Bethesda Softworks has had a bit of a patchy history when it comes to its broader portfolio, outside the strength of Elder Scrolls and Fallout. However, Arkane Studios? Dishonored - a first-person action-adventure that puts you in the shoes of a supernatural assassin in a steampunk city - could well be the game to change all of that. It?s looking absolutely delicious.
Set in a world not unlike Earth (but definitely NOT Earth, apparently - even though Arkane has said the environments are heavily inspired by Victorian London and Edinburgh), during a time of industrial revolution and a populace that is dying of a terrible plague, Dishonored
provides a juxtaposition of technological wonder and incredible poverty. The latter is handed down by a tyrant that has decided to take over the kingdom in these uncertain times.
Someone has to take a stand to the status quo, bridge the divide between the wealthy and the poor, and place the rightful heir to the kingdom back on the throne. That someone is you, and to do this you need to skulk around the city streets and kill a laundry list of high profile targets to reach the top of this political corruption.
While Arkane has said its inspirations in design lie solely within steampunk, there is a clear influence of cyberpunk and other similar cultural themes. Classic 1980s-era city design is highlighted with both larger-than-life clockwork-inspired mechanical design, while vehicles take on a more metallic, technological form. Regardless, this mashup works incredibly well, and the presentation is both colourful and full of character.
You?re not given an open world to play around with here. Instead, a directed narrative is told through a series of campaign missions. But, that doesn?t mean to say that the game isn?t ?open? at all - Arkane said that it has implemented a whole heap of branching pathways, alternative routes and different abilities that will help you tackle a given objective any way you want to.
There will be consequences to all that will become apparent as you progress through the story, but in a more immediate sense your actions also change the order and areas in which you journey through in which to reach your targets. I was shown a lengthy example in a mission about a third of the way through the game.
Your task is to infiltrate the Golden Cat bath house and assassinate two brothers who own a local mine - who also happen to be corrupt members of parliament. But, depending on what you did prior to this particular mission, you could be approaching the Golden Cat from the alleyways, the rooftops or the nearby riverbank. Each allows for a different kind of gameplay approach.
You could try the stealthy approach - it involves sneaking down streets, hiding in shadows to cloak yourself from enemy sights and leaning around corners to peek on guards and watch their activity. There are as many as eight or nine different ways inside the bath house, I?m told, but when being quiet perhaps the best way in is using a window - be it to simply open and climb inside, or to use the open window pane as a platform to reach a higher room.
You?ve got a whole range of abilities that can be used to help you in your mission. Blink allows you to pick a location in front of you and warp forward to that position in a flash. In stealth, it can be used to blip past enemy guards that would otherwise spot you.
Possession can be cast on any creature in the area - be it a rat, fellow guard or even a fish - and naturally gives you the ability to take control of them. In this stealth example, a rat was possessed and used to sneak into a vent in the garden area in order to eavesdrop on a bunch of female ?workers? about the whereabouts of one of your targets.
Other abilities, such as Dark Vision, enhance your capabilities, like being able to see through walls and enemy sight lines. These can all be combined to create deadly and cool effects. Blink behind an enemy so they don?t notice your footsteps, and slit their throat, for example. Possess your target, get them to stand up, walk out to the balcony, and chuck themselves off into the rocky abyss below. There are all sorts of things you can do to ensure your victims? deaths look like an accident.
But, if you want to stop with the stealth approach mid-way, that?s absolutely fine too. Arkane was keen to stress that there is no straightforward ?stealth path? or ?kill path.? If you decide to go down the ?stealth? route, it doesn?t mean that you shouldn?t break out of cover and bust some heads every now and then if you get a little trigger-happy. And the same applies the other way around - if you want to blast your way inside the bath house, but then decide that a sneakier tactic is appropriate once in, you can do that too.
How you take out your targets is also up to you. One, Custis Pemberton, was sat in his own little booth with a bath house lady. During the demo, our assassin decided to hide outside on the balcony, possess Custis and walk him to the balcony. At which point, to the confusion of the lady inside, our hero used a Wind Blast ability to slam him over and into a rocky grave.
The other target, Custis? brother Morgan, resided in the Steam Room - his end could be met by either finding a Master Key to unlock the Steam Room and kill him outright; venture through some vents Solid Snake style; or sneak into the Steam Valve room next door and put the pressure on Morgan whilst trapping him in his boiling hell. As well as making things look accidental, you can also coerce targets to kill each other. Custis and Morgan move from room to room over time as well, meaning you have to adapt your plan wherever they happen to be.
I was shown a second playthrough of the same mission, albeit with a much more violent approach to the proceedings. Oh, and how violent it is. Run up to unsuspecting guards and slit throats. Unleash Spring Razor booby traps that whips enemies with razor wire and slices them to pieces. Abilities that allow you to unleash the plague on foes and be covered in a swarm of rats. And of course, the ability you might have seen in the trailer - bend time so that you can pause your surroundings, take shots and move away from enemy fire. It?s delightfully gory when you want it to be.
A third playthrough saw the assassin approach the Golden Cat from the river banks, where dead bodies diseased from the plague are unceremoniously dumped like a garbage tip. Tall Boys - large enemy guards on stilts that protect the city from plagued civilians - walk these parts of the streets armed with rockets and fire arrows. I was shown a rather intense battle with several of these guys, in dilapidated city streets bathed in striking white light.
With a promised wealth of alternative stories, missions and features to see, Dishonored
is already shaping up to be one of the most exciting-looking games of the year. If playing the game is anywhere near as enticing as watching it, this has the potential to be something very special indeed. Keep an eye on this one.