Outlining the ethos behind his work on stealth action FPS Dishonored, Zenimax visual design director Viktor Antonov explains that “everything is a character.” Building a city - even a fantastic one like Dishonored's Dunwall - is an opportunity to invest every building, vehicle and citizen with detail. At first sight, it's easy to see small parts of other games in Dishonored's look: Bioshock's brass fittings and imperial decor, or the juxtaposition of rusting industry, crumbling stonework and gunmetal fascism that defined Antonov's work on Half-Life 2.
They're hardly bad points of reference, but Antonov claims that Dishonored has been influenced by history, art and anatomy - not games or movies. Along with art director Sébastien Mitton, he studied the architecture of London and Edinburgh, and worked with an anatomist to figure out the peculiar characteristics of turn of the century British physiognomy. In some cases, this research ends up in the game directly - the hooked noses and sneering posture of Dunwall's aristocrats, for example. In other cases, inspiration creeps in sideways: the curving legs of the plague-controlling 'Tallboy' walkers are based on the elegant suspension of Victorian cabs.
In our interview with co-creative directors Harvey Smith and Raf Colantonio , Smith describes Antonov and Mitton's team as “by far the best art team we've ever worked with.” Smith and Colantonio's collective portfolio includes Deus Ex, Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic: but it's the work that has gone into building Dunwall, Smith says, that will set Dishonored apart.
The first thing we're shown in Bethesda's latest presentation is a montage of environments from throughout the game. That extensive initial groundwork - described by Antonov as the “longest pre-production period in history” - really does seem to have paid off. We get a glimpse of a pale stone castle across a river, wide industrial sewers, and a flooded district lit with spotlights that looks like London during the Blitz. It's impressive stuff, and prompts that feeling of excitement that comes with being given a new gameworld to explore. Dunwall shares bits of Edinburgh, London, Gotham, and City 17, but it also has its own identity. Antonov's stated intent is to add Dunwall to the list of great fictional places.
The particular mission we're shown takes place roughly a third of the way through the game. Corvo, Dishonored's supernatural assassin protagonist, is assaulting a bath house turned high-class brothel called the Golden Cat. His targets are Morgan and Custis Pendleton, a pair of brothers that own a slave mine. Each of Dishonored's open-ended missions comes in two parts. The first covers Corvo's approach to the target location, acting as a small hub area where side quests and hidden paths can open up new options during the assassination attempt itself. We're not shown this set-up phase in the case of the Golden Cat mission, but we're told that it'll take place in the run-down streets outside.
Demonstrating the game, Smith and Colantonio took us through the mission twice. The first was an attempt to eliminate both brothers without raising suspicion, and the second was a far quicker and bloodier frontal assault. Even within the context of a 'stealth' or 'action' playthrough, though, there's a lot of variety. A player might complete a mission as they did in the demonstration, and make both deaths look like accidents. Alternatively, they could kill the Pendletons by conventional means without raising alarm. It'll also be possible to complete all of Dishonored's missions without killing a single person - including your targets. Anyone disappointed by Deus Ex: Human Revolution's enforced boss battles should be leaning forward right about now.
Non-lethal elimination sounds like it'll be one of the hardest things in the game to successfully execute. It's possible, Smith and Colantonio explained, to make arrangements in the Golden Cat mission's set-up phase for both brothers to be forced to serve anonymously in their own mine. We weren't shown this, but the fact that they're taking the expectations of fans of the genre seriously is a very good sign.