as if you’re being forced down any particular path, making traveling across the city a real delight, and from certain vantage points, the city can look quite stunning. It’s somewhat understandable then why the game doesn’t primarily take place at night, despite the plot emptying the streets as if it were. The environment artists must not have wanted all their hard work hidden in the dark. To enhance it even further, the game wonderfully allows you to disable most of the UI (everything except vial warnings). Even objective markers can be turned off, and to the game’s remarkable credit, I was able to complete the main game entirely without them (but I did have to turn them on a few times for the Brigmore Witches DLC). The character art isn’t nearly as noteworthy though, as the engine doesn’t quite seem capable of rendering the intended art style convincingly. Taking a look at the concept art, the designs seem solid enough. But unfortunately, in-game, some of these guys end up looking quite ugly.
But despite its shortcomings, if you loved Thief or Deus Ex or BioShock or have any fondness for games like these, you will find something to enjoy in Dishonored, be it either the stealth, the exploration, or the carnage. Or some combination thereof. It’s something of a miracle that Arkane didn’t have to resort to a Kickstarter campaign to make this game, even though it very much feels like a high-budget product of one (complete with knock-off setting, not-Garrett protagonist, and list of famous contributors). Here’s hoping that Bethesda continues to publish them. Given a few years of improvement, the Dishonored series could become something special. You could be far worse off than having Thief: The Dark Project blood in your veins.