Bethesda is the near-legendary publisher of such bestsellers as Fallout and The Elder Scrolls series, most recently Skyrim. With such series, Bethesda earned a reputation for games that give the player access to an enormous set of tools and skills, then let them go to work on a huge open world.
A new release from Bethesda is always an exciting moment. And that moment is nearly here: Dishonored is now only weeks away. And while it hasn’t been developed by Bethesda Softworks, it has a pedigree that makes it just as promising.
Having done the post-apocalypse and sword and sorcery, Bethesda move to another genre setting for Dishonored, which is set in an alternate reality filled with both steampunk-style Victoriana and magic. That may not immediately sound like a comfortable pairing, but even a short walk around its luscious first-person world convinces you that it’s a partnership that works perfectly in the context of this game, and that’s at least in part down to the extraordinary polish of its design, which revels in the tiniest detail.
Lead designer Ricardo Bare was previously responsible for the incredibly atmospheric and believable City 17 in Half-Life 2 and his fingerprints are all over this game, from its industrial-looking buildings and rich interiors to its police force. The latter is embodied by “tallboys”, cops on huge mechanical stilts who comprise a terrifying force for law and order, something for which your character Corvo Atano, the empress’ former bodyguard now framed for her murder, has scant regard.
The police are also the barrier that separates the aristocracy from the poverty-stricken proletariat. While the rich live in luxury supplied by their wealth and technology powered by whale oil, the poor live in squalor, many infected with a disease that renders them unthinking, aggressive zombies. It’s a sharply divided world and one that a cynic might also see as the perfect video game plot device to deliver an endless stream of scary cannon fodder.
Getting down to the meat of the game, missions do their best to be open-ended, letting you approach a task as you see fit. Developer Arkane Studios has been very open about Warren Spector’s influence, his mantra being “choice and consequence”, which seems to be core to quest mechanics in Dishonored. This is not a game where rushing in with guns drawn is likely to get you anything but killed swiftly. Instead, a little subtlety, some trickery and the right conversations tend to be far better ways of achieving your goals.
The developer’s influences also include classics like Thief and Deus Ex as well as Arkane’s own Arx Fatalis. It’s a wonderfully auspicious set of titles that suggest deep RPG mechanics married to the feeling of piloting your own destiny rather than merely being carried along on the designer’s whim. They also suggest a richness of story that goes well beyond the black/white, good/evil of many action games.
The level playable at this year’s Gamescom seemed to epitomise those values. Entitled Lady Boyle’s Last Party, it involves you having to find and assassinate a guest at an elegant masked ball. Atano must infiltrate the secured venue for the party and complete his mission, but in typical Arkane style, everything else is up to you. Using guile along with whatever weapons and powers you’ve added to your collection there are numerous ways to get what you want, and some of those involve killing nobody at all.
Dishonored is made by people who care about games, with one of the world’s best lead designers and a set of inspirations that could scarcely be more exciting. It also looks beautiful and appears to have mechanics that will let each player make it their own in a plot that already exhibits interesting Byzantine twists and shades of grey. In other words it’s a game that cannot arrive soon enough.
Nick Gillett is co-founder of The Truth About Games. He also wrote a weekly games column for BBC Collective for several years and has contributed to the estimable Eurogamer. He’s currently working on a novel called ‘Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Saving the World I Learned From Videogames’.