A first-person adventure, starring a framed assassin and featuring his eerie powers, made by Deus Ex veterans? Where do I sign up?
At Gamescom I finally got a chance to play Dishonored, and yes, it was fun. If you've been following coverage of this game at all, you've probably already heard about the level they're showing off right now: a masked ball, an unknown target for you to assassinate, and multiple ways to go about it.
The first thing I did was die. I had a controller thrust in my hands, and had to figure out everything from there. After being deposited near a sewer-bound boat by the party, I was eager to try out all the tricks and abilities my character could employ. There were a healthy number of weapons, but the exciting stuff is based around magic. I could summon a horde of rats, slow time, and more. The first thing I did? I teleported.
Unfortunately, I teleported directly in front of a Tall Boy - a guard perched atop some mechanical legs, and armed with weapons that pulverised me in seconds. Okay, not a great tactic, time to try again.
This time around, I was a lot sneakier, avoiding guards and teleporting over a tall gate into a guarded compound. In the world of Dishonored, a plague is rife, and the overbearing regime has used it as an excuse to be... well, more overbearing. The rich have isolated themselves, and the poor suffer.
Two things are fortuitous: my masked figure fits right into a masked ball, and a handily dropped invitation gives me easy access. Once inside, I have the option of pursuing a side-quest that was obviously from an earlier level. It directs me to deliver a letter to one of the guests outside the manor house. I do so, only to find that the letter challenges that other character to a pistol duel with me. I'm told to take my place, and on three to turn around and fire away. The first time I did it, I actually shot a guard instead. This didn't end well, so after another restart I aimed a bit better.
Putting all that behind me, I entered the manor house to find... well, a fairly lame party, as a few of the guests themselves pointed out. I was sent to assassinate a one Lady Boyle... except she wasn't 'one': she was three. See, there are three Boyle sisters, and they had decided to dress in identical costumes that were coloured either red, white, or black. I had to figure out which one was the correct Boyle - the cunning trick being that the game decides randomly each time you play this level.
There are multiple ways to go about this. You can sneak upstairs and read their journals, or talk to enough guests to garner clues. Or, of course, you can just try to murder all of them. I opted not to, because I like to sneak about and feel clever, and soon found that not only was my target wearing red, but that another party attendee was in love with her, and offered to spirit her away if I let her live. A non-lethal option? Interesting.
In the end, I snapped for some reason, and choked Lady Boyle to death in front of another guest. Not very assassin-like of me, which the angry guards now rushing into the room all agreed on. I managed to flee outside in a panic, rushing past alarmed guests. I got through the gardens, spied a wall, teleported over... and fell much further than I thought I would and ended up fatally face-planting on the concrete below. Truly, I am a master at this sort of thing.
Besides the "let's see what happens if I try this" gameplay, I'm very interested in the world created for Dishonored. It's ostensibly set in the future, but also feels wonderfully Victorian - or pre-Victorian, as the original setting was supposed to be London around the time of the great fire of 1666. But for an explanation of that, and a lot more, I'll turn to Raphaël Colantonio, President and Co-Creative Director of Arkane Studios:
Where did the genesis of Dishonored come from?
We've always wanted to make this kind of game - the games that blend first-person action, depth, RPGs, and player choice. The genesis was really Bethesda approaching us to do this sort of game. They wanted us to do an assassin game, and we went, yeah, that sounded that really cool.
We started off trying the game out in historical London in 1666 - very grounded, very real. We took the real map, our art director went to London and took a lot of pictures, did a lot of research. After a while - maybe 6-8 months into pre-production - we thought that while it was cool to fight with knives and bows and all that, we felt we needed stronger security systems, more gadgets, and so on. So talking to the artists we decided to move it forward a few hundred years. We ended up branching away from London and made our own alternate-history universe.
You drew on what must have been a very rich tapestry from that era - the fire, a great plague happening around the same time. How did researching all of this affect the world of Dishonored?
It's funny how the creative process works, because when we started, we thought London would be nice in terms of gameplay. And having a plague means everything's dirty, it's risky going out - it's a great context, because it's a reason to depopulate the city, and there are rats who then become an element of the gameplay. We would ask a question like, "What if you could actually summon those rats? Or maybe even possess some?" And then you design levels around being able to infiltrate certain areas as a rat, and ideas grow up from there. It's been a very iterative and organic process, where the gameplay and setting grew with each other.
Tell me about all the powers and abilities. Did you try out a lot before settling on the ones in the game?
We always try to come up with a lot more powers than we need, before cutting down everything unnecessary and only keeping the best. In this case we probably designed about 20 powers, then prototyped maybe 15, and of those we kept 12. Some would turn out to be more dull than we thought, or impossible to get working.
It must have been quite a process when it came to eliminating bugs, with all of these varied powers, and multiple ways to combine them.
Oh yeah, it's been fairly tough. But again, with the kind of game we make, it's expected - this is a simulation. We actually like to throw systems together, and see what emerges from that. And most of the time, really cool things emerge - we're like, "Oh wow, look at the AI fleeing when the fire comes on, but then there's a rat who wants to attack that AI, so the AI calls his friends over". So it's awesome, but yes, it causes a lot of bugs - but we embrace that.
Has Bethesda helped with the bugs? I imagine they have a lot of experience now with quashing that kind of thing!
Yeah, totally - their own games are, by essence, buggy. And people will call attention to that, but at the same they'll go, "Oh wow, this game is so deep and cool!" And there's definitely a correlation! It's not that they want to have bugs, it's just that they take a lot of risks in terms of going deep. But they've been a big help, and I actually think that with their latest titles, they've gotten really good at eliminating bugs.
Absolutely, especially compared to, say, [The Elder Scrolls II:] Daggerfall. My god that was buggy - but for the most part, those bugs were fun, and added to the experience.
Yes, sometimes the line between a bug and a feature is very blurry! And that's been our experience with Dishonored.
A level like the masked ball shows a twist on your usual lonely assassination mission. Is it a goal to populate the entire game with twists on common formulas like this one?
We really tried, on the one hand, to do the very canonical thing for an assassin, which is to infiltrate a fortress and kill the super important guy. But we've also tried to balance that out as much as possible, so it's not too formulaic - we want to surprise you. So with the ball level, we surprise players because now you have to talk to characters and find out who your target is - unless you want to just kill everyone, which is fine too. Then we have a mission where you have to abduct somebody instead of killing them, so need to find a way to knock him out without killing him, and bring them back to a getaway boat.
And then we have other missions where you simply have to survive - after a mission goes wrong, say, and suddenly you're on the run. So a big focus has been on providing new ways for players to use their skills and powers in different environments.
How are you feeling right now, as the game prepares to be released?
I'm holding my breath! I feel like people like it a lot - it feels like it's fairly polished. So we're hopeful, but at the same, yes, definitely holding our breath.
Dishonored is out October 11th on PC, PlayStation 3 & Xbox 360 in NZ.