As well as the openness of the levels themselves, there’s a pleasing amount of flexibility in how to tackle your targets. Prescribed solutions like the poisoning are blended with emergent ones, like planting a razorwire tripmine on the route to the target’s saferoom, or rewiring security to kill him for you. Sometimes key information about your targets’ location or identity is randomised each time you play, so you have to gather clues through exploration and eavesdropping every time. And there’s even a nonlethal way of dealing with every target.
I won’t spoil what it is in this mission, but it’s a good one. In general, too, I like the ridiculous idea of a game about a ‘supernatural assassin’ going to such lengths to cater to the extremist player who’d want to leave every single person alive. And how many people you kill actually changes the later levels: the more corpses you leave in your wake, the more rats and plague zombies you’ll encounter.
I like all that. But Dishonored goes further. Characters start to bitch at you if you kill too many people. The nonlethal objectives sometimes involve substantial side-quests that you miss out on if you don’t want to take that weird path. The game itself even says ‘Optional objective failed’ if you’re so audacious as to actually assassinate the person you were sent to assassinate. And if it feels you’ve killed more than it deems morally acceptable, you’re punished with a deeply unsatisfying ending.
It’s a strangely sanctimonious attitude for a game whose most interesting features all revolve around arranging inventively horrific murders. Particularly when the nonlethal objectives are often crueller than death – one of them is to leave a woman unconscious at the mercy of a terrifying creep who’s in love with her.
If you take the hint and try to avoid killing, you hit a practical problem: there’s only one nonlethal weapon. Your trademark retractable blade, your upgradeable pistol, crossbow bolts, incendiary darts, explosive rounds, grenades, proximity-triggered springrazors, the Jedi-like Wind Blast, the rat-powered Devouring Swarm, rewired Arc Pylons, Walls of Light and Watch Towers all kill.
Sleep darts don’t, so the merciful play style is limited to those and a very slow sleeperhold move. There’s still a quiet satisfaction to playing this way, but it’s much more repetitive than messing around with all the rest of the horrible toys the game gives you.
The other thing that makes Dishonored slightly less exciting than it initially seems is that it peaks early. The most liberating missions are all in the first half of its 13-hour story. Some of the later ones are too plot-driven to give you that same freedom, and others are just too crowded with guards. One is set on a bridge, but if you drop down to the water to swim around part of it, you’re stopped by invisible barriers. The game never becomes as straightforward or restrictive as a conventional shooter, it just doesn’t manage to play to its strengths all the way through.
What it never loses is the feeling of a world full of interesting systems to tinker with. Take the technology: every security device is wired to a control panel, and everything that needs a lot of power is wired to a whale-oil battery. Every panel can be rewired to turn the device to your side, and every battery can be removed to turn it off.
At one point I couldn’t find a way past an Arc Pylon: a Tesla-coil that obliterates any intruder in a certain radius. The panel to rewire it was in range of the Pylon itself, impossible to reach alive. The battery that powered it was on a low platform that I also couldn’t get to without going near the Pylon. But I could see it, and I happen to know that whale oil batteries are volatile.
I shot it with a crossbow bolt, the battery blew, and the Pylon powered down. While the guards investigated the explosion, I crept over to the control panel and rewired the Pylon. I found a spare battery in a nearby storage closet, and when the guards returned to their posts, I snuck down to plug it in. The Pylon powered up, now wired to zap anyone but me, and I watched the battery's glowing oil drain a few inches for every guard it frazzled.
Part of the reason Dunwall’s oppressive government installs automated security like this is to curb the spread of rats, which are a system in themselves. They’re everywhere, but they don’t pose a threat unless they gather into a bona fide swarm. That tends to happen around corpses, which they flock to wherever they find them. Once they’ve picked the body skinlessly clean, the rodents will happily move onto living targets: you or your enemies.
I got cornered by a swarm while sneaking through a manor house. I’d slipped past two thugs to get into a bedroom, but now the rats were between me and the door. So to solve two problems at once, I fired my gun at the wall.
The thugs ran over to investigate the shot, the rats ran over to investigate the thugs, and while the seething mass of vermin and flesh wrestled with itself, I skirted round it and snuck upstairs.