Stealth games, like their open-world brethren, have been around for a while now, certainly long enough to have found their defining work. Whenever the subject of the latter genre pops up, Grand Theft Auto will most likely find a wide consensus as the premier franchise that represents everything the open-world game is about. You could try the same with stealth games by bringing up Metal Gear Solid or Assassin’s Creed, except that there’s always something with these IPs that causes a certain disquiet. MGS‘s stealth mechanics are, I feel, simply too complicated. Its immensely layered and flexible system lends itself to bewilderment whenever Snake faces a room full of baddies to asphyxiate. I’m sure a player who has overcome these issues will play it so beautifully as to make MGS look like real life, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and say most people won’t come close. Assassin’s Creed, meanwhile, too often descends into farcical chases and illogical detection. As long as you kill the target, you move the story forward, regardless of how you approached the mission. The games are not really set up to either motivate or reward you into prioritising stealth. One half each of Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were very good stealth games, but the other half was brawling, and the brawling was so good, so meaty, that you wished the game would just drop me in the middle of a dozen henchmen and let me go at them. In most other games – actually, most games full stop – when you hear the phrase ‘we’ve added stealth element’ it’s just inducement for groan. Some people may really like it, but for me and surely for millions of other gamers, the enemies who see you from a mile away in one level only to ignore me as I stand on their heads in another, the feeling that you’re never really playing it right, mean that the stealth genre as a whole inspires ambivalence in the best of circumstances, particularly as some of its games now attract the most investment from publishers.
Dishonored, though, is the first game that really made me want more stealth, to actually look forward to the next setup where I’m supposed to get past multiple guards to get to a mark, in which the getting past bit is more fun than finishing off the target. You start and end with 6 active and 4 passive powers. You don’t gain more, and you can only upgrade each twice. While this is a very refreshing change compared in today’s ‘our game has RPG-inspired upgrade trees’ world, there’s an even better surprise: you only ever need 2 active powers from start to finish to play the game. These are ‘Dark Vision’, which is basically x-ray vision, and ‘Blink’, the ability to teleport over short distances. This latter ability in particular is a revelation, because it eliminates the need for the player to worry about traversal, something that is the bane of most stealth games. Time and time again you fall upon ‘Blink’, and it never lets you down. Whether you need to climb a fortress that looks unscalable, or to close the gap between yourself and a guard standing in front of a door you need to access a floor down, ‘Blink’ behaves consistently, accurately and is never less than a pleasure to use.
The magic moment is the 3rd mission, called ‘House of Pleasure’. In it, you’re supposed to infiltrate a tightly-guarded high-class brothel to rescue a child princess and to eliminate a pair of noblemen. It’s a multi-story building with lots of windows and balconies, an unseemly number of bodyguards, and a rather labyrinthine structure that lends itself to both confusion and discretion. If it had been an MGS game, the toughest part would have been just making Snake get from A to B in the way I want him to, only to end up fidgeting with the controller to avoid having him lie face down on the floor when I was trying to get him to run, or Snake busting out the CQC when I just want him to choke a guard to sleep. Remember in MGS 3 when you had to hold down 3 buttons simultaneously (or at least it felt like that many) on the Dualshock just to get Snake to aim a pistol down the iron sight? I won’t forget. In Dishonored, our hero, Corvo, is constructed of very clear, and very few, rules: crouch, and your footsteps won’t be heard; if you approach a guard from the sides or behind, you won’t be seen; any ledge that protrudes even slightly, you can stand on. Within these boundaries, the game gives you the freedom to approach a mission in any way you want. The level design is impressively open-ended, not just in the way multiple routes to your target are available, but in the genuinely sincere allowance it makes for non-violent as well as violent playthroughs, something that is in contrast to the more cursory gestures its peers usually make. The first 2 missions admittedly don’t do a good job of communicating to the player what the game is really about, and so I approached it like I would any other stealth game, that is taking down enemies with irritated impatience, accepting open fights as part and parcel of the game, and not making full use of the tools and powers at my disposal due to cramped early environments. In ‘House of Pleasure’, though, everything clicks into place like a dream. You realise that you can afford to be patient, because once you have the enemy pattern worked out, ‘Blink’ allows you to implement your plan extremely quickly. You also realise that the same power grants you, within a certain distance, almost unlimited powers of movement, vertically and horizontally. Thus you can perch on a ledge above a guard, get behind him, cross the floor, land behind a screen or escape onto the roof with minimal risk of detection. All this means that you don’t have to worry about making mistakes, and can just focus on assessing your situation and laying out a course of action. As long as you have followed the game’s simple rules, Dishonored never punishes you. Before I knew it, my Corvo was sneaking onto the brothel’s top floor balcony, rescuing the princess, stealing the master key from the madame, making his way past oblivious guards down to the steam room and disposing of the dastardly toffs in a glorious series of fluid movements and expert non-lethal takedowns. It was clear from this point onwards that this was a stealth game that was designed to reward you for being stealthy, rather than making it a pain and a chore.
If this makes the game sound easy, well, in many ways it is. Compared to an absolute majority of the foes (and they include giant bipedal robots that fire missiles), Corvo is seriously overpowered. Just by dint of his teleporting power, he has within his means the ability to master most situations. But isn’t this how most stealth games should be? I mean, the most popular protagonists of the genre are special forces legends with the most advanced night-vision goggles available, genetically modified rogue warriors, and members of the Order of the Hashshashin. Shouldn’t they be ridiculously overpowered, especially when the grunts they are tasked with getting past are never supposed to be as well trained or well equipped as them? Arkane Studios, the developers, have done us all a huge favour by getting rid of all the fat, and clearing the game of all complexities that usually plague the player’s control of the character. In a genre where climbing a wall or creeping behind someone can be unnecessarily and sometimes laughably hit-and-miss, Dishonored simplifies it down to a press of a button and lets you get on with feeling like a truly elusive, dangerous man. It’s not much of a story, and is only ever about performing a hit, one at a time, but Dishonored makes stealth a tremendous amount of fun, so much so that it should be considered a landmark of its genre this generation.