IT'S not a question asked much these days, but have you seen many Errol Flynn movies? If so, you'll immediately get Dishonored; if not, let me explain. A Flynn movie is a simple device. Take the plot of Captain Blood: a period potboiler, it sees a wrongly accused Flynn framed for a crime he didn't commit and sold into slavery.
The hero masterminds his escape and rise to power as a pirate. Blood does a lot of thwarting and slaying of enemies, before a confrontation with his nemesis leads to his rehabilitation and re-entry into the establishment. A classic conservative revenge/morality tale, Captain Blood packed out movie houses in the 1930s. Why? Because it has a story and character arc still being taught in Hollywood script-writing classes today.
Likewise, Dishonored - from Bethesda Softworks, the people who brought you Skyrim and Fallout - provides a crafted, old-fashioned romp, and we all love a bit of that ... despite the cliches. It also comes with a beautiful aesthetic: steampunk Victoriana, set in an imaginary city with a mid-1800s, cholera-infected London feel.
You play Corvo, chief imperial bodyguard. Within minutes of the game opening, Corvo is fitted up for the murder of the empress, imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death. He escapes and begins his quest to discover the real identity of the assassin and clear his name. So far, so Flynn.
But it is not the plot or styling which make Dishonored work. Readers will know that we bang on here a lot about narrative in games – the need to rise to the level of film and literature in storytelling. Dishonored does a not-bad job, reaching a fairly standard B-movie grade, with the added bonus of stars like Susan Sarandon and Brad Dourif providing voice talent. What sets it head and shoulders above all other releases this year – and puts it in contention for game of the year – is the free nature of play. This is sandbox as masterpiece.
In reductivist terms, Dishonored sees Corvo move from set-piece mission to set-piece mission, trying to infiltrate the HQ of a particular baddie and then eliminate him or her, until finally the big boss is met at the end, dispatched and the day saved. That's the game in a nutshell. But within that formula anything can happen.
Take the stand-out mission in the game as a case study: it features an attack on a palatial mansion during a sumptious party to remove an aristocratic Madame Pompadour type linked to the killing of the empress. The game doesn't care how you accomplish your task: you can charge in killing and maiming everything that gets in your path until you reach your prey and slit her throat ... or you can creep into the mansion, hide in the shadows, scuttle up drain-pipes, never harming a soul, spying on revellers. In fact, you can even eliminate your target – the seductive aristo – without physically harming a hair on her pretty powder-wigged head. You get no extra points in this game for wracking up a mammoth kill count; subtlety pays just as much dividend.
This game will never be played the same twice: your game will be distinctive to you alone. And the way you play says something about you. Do you shoot your way to the top? Do you refuse to hurt innocent bystanders? Do you forgive the wicked? Are you motivated by revenge? Are you a voyeur? I struggled to be decent. I tried to keep to the shadows, to not kill – but temptation is a terrible thing. I'd overhear a guard trash-talking me – for Corvo has become a legend in his own lifetime – see red and the next thing you know there he is lying dead at my feet with his head in his lap.
Dishonored lets itself down, though, when it resorts to Skyrim-style fantasy gimmicks. For some daft reason, which is never explained, Corvo is granted magical powers by a supernatural fella called The Outsider. He can move short distances at the speed of light, possess people for a period, see through walls – that kind of thing. The tricks are cool but unnecessary. Why not just make him a really fast runner, a good climber, and give him a bugging device and a vial of truth serum? He is a super-assassin spy after all.
Whatever way you play – good guy, bad guy, murder spree, stealth-and-stalk – it all affects the final moments of the game. Will you leave the realm in chaos? Will you be remembered as a man who built a nation on a throne of corpses? Will you be the white knight behind a renewed empire?
I never play any game twice – once it's over, that's it for me. But this game is so good, I had to know what the journey would be like if I'd played it differently. So after trying to be Dudley Do-Right with as little blood on my hands as possible, I hit restart, donned the Black Hat and drew my pistols to try out Corvo in Death Wish mode ... and a completely new – if X-rated – game unfolded. Bravo Bethesda game designers. Bravo.
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