Rated M for Mature, Reviewed on PS3
Big budget gaming is a glut of sequels and mimics. The reason for this is lamentable but obvious. Namely that big budget gaming needs big budgets. Selling lots and lots of games gets you those so you make games that you know will sell. In an arena filled to bursting with Battlefighterwarduty thirty-eight, it’s especially refreshing to find a game both so originally minded and perfectly crafted.
The care taken with the environments and the backstory is clear from the first sequence and carries through to the last. The industrial city of Dunwall, while sparsely populated, is rich and interesting. The steampunk-style technology and whale-oil-based economy is reminiscent of the late 19th century with a classical European feel.
The rich backstory is conveyed both statically via found notes, journals and books and dynamically via overheard conversations and the regular city-wide announcements. The characters are fluid and interesting. No expense was spared on voice talent and it shows. The pacing is excellent and the script avoids the common pitfall of dull, over-exposition. Interactions are crisp and informative.
You play Corvo, personal bodyguard to the empress. After leaving on an extended, but failed, mission to discover a solution to the citywide plague of rats and sickness, you return to find the situation worse than ever. Moments after giving your report, the Empress is assassinated by supernatural assailants and you are blamed. Escaping prison with the help of a small group of loyalists working in secret against the Lord Regent, who seized control after the empresses’ death, you are given a chance for revenge.
The story focuses on exposing the truth behind the empresses’ death to fulfill Corvo’s dual missions of clearing his name and placing the rightful heir, young Emily Kaldwin, on the throne. Each of the nine missions is significant and can be approached in a number of ways, but the game is still quite short by most standards. A full play-through can be made in five or six hours.
Replay is encouraged through a simple “chaos” system and exploring all your options results in a much more fulfilling 25-30 hour experience. The more death and destruction you cause to this already fragile environment, the more it decays. You’ll face more rats, more infected citizens and more negative outcomes. The less you impact the environment, the fewer people you kill, the lighter, healthier and generally more positive things are. Like games using similar systems, these changes are relatively minor throughout but they are well-done and emotionally meaningful.
There are at least three ways to approach the challenge and the excellently defined trophy set encourages this. You can ignore the supernatural skills completely and barrel through the game with brawn and steel. Leveraging supernatural stealth skills allows you to traverse the story without alerting (or even harming) a single person. Most people will, like I did at first, opt for a hybrid option mixing the two extremes. Due to the care given in these options you can expect at least three distinct, fresh play-throughs.
Although presented in first-person, many of the better elements are clearly inspired by classic third-person games such as “Batman: Arkham Asylum” or “Splinter Cell”. It’s a credit to the design team that they were able to actually improve upon many of these elements in an FPS framework. The weapon and ability choices are limited, but are finely tuned and perfectly suited to the available environments.
The game combines an intensely interesting setting with finely-tuned, customizable, genre-bending gameplay and a deep, multi-faceted story. It’s challenging without ever being frustrating and expertly paced. I suppose there is a better reason that the gaming landscape is littered with sequels and mimics: because when you get something as good as this you want to see more of it. Lots more.