By Alec Meer on April 18th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
The Knife of Dunwall is the second piece of extra content for Arkane’s splendid, if slightly cold, Dishonored, and the first which includes new missions proper. It came out a few days ago, I played it a few hours ago, and then I wrote this.
Let’s talk about time. The arrow to Dishonored’s knee, the Kyrptonite to its Superfella, the DRM to its SimCity. Playing in my usual way – comb every corner, climb every building, collect every coin – The Knife of Dunwall, the first story-based DLC for Arkane’s assassination game, lasted me around eight hours. I left no stone unturned, and I incapacitated every single enemy on each of its three levels. Then I went back to its first, and by a long shot best, mission and did it guns blazing, a speed run of blood and sirens, killing everyone in sight until I’d carved my way to my target. On Medium difficulty, it took me ten minutes.
While, admittedly, I was barely pausing to breathe, let alone soak in the atmosphere or take on side-missions, I was employing some strategy, using a range of gadgets and powers and solving a couple of puzzlettes necessary to progress to new areas. Ten minutes, that’s all. Neither of the other levels was appreciably bigger than this one, so if my semi-speed run could be repeated on those, anyone who approaches Dishonored as a straight-up barrage of action may well find this £8 DLC will last them half an hour.
The argument’s always been that Dishonored caters to all playstyles, and while that’s true I can’t pretend that anyone who wants a bloodfest isn’t going to feel disappointed. BioShock Infinite is a bloodfest, and divisively offers no option not to be, but it’s a bloodfest that lasts for ages even if you do choose to ignore all its sights and fiction and historical references. I admire Dishonored, and Knife of Dunwall, for trying to be all things to all men, but really it has to be played as a stealth game to at least some extent, despite its creators’ protestations. That’s the only way to give it quantity as well as quality.
I myself feel most satisfied by Knife of Dunwall, because I want to play it as a stealth game (and a non-lethal one at that). If your approach to Dishonored was similar, then I highly recommend Knife of Dunwall. If it wasn’t, I don’t, and you probably shouldn’t bother reading any more of this article. While this DLC does increase the game’s arsenal, it couldn’t be said to reinvent anything or meaningfully tackle any shortcomings.
Still here? I bid you welcome, creatures of the crouch. Knife of Dunwall, you’ll be pleased to hear, is three new levels of Dishonored doing what Dishonored does best. It’s the band shouting “one more time!” and performing an extra chorus just as the song seemed to be ending, and I found myself singing along lustily. There is a story around it, in which you play as sometime nemesis of Dishonored’s Corvo, the assassin for hire Daud, but unfortunately that aspect of the game is even more underwhelming than Dishonored’s notoriously flat narrative. There are initial attempts to make Daud a conflicted figure in search of redemption after murdering the Empress at the start of the original game, but the game doesn’t do a whole lot with it, quickly turning its attention to a messy, hurried tale of conspiracy by people you barely see, let alone get a meaningful sense of their motivation. Michael Madsen, voicing Daud, doesn’t help – while he has the requisite gravelly tones, there are times when he sounds suspiciously as though he doesn’t entirely understand his lines. Though frankly I don’t blame him.
Also complicating matters is a degree of cognitive dissonance. Daud might have a few different powers and gizmos to Corvo, but playing as him feels so very similar in practice that I often forgot I was supposed to be someone else entirely. Stemming from that, I realised that I would be entirely happy for Dishonored to be simply an episodic game, a series of standalone missions with no need to care about the who and why, instead serving only my own preferences and goals. In every Dishonored mission, I’ve been so much more invested in ensuring the Ghost and Non-lethal boxes are ticked on the end of level summary screen than I am in what it means for the characters or world. Arkane know full well how much they’re playing to a certain crowd there, and I thank them for it.
Mattersare a little different, a little more confusing in Knife of Dunwall, in that my own motivations clashed with Daud’s far more than they ever did with than Corvo’s. I wanted to be a methodical, non-lethal, unhurried ghost, whereas the game depicts, or at least implies, him as being a man of blood and cruelty. Sure, his own dialogue and very occasional observations by NPCs did reflect upon my choice to essentially alter his motivations and behaviour, but really I was more comfortable with the blank slate that was Corvo. He allowed for a certain death of the author that the intermittently reflective Daud does not.
Onto the game proper, though. It’s not quite business as usual. Enemy headcounts have the appearance of being raised, and the levels more populous, a little trickier to safely navigate, but as far as I can tell that’s because of how it places its guards and thugs rather than simply because there are more of them in there. It’s rarer to find, say, a couple of guys conveniently standing or walking with their backs to you, so usually there’ll now be a third guy whose movements are subtly made to ensure there’s almost always someone looking at you.
Or, as I discovered in what became a Weekend At Bernie’s-style corpse-hauling farce, patrol routes seem to criss-cross a little more. Some days, you just can’t get rid of a body. With a snoring Overseer over my shoulder, I couldn’t seem to teleport anywhere without hearing the dread ‘briiiing!’ which meant somehow had caught a glimpse of me. I ran and I jumped and I Blinked and it felt like I couldn’t pause for a milisecond, but somehow, finally, I managed to find an unmonitored spot for that slumbering fellow, so blissfully unaware of my swearing and sweating. It’s the gentle, subtle escalation in challenge (for a stealther) that makes this DLC work so well, far above and beyond the new weapons and an oddly incomplete story (real resolution, together with a likely face-off against a new Big Bad, has been saved for a further DLC chunk).
If you do opt for a more violent route (again, better done hybridised with stealth rather than a straight-up oddyssey of bloodshed), Daud has some effective tools, gained at the expense of some of the more esoteric powers such as Possession. Arc Mines are hilariously deadly, able (once upgraded) to atomise a roomful of bads in a heartbeat, while the temporarily-immobilising Choke Powder is a brilliant way for non-lethal types to deal with one of those aforementioned packs of guards you can’t otherwise whittle down safely. Best of all is the Assassin summoning power, which sees Daud calling in a mate for some temporary assistance. Do it right (i.e. hide in the background, helping your chum out with some unseen sniping) and you can see a bunch of guards messily slain without taking a hit, and without the denizens of the level being aware that you were ever there. Your assassin takes the rap for you, essentially. He’s also a handy get out of a jail free card if you find yourself in a tricky spot: summon him up as a meatshield between you and whoever’s charging towards you.
Together or alone, these new tricks don’t change the nature of this not-very-old dog, but they do serve to help stop the formula from feeling stale. As do some wonderfully tricksy, involved Rune hunts, which require actual thought and exploration even from the most shameless objective marker scummer.
Of the three levels, one is largely a repeat – of the assassin headquarters we saw late in Dishonored – another is quite obviously assembled from familiar parts of other ones, but the first is brand new and contains some of Dishonored’s most striking imagery yet. I don’t want to say or show too much, but let’s just say that anyone hoping for a bit more insight into Dunwall’s whale oil-based economy is in for a gruesome treat. This map, unlike the other two, also contains a couple of new enemy types, one of which you most certainly don’t want to end up toe-to-toe with. In small details too this mission feels lavish – for instance, a canteen, complete with menu, for the workers there, serving no purpose other than to flesh out Dunwall’s society. I do love that stuff.
It’s not quite as much of a possibility space as Lady Boyle’s Party Or The Golden Cat, but it’s definitely in the upper echelons of Dishonored missions. The other, plainer levels are disappointing by contrast. not really doing anything to prompt frantic screenshot-taking. Still, in terms of challenge and Dishonored’s signature freedom of engagement, they do the trick.
I thought about spending half this piece talking about what Dishonored gets right compared to BioShock Infinite, but screw it. Whatever metatextuality the apologists want to use to excuse Binfinite’s unliving world and however much the absolutists want to dismiss the entire thing because they don’t like its focus on violence, it is a game based on shooting whereas Dishonored is a game based on navigation. They aren’t trying to do the same thing, so the comparison is inherently an artificial one. What I will say instead is that, going back to Dunwall after Columbia, Dishonored’s technical compromises on PC really show. Far too many low-res, blurry textures, a couple too many invisible barriers, no native support for anisotropic filtering or proper anti-aliasing… O, tragedy! I love the art approach as much as I ever did, but ultimately the game does look more dated than a 2012/13 PC game should. It’s a shame, because in concept and in art alike, this is a game that deserved the fanciest PC version possible, but once again those damnable consoles won out.
That said, not so long ago it rather seemed as though there was no hope of getting games which offered this much player agency on that kind of budget, so I remain exceedingly grateful for Dishonored regardless of how much I wish its PC version could have had more TLC. A rarity for DLC, Knife of Dunwall winds up increasing my affection for the game overall, and my enthusiasm for Dunwall as place for play. It’s sad to see Dishonored still struggle so with plotting and characterisation, but with the passage of time I find I’m simply not fussed about that side of things anyway. I wanted more, full-fat Dishonored and Knife of Dunwall gave it to me. Job dun.
Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall is out now, via download.