Linear - the devil word. Scourge of freedom, the antithesis of PC gaming, the ancient enemy of anyone who's ever roamed the Zone or steered a Dragonborn across the mountains. Or so the purist spirit often believes. Is, the question hangs so very heavily, Dishonored a linear game?
Yes. At least in the sense that it is not an open world. It is a series of missions in a linear order, most if not all of which require you to eliminate a specific target or targets. That's okay, though, because my understanding of the game - having seen it in action - has morphed from something like 'steampunk Deus Ex' to 'magic Hitman'. In what I've just been shown of the game, the same mission is tackled in two very different ways, with yet more described. And yes, I thought it looked amazing.
It's not, I think, so much about creating a role that reflects your character, as it is organically puzzling out how to meet your objectives. Replay will be worthwhile not to see a different cutscene, but because the cause and effect of so many of your actions will vary wildly.
So, here's what I saw.
The setup: The Golden Cat, a knocking shop for the wealthier denizens of the plague-stricken, authoritarian city of Dunwall. Ornate but seedy, what should seem like opulence feels sinister and imposing. That's Dunwall all over - indulgent architecture designed to reflect imperial pride, but its harsh angles and looming structures are as oppressive as they are grand.
Inside this cathouse are two targets, the Pendleton Twins. They are members of parliament, they are apparently corrupt, and they stand with the Lord Regent - new ruler of Dunwall, who has framed you for the murder of the Empress.
You? You are Corvo Attano. They helped to kill your Empress. Prepare to die.
I watch both of the twins die, twice. The first time:
Stealth. Sliding, sprinting, climbing, leaning to approach via rooftops and through windows. Creeping unseen through the Golden Cat. Possessing rats to creep past guards. Hiding in the shadows, which enable you to be essentially invisible even if an unaware enemy has a direct line of sight. Waiting, watching, listening. Suddenly stabbing, and then teleporting to a high cranny while holding the body, so it's hidden from other patrolling guards. Finding one of the targets, in the steam room with a courtesan. Deciding against confrontation. Finding a valve. Turning it. Boiling both occupants of the steam room. An accident, they'll say. Though the posters and anxious conversations around Dunwall means suspicion will fall Corvo's way nonetheless.
Upstairs. More creeping, more silent assassination, radar vision to ascertain where the guards are looking. And soon to the top floor. The other Pendleton, in conversation with another courtesan. She would see everything. Unless... high-level Possession. Taking control of Pendleton. 'Hey, you don't look so good. ' Walk him to the balcony. Exit him. Windblast over the railing before he realises you're there. No witnesses. A terrible accident.
The second time:
Carnage. Drop assassinations with the knife out, an instant kill. A crossbow to loudly take out another foe, in two shots. Around five guards swarm in, wielding both sword and pistol, alert lines revealing their state of open aggression. The time power, upgraded to allow full-on freezetime, means they are all safely dispatched. Charging straight upstairs, again using Windblast on the Pendleton but at full force from the centre of the room, slamming him through a plate-glass window, out to the balcony, over the rail, onto the street many floors below. This time, everyone sees. An incendiary crossbow bolt whittles down numbers, a parrying-heavy swordfight with another guard results in his gruesome beheading. Then a spring razor, a mine loaded with razor wire which explodes in a bloody spiral. The next pack of guards that dare to intervene are set upon by a horde of summoned rats. Frenzy. One guard is possessed during the chaos. Walk coolly, unnoticed, to safety.
There are, we're told eight or nine different broad methods of completing a level. These were but two, and both were fatal. Another would have been to look for side missions in the streets around the Golden Cat - which, despite being a multi-tier building filled with side rooms and cellars and surrounded by gardens, constitutes "less than half" of the level's overall space. One side mission opens up the roof path that allowed a stealthier entrance to the cat, but another would have involved doing favours for a local gangster and thus persuading him to help Corvo's cause. It's not shown today, but done right this results in the gangster kidnapping the Pendletons and forcing them to work in their own slave mines.
They're still alive, but they're out of the picture, and Corvo has had his revenge. Dishonored's confusing promise has always been you're an assassin who doesn't have to assassinate anyone, and that's one way of making good on its non-fatal claims.
On top of the multiple paths are the powers. This won't be Skyrim, so taking your abilities down one route - for instance upgrading Possession to the point that you can assume control of another human, including your target - will come at the cost of another, such as time-slowing becoming time-freezing. Your build will, apparently, be distinct and crafted, not an eventual everyman. . It's restrictive, but it should encourage experimentation with the powers you choose. Arkane talk of an unplanned discovery in playtesting whereby a player jumped out of a high window, but instead of splattering fatally onto the pavement, they possessed another character waiting below just a split-second before impact - and walked away unharmed. It's discovery-play like that which puts Dishonored squarely as my most anticipated game of the year.
Found Bone Charms add bonus effects, such as being able to possess white rats for twice as long as grey rats, but these are not specific pickups located in specific places. Instead, they are picked at random from a pool of around 40.
For a finale, we see Corvo face off against a small troop of Tallboys, the Strider-like silt-guards which patrol Dunwall's outside locations, nominally to prevent the potentially plague-bearing riff-raff from coming into contact with the preening nobility. This is the Flooded District, inspired by the breaking of the Thames Barrier and steeped in dank, plague and even open flooding. Corvo can avoid the roaming Tallboys by simply staying out of the light, both environmental and from their lofty torches, but here we see a full-on FPS fight. Corvo leaps and teleports around to reach the vulnerable humans atop their armoured mounts, meleeing them at speed. Or, on the ground, he can use slow or freeze time to prevent their rockets reaching him, or even knock them back to their source.
And yes, you can possess a Tallboy. It's not shown, but to prevent a terrible overpowered imbalance in Corvo's assassinability, he won't be able to control them for long. Here's the possession breakdown, in fact:
Rats, a reasonable time.
Humans, not long.
Tallboy, only briefly.
It's skewed according to the advantages the inhabited body would give you, which seems fair enough. Again though, you mightn't even upgrade the possession ability, preferring to sink points into something more outright damaging. There'll be a kept auto-save at the start of each level, by the way, so you can have a crack at solving it in a completely different way whenever you like. So, linear in progression but not in challenge.
Lazily, I'd call Dishonored an exceptionally comfortable and rather more stylish halfway house between BioShock and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with more than a little Thief and Hitman seasoning the stew. And it's the style that I'll be talking about in my next post about the game, tomorrow.