Dishonored Takes Stealth Action Out of the Shadows

E3 2012: Arkane's steampunk assassin game gives you the tools to terrorize your enemies in broad daylight.

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Playing Dishonored for the first time, you can't help but feel sorry for Sam Fisher. The hero of the Splinter Cell franchise has probably spent half his life lurking in the shadows, going from one stealth operation to the next desperately trying to avoid being seen. Poor Sam. He probably could have gotten out into the sunlight once in a while if only he had supernatural powers.

Then again, not everyone can be like Corvo, the stealthy assassin you navigate through Dishonored's dystopian world of eerie technologies and royal corruption. Corvo is an assassin with access to exotic weaponry and even more exotic supernatural abilities. Using these tools, you realize that actively deceiving your enemies is every bit as important as hiding from them. In other words, creeping through the shadows isn't always the most effective tactic.

The mission that gives us our first hands-on experience with Dishonored is one called Kaldwin's Bridge. We're out to kidnap the royal physician, a guy named Sokolov whose knowledge of medicine has earned him a slightly nicer fate than Corvo's other targets. We begin by sneaking through a decrepit side street, with alleyways and crumbled buildings offering a number of pathways toward Sokolov's safe house atop the bridge. We immediately get the sense that this place has seen better days.

As we creep along, we emerge onto a street overlooking the harbor, taking in a pre-sunset view of Dishonored's steampunk city of Dunwall. It's a nice view, but all that daylight means we have to get creative with our pathway around the guards patrolling the street. Perhaps that's for the best. Dishonored uses a first-person perspective, making it tricky to tell when your entire body is cloaked in shadow even if it's dark out. Rather, this game encourages a more active approach to stealth where you're constantly soaking up details about the environment around you. You've got basic tools like the ability to poke your head around a wall or peek through keyholes, as well as more subtle aids like contextual audio clues. Indeed, sound is very important to your exploits as a crafty assassin. If a guard's voice is clear and natural, you know he's somewhere close. If that same voice turns soft and muffled, however, that's a sign that the guard has walked into another room, giving you the chance to breeze on by.

Our first guards don't do us the favor of stepping into the next room. Fine by us; that's just one more reason to dip into Corvo's toolbox to create our own route around them. We equip the blink ability and instantly teleport up to a high ledge, sneaking right above those hapless guards and onto the entrance of the building containing Sokolov's office.

Two more guards are stationed near the front door, each watching a different approach. We pull open our radial menu to see which tool to try next. The sticky bomb filled with razor blades seems fun, if a little impractical. We consider the ability that summons a horde of flesh-eating rats. Probably overkill. Ultimately, we settle on a simple approach: we cast the ability that lets us possess one of the guards, then excuse ourselves for a moment to walk inside for a quick break. Once through the door and into the building, we hop out of the possessed guard's body, watch him stumble forward wondering what just happened, and then plant a knife in his throat.

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Inside, we survey our new surroundings. Dishonored is a game that rewards patience and observance. You might overhear a guard chatting about your target's location, or casually mentioning how a certain pathway might open up under the right circumstances. Looking around, we see a few different options. It's a big open space that resembles an empty factory, with stairs leading to an office up high and guards patrolling the wide-open bottom level.

We pick up a glass bottle and hurl it across the room, creating a quick distraction that lets us dash up the stairs. Up top, we spy a doorway that leads where we want to go, but with one minor problem: it's curtained off by a sonic wall rigged to kill anything that crosses through it. Well, almost anything. Some careful observation reveals that guards can easily pass through, but the one we want slips past and doesn't return. We search around a bit more and find a maid dusting some furniture. She's no guard, but we're hoping that she's also got the security clearance to pass through that booby-trapped doorway. We possess her, hold our breath, and amble through the door. It works. We thank her by letting her live.

All of these abilities, whether it's possessing a guard or summoning a powerful gust of wind to knock multiple foes backward, draw from a finite pool of mana. The more we play, the more we realize that's where one of the major challenges lies in Dishonored: pushing these guards from a tall balcony with a gust of wind might solve this problem, but it'll eat up a massive chunk of mana--and who's to say what's lying in wait around the corner? So like a spell-caster in a role-playing game, you always need to keep an eye on that blue bar and never, ever miss the opportunity to pick up a mana vial when you see one lying around.

Eventually, we make it onto Sokolov's rooftop laboratory. We peek in the window and see him working along, but before entering we survey the perimeter to ensure no guards are nearby. One happens to be standing all by himself at the far end of the balcony. If we're delicate, we can possess him and then leap out from his body, letting him awkwardly stumble forward just enough to tumble from the high ledge. But we suddenly realize we haven't used the hoard of flesh-eating rats ability. We cast it and let nature run its course. Nature is a pretty terrifying sight, as it so happens.

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Inside, it's just us and Sokolov. He pleads for his life, but he's just wasting breath: we're here to kidnap him, not kill him. We pull out a rather impressive looking contraption that fires glowing green tranquilizer darts and proceed to discharge one right into his face. When we pick up his body to escort it back to the boatman hiding at the dock below the bridge, we spy a girl locked up behind bars in the corner of Sokolov's office. As it turns out, our target was keeping his own personal guinea pig for his latest experiments. She pleads for help. We know we need to get a move on, but we run over and release her anyway.

Releasing the girl doesn't grant you any immediate bonus or morality swing. It's simply an option the game gives you, letting you figure out what you want to do. It's a nice little metaphor for the game as a whole: Dishonored may not be an open-world game, but it sure is a sandbox game. Each level houses a branching network of pathways and approaches for you to consider, never hitting you over the head with suggestions for which to take. It's a stealth game that doesn't banish you to the shadows; rather, you're given a diverse toolset and the freedom to kill as many or as few of the human obstacles standing between you and your target as you wish.

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