The historian Lord Acton is best known for this quote: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It's a cynical truth, but one that's repeated in history and echoed in art. Revolutionaries take over countries only to become dictators. In Middle-earth, everyone chases after the One Ring that promises unbelievable abilities at the price of deforming its wearer.
Acton's idea is also the driving theme in "Dishonored," a new action game developed by Arkane Studios. While most games are exercises in power fantasies, this release examines the effect of power and sets the concept in a fantasy universe. Taking on the role of Corvo Attano, the Lord Protector of the Empress, players return from a trip abroad and report to their liege. That's when assassins appear out of nowhere and kill her imperial majesty.
Corvo is framed for the murder and is set to be executed when he escapes, thanks to help from loyalists who see through the subterfuge. The Lord Regent, in charge until the Empress' daughter comes of age, is the culprit behind the plot. Loyalists led by a disgraced admiral ask Corvo to take him down.
It's a decent revenge plot with a nice twist, but "Dishonored" stands out more for its steampunk art direction and brilliant game design. Arkane Studios' imagines the city of Dunwall as dreary and on the verge of ruin. A plague has hit the poor. Districts have been flooded. Meanwhile, the rich live in splendor, enjoying electrical technology powered by whale oil.
It's a world that's fresh, rich and infinitely more interesting than the normal wizards and warriors fare. There are voice recorders that use punch cards to replay messages. Soldiers patrol grounds atop a Tall Boy, which is basically a tank perched precariously on stilts.
But what makes these environments so compelling is how the developer uses them. They're so detailed, filled with posters, messages and items that have puzzles or level-design elements baked into them. For example, players discover a safe but don't know the combination. Fortunately, they'll see a message with a clue mentioning paintings. Players will have to search the house for the images to figure out the code. The game is filled with these tidbits that cement an already vivid world.
Despite being grounded in steampunk, "Dishonored" does have a dose of the supernatural. That comes in the form of the Outsider, a mythical being who gives Corvo special powers. This is the core of the game. The powers let him do things like teleport to places, stop time or possess animals. They can be used to avoid conflict or gain a fight advantage.
But no matter the approach, "Dishonored" is brilliant because it lets players mix up these powers to get to their goal. Corvo's assassination missions are open-ended. Players are given a problem and, like "Deus Ex" before it, they have several solutions, which often include sidequests that let them explore the multilayered Dunwall. For example, getting in the Golden Cat brothel is as easy as possessing a fish and going through the storm drain. Or it can include a complicated favor for a local tough who needs players to search a building.
With all the choices players face, they're guaranteed a different experience in each campaign. If that weren't enough, parts of the storyline change as players decide how they want to tackle their task via stealth or violence or if they want to help a stranger out. There's no right or wrong way, but the choices affect how others see Corvo and whether there'll be more enemies on the next level.
It's all up to players and how they want to tell the protagonist's story. They have the power, and they can decide what kind of person Corvo will be. Is he going to be a protagonist who's corrupted by his newfound power, or will that bond with the Empress' daughter lead him to a better path? Answering that is part of the fun and discovery in "Dishonored."
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Platform: Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3