StarDrive review (A failure to innovate)


Abandon all hope, those who have never played a 4X strategy game before. StarDrive is not the kind of experience that offers a welcoming introduction to the genre. Its only tutorials come in the forms of either pseudo-PowerPoint presentations or unfriendly blocks of text. The user interface does not work the way you want it to, and it’ll take you many hours (and an unholy amount of accidentally closed windows and misplaced spaceships) to get used to it. This is a game that’s as forbidding as the cold recesses of space it depicts, but once you get into it, you’ll find no shortage of enjoyable alien slaughter, spaceship destruction and planet terraforming – even if it all feels a little too familiar.

Currently, there’s only one game mode: Sandbox, where you’re plopped into a random map with a civilization of your choosing and told to conquer or assimilate all that you find. Each faction (“species” might be a more applicable term) can be played using preset traits–starting flagships, attack bonuses, etc.–or by picking your own from the game’s large lists. This allows for some very enjoyable tinkering, giving players a chance to optimize their civilization for the way they like to play. It’s also worth noting that the alien races employed in StarDrive are wonderfully weird and refreshing, from samurai bears (you read that right) to some kind of Portal-inspired AI that has a race of owls working for it (you read that right, too).

“StarDrive is not the kind of experience that offers a welcoming introduction to the genre.”

Then, with your civilization selected, it’s time go about the gruesome business of conquering the galaxy. It’s all standard 4X fare, and executed in a way that’s entirely inoffensive, but not great either. You construct ships, or custom build your own. You research technology. You conduct diplomacy, which is one area where StarDrive is behind the curve: Interstellar war negotiations are alarmingly simple, entirely unpredictable, and burdened by an especially difficult UI. You harvest resources. You colonize planets–which StarDrive is smart enough to make as simple as the click of a button, no unit-wrangling required. You invade enemy solar systems. There is nothing here that expands upon previous genre entries; it’s a paint-by-numbers 4X game with little to differentiate it from the pack.

Visually, it’s clean and crisp, with a variety of planets to stumble upon and pretty-enough space scenery to behold. But when zooming out to view a large chunk of the map, it can become hard to see much at all–units become very, very small dots–which can lead to much squinting and the occasional misplaced ship.

In addition to spacecraft, you control ground troops, which are used to take over planets or board enemy vessels. This section of the game comes off as half-baked, with planetary invasions often feeling like a crapshoot, and ships–regardless of their value–being laughably easy to take over. The first time a single space marine hops into your best frigate and goes speeding off to some corner of the galaxy, you’ll likely damn your entire intergalactic empire and close the game.

“The most fun you’re likely to have in StarDrive is the time you spend shipbuilding.”

The most fun you’re likely to have in StarDrive is the time you spend shipbuilding. You can custom-build ships from the ground up, placing bulkheads, weapons, power supplies, and command rooms on a grid system. Combined with StarDrive’s deep combat mechanics, which emphasize ship angles and weapon firing arcs, this feature becomes really fun. You’ll find great joy in fine-tuning your designs to counter your enemies’ custom units and tactics. You can also manually control ships’ movements and fire their weapons with your keyboard and mouse. While this might sound like your opportunity to slip into the cockpit of your recently invented 57-turret monstrosity and blast those samurai bears back where they come from, it’s really not. The controls are too awkward, making it maddeningly difficult to attempt anything even close to effective combat maneuvers.

Smartly, StarDrive includes robust automation features. You can have the AI take care of a lot of mundane tasks, such as managing and settling colonies, or the constructing of warp gates. This helps to lessen the overwhelming effect of StarDrive’s massive scope, letting you focus on important galaxy-conquering business.

“…it’s a paint-by-numbers 4X game with little to differentiate it from the pack.”

StarDrive is not a bad a game, per se–but it’s a lot like the games that came before it, and does little to differentiate itself from the pack. It has character, sure–what game with samurai bears wouldn’t? But when it comes time to get out there and explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate? You’ve played this before, and it was probably better. If you’re simply looking for a new game to dominate the universe in, StarDrive will serve you well enough, but those looking for a new and novel experience will need to set course for elsewhere.

Thomas Was Alone review


When given the right motivation, it’s easy to imagine a pile of polygons on a TV screen as an actual character. Indie title Thomas Was Alone takes that kind of projection to an experimental place, by asking players to identify with blank squares of basic color. Through a novel combination of puzzle-platformer gameplay and witty narration, the game makes you invested in the fate of a group of silent rectangles.

As the title would suggest, the game starts with Thomas all by himself. The small red rectangle is trapped within a defunct computer program, and he’s just starting to learn how to explore the 2D world in front of him, which gives him a feeling of nervous wonder. But how could you know what this blank red rectangle is feeling? The game imbues that empty vessel with a ton of personality, thanks to a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-style British narrator.

“…your continually growing options keep the puzzles from getting too predictable.”

The unidentified speaker’s droll descriptions of Thomas’ inner thoughts immediately add depth to the character. The writing creates the same connection when you meet Chris, Laura and the rest of Thomas’ angular new pals, and that understanding is further enhanced by an engaging and fittingly minimalistic soundtrack. By the campaign’s end, the collection of disparate shapes is more memorable than many of the realistic looking humans we meet in most games.

These cubes’ quest for answers and self-discovery starts like a simple platformer, as Thomas learns to hop from one end of the stage to another. Over the next 10 chapters, the game gradually introduces new partners for Thomas’ journey, each with their own unique skills. Some jump higher, some are short enough to squeeze through certain passages, and one helpful fellow can float in water. If the writing didn’t already differentiate the characters, their separate skills keep the standard platforming gameplay fresh.

“…the collection of disparate shapes is more memorable than many of the realistic looking humans we meet in most games.”

A stage can only last a few minutes if you can think fast enough, but it isn’t complete until all characters reach their own exit, making Thomas Was Alone a single player co-op adventure to keep your party together. You’re swapping between characters constantly to find the correct path out of a stage. Sometimes the solution is as simple as creating a stairway for the weaker jumpers of the group to climb up to the top of platforms, but others are a multistage process to get each team member in the right space across a huge area. And as your team is continually adding new members, your continually growing options keep the puzzles from getting too predictable.

The variety of abilities keeps you on your toes, but none of the stages are too daunting. The game introduces you to your new teammates at a natural pace, so you never feel like a solution is out of your grasp. Some of the final stages might seem like they’ll twist your brain into knots, but as long as you remember all the tools at your disposal, the answer isn’t far away.

No one would mistake Thomas Was Alone for a AAA release, but don’t hold its relatively short length and abstract graphics against it. The game plays to its strength with clever puzzles and cleverer writing. Once you get to really know these mild-mannered cubes, you’ll want to follow their adventure all the way to the end.

This game was reviewed on the PS3.

Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon review(Acceptable in the 80s… terrific in 2013)


Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon is a gloriously silly game. It’s the kind of game you get when developers have a chance to really let their imagination run free. And while that zaniness could quite easily have gone awry, Blood Dragon remains a smart, violent action game that’s wholly worth its $15 / 1200 MS points price. And even better, it doesn’t require the original Far Cry 3 to play.

The story is wildly different to Jason Brody’s adventure. You play as Rex Colt, a cyber-soldier and all-American hero sent to an island to foil the world-domination plans of an ex-Colonel gone mad–think early Schwarzenegger films like Commando. Along the way you’ll battle cyborg soldiers, be horrified by mutated animals, meet a brilliant, sexy lady scientist, and disarm nukes to save the world. It’s classic ’80s stuff.

“It’s a collection of the best 80s action movie cliches, wrapped around Far Cry 3’s deliciously violent gameplay

However, in terms of gameplay, it’s virtually identical to Far Cry 3. Blade takedowns, scouting out locations, liberating garrisons, shooting wildlife, even realistic fire–it’s all here. If you haven’t played Far Cry 3, there’s a light-hearted tutorial to familiarise you with the controls and how to play the game. The tutorial actually makes fun of itself, referencing the fact that you probably just want to start blowing stuff up immediately and Rex, even grumbles about being constantly interrupted by instruction screens.

In fact, it’s Rex and his supporting cast that really make Blood Dragon. While the ’80s themes and early ’90s visual style make this game feel very different to Far Cry 3, it’s the smart, often satirical dialogue between characters that will put the smile on your face. “If guns make me safe, then big guns make me safer” growls Rex as he picks up the Terror 4000 mini-gun. “He got the point,” he puns while stabbing a man through the chest with his knife. It’s a collection of the best ’80s action movie clichés, wrapped around Far Cry 3’s deliciously violent gameplay, and finished off with an original, electro soundtrack that oozes retro cool.

Cut-scenes, done using Contra-style 2D character models, are incredibly well observed”

Cut-scenes, done using Contra-style 2D character models, are incredibly well observed, perfectly capturing the camp spirit and style of late 80s / early 90s action games. While the voice-work is crisp and clean, the dialogue intentionally sounds like it’s being read directly from a game like the original Bionic Commando (clunky writing and all).

In addition to the stylish new look, Blood Dragon does add a few new gameplay elements to the Far Cry 3 formula, the most significant of which are the titular Blood Dragons. These massive t-rex style beasts roam the island (which is about half the size of FC3’s first landmass) attacking anything they find with teeth or massive laser beams that shoot from their eyes. Oh yes! They glow a different neon colour dependent on their mood–green is passive, orange is curious, and red is angry. Early on, the Blood Dragons are intimidating, but they lose menace as you get hold of the game’s more powerful weaponry. If you don’t want to get into a fight, you can sneak past, or lob the hearts ripped out of your cyborg enemies to distract them. You’re encouraged to work out how to lure Blood Dragons into enemy outposts to do most of the murdering for you, although this can be more trouble than it’s worth, because you then need to kill or remove the Blood Dragon to claim the outpost.

“You need to kill or remove Blood Dragons to claim outposts”

The Blood Dragons are one of only a handful of genuinely new features. Sure, all the weapons are different, but they’re just futuristic versions of Far Cry 3’s armoury. Even jeeps and jet-skis are largely the same, and the wildlife is just cyber versions of their real-life counterparts. We appreciate the fact that Ubi have tweaked the gameplay slightly to make Blood Dragon more immediately fun than Far Cry 3–so Rex can run much faster than Jason, most abilities are unlocked from the start, and you can fall from pretty much any height without losing health. New side-missions include ‘scientist rescues’ (humorously called ‘Save a nerd’) but they feel very familiar. We’d like to have seen something else that’s genuinely new to freshen up the action a little.

Another potential bug-bear–although it didn’t bother us–is that the game takes place in a dark, post-apocalyptic future. While the neon of your cyborg enemies and the bases they patrol is bright, the island you explore is dark all the time, so you might find yourself craving some of the lush, tropical colours of the original Far Cry 3. Perhaps if Blood Dragon was longer than 6-10 hours–depending on how many side-missions you tackle–it’d start to grate. For us, though, the game feels the right size; it never outstays its welcome, the jokes never get stale, and it definitely goes out with a bang… although not quite the bang we were expecting.

“The jokes never get stale, and the game definitely goes out with a bang…”

Minor criticisms aside, Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon does a fantastic job of servicing the demand for retro nostalgia, but inside the comfortable setting of a very modern, very well-made shooter. It’s the best of both worlds: it looks like a fun retro game, but plays like a properly modern one. What it lacks in genuinely new features it more than makes up for in pure style, and although it controls in exactly the same way as Far Cry 3 the setting makes the action feel fresh. The game itself may be gloriously silly, but we seriously advise you to give Blood Dragon a try.

This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.

Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine review


Few titles can borrow thematically from classic games and film yet feel utterly original. Within the first few minutes of playing Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine, echoes of Pac Man, Ocean’s Eleven, Gauntlet, Metal Gear, Clue, and Wizards of Wor–to name just a few influences–will rattle through your consciousness. The entire package, however, is as fresh and fun as any of the long list of stellar independent games we’ve seen within the past year or so, with the added bonus of being a delight in a single-player or multi-player fashion.

The core of Monaco is a heist story featuring a host of 8-bit art style characters with their own specialty. Each level unfolds as a quest to capture a key item or escape to a getaway vehicle, all presented in a top-down perspective on maps clearly made with a fine eye for detail. Levels are rife with myriad obstacles and items; security cameras can be temporarily disabled by hackable computer terminals, disguises can be accessed for brief forays in the open, while vents, closets, and bathrooms can be used to hide from prying eyes. These are but a few of the dozens of objects that can be used to accomplish your mission, and it’s this variety that keeps the gameplay fresh and interesting throughout Monaco.

“…as fresh and fun as any of the long list of stellar independent games we’ve seen within the past year.”

Loot permeates each area as well, providing not just satisfaction for completionists but access to additional gadgets for the mission and the ability to unlock stories from other campaigns. Monaco is one of the few games that stealth feels natural and not punitive; but, when all else fails you have the option to use weaponry. Enemies are everywhere, whether in the form of security guards that will happily gun you down or attack dogs that pounce when they pick up your scent. When you feel the need to resort to gunplay, it’s most often as a last resort when you’re surrounded. Monaco realizes its strength is in its stealth gameplay, though, and ammunition is scarce as a result. Quite often, your best chance of success is based upon hiding in the bushes, a bathroom, or a vent and waiting for your enemies to give up and walk in a different direction.

Even more variety is introduced to the game through the eight different character types you can choose from. Each class has its own unique skill–the Locksmith opens doors and safes quickly, the Pickpocket has a pet monkey (!) that helps garner loot faster, and so on. Some levels lend themselves to particular characters better than others, but each can get the job done with a skilled and patient hand, and you’ll appreciate running through levels with different characters.

There are two campaigns, each with a different take on the overarching story. A big part of Monaco’s appeal is the replayability of the levels once you learn the layout and the types of enemies you’ll face. In addition, trying out different characters and pathways to success–and climbing up leaderboards while you’re at it–gives it wider appeal; it’s not just a race to the finish.

“Clearly, it’s possible to be inspired by many unrelated influences that yield an original, delightful, and frenetic outcome.”

Monaco pulls off a difficult feat beautifully–namely, it’s a lot of fun playing on your own as well as with friends. The single-player mode can definitely be tough, because you can’t be revived by a compatriot nor can you benefit from someone pulling off cool tricks like turning off the power on one end of the map the moment before you burst into a room and eliminate a bunch of enemies. On the other hand, when playing on your own and get killed, you simply pick a different character and jump right back at the same spot.

It’s clear that Monaco is a labor of love, from the meticulously detailed levels to the quirky art style and devilishly complex experience. Clearly, it’s possible to be inspired by many unrelated influences that yield an original, delightful, and frenetic outcome; Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine is living proof.

This review was conducted using the PC version of the game.

Dead Island Riptide review


Dead Island doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation. Techland’s open-world zombie adventure was rife with game-breaking bugs when it launched in 2011, so we couldn’t help but approach Dead Island Riptide with a healthy dose of cautious optimism. Thankfully this sequel only reanimates the fun (and quirky) parts of its predecessor, leaving a vast majority of its plaguing technical issues to rot in the ground, never to return. Riptide is the more polished experience the original should’ve been, and is an immensely addictive and enjoyable open-world game in its own right.

 

 

It picks up right where Dead Island left off, with the four original protagonists (as well as a new playable fifth) finding themselves shipwrecked on the island of Palanai. Riptide doesn’t make a great first impression, though. The prologue is boring and uninteresting, serving as a clumsy attempt to bridge the story to that of its predecessor, and its waypoint system tends to work only when it feels like it. But once you start digging into the quests on Palanai, Riptide becomes considerably more enjoyable. There’s a ton of zombies to kill, plenty of flooded areas to explore (because flooding is apparently Riptide’s thing), and lots of cash and weapons to find.

Like Dead Island’s Banoi, Palanai is a seemingly beautiful place at first. It’s home to flowing waterfalls, sandy beaches, and several flooded inland villages, all of which are gorgeous to behold, especially on a decent gaming PC. But it doesn’t take long before white sands give way to the blood-soaked beaches and gruesome carnage left behind in the wake of a nasty zombie outbreak. The immersive atmosphere here is impressive; environmental clues and chilling audio diaries provide plenty of context regarding the fate of Palanai’s unlucky inhabitants, and these subtle details tell a far more interesting story than the comparatively dull (and overly familiar) main quest arc. Though its story falls flat, Riptide still manages to build and maintain an immense amount of tension. There’s rarely a reprieve from the onslaught of the undead’s guttural moans and shrieks, which are constant reminders that every inch of Palanai is inhabited by something whose sole interest involves eating you alive.

“Though its story falls flat, Riptide still manages to build and maintain an immense amount of tension.”

Finding the sources of said moans and shrieks and subsequently bashing their skulls in is the primary reason you’ll play through Riptide’s 18-hour campaign. Each of the playable characters is proficient with certain types of weapons and has a unique set of skill trees, providing some incentive for multiple playthroughs. Washed up rapper Sam B, for instance, is particularly good with a sledgehammer and can be specced to withstand a ton of damage, while newcomer John Morgan is adept at powerful running jump kicks that send zombies flying (a hilarious spectacle).

The brutal, weighty melee combat is a well-designed experience you won’t find anywhere else, and it’s something you’ll encounter a lot of regardless of which character you choose to play. You’ll really get a sense of the momentum that comes with swinging a giant maul, especially when the force of its impact turns a zombie’s head into chunks of mush. Most encounters only pit you against a couple zombies at a time, but bigger engagements are sprinkled throughout, providing a high level of challenge (and, for console players, some troublesome frame rate dips).

“The brutal, weighty melee combat is a well-designed experience you won’t find anywhere else…”

Don’t expect to just run into a group of zombies swinging like a madman, though; each undead walker can dish out a lot of damage and you’ll have to be mindful of your stamina meter, which drains with each swing. You’ll be susceptible to getting knocked off your feet once it’s depleted–that’s bad news if a few flesh-eaters are nearby. For a bunch of mindless creatures driven by instinct, zombies in Riptide are good at sneaking up on you when you’re not paying attention. As in Dead Island, weapons degrade as you use them, but a plentiful number of repair benches and significant adjustments to the auto-save system mean you won’t ever find yourself stuck in a checkpoint where you’re equipped with broken armaments and surrounded by powerful enemies. Battles are persistently fun, a much-welcomed change compared to Dead Island’s crippling design elements.

Of course, the combat wouldn’t be quite as exciting if it weren’t for all the loot it inevitably leads to. As you complete quests and explore, you’ll come across dozens of weapons and items, including swords, grenades, explosive mines, Wolverine claws (seriously), firearms, and tons of other instruments of death. Most of these can be upgraded and modded to become even stronger. Jamming a bunch of nails through the business end of a baseball bat makes it a tad bit deadlier, as does strapping torches to both ends of a bo staff. Even guns–which are far more powerful in Riptide than they were in Dead Island–can be modded to add shock damage or other types of additional effects. The seemingly endless variations of weapons and the quick rate at which you’ll replace old ones will turn even modest looters into full-blown addicts.

“The seemingly endless variations of weapons and the quick rate at which you’ll replace old ones will turn even modest looters into full-blown addicts.”

Solo play is a far more viable option than it was in Dead Island, and going it alone makes for an intense, atmospheric survival experience. Add a few friends to the mix, though, and things get exponentially goofier. Watching other characters drop kick zombies from a high ledge–a new thing anyone can do–is hilarious, as is witnessing your pals swing at the special infected zombies with boat oars and katanas (though this has the side effect of making Riptide’s janky character animations become super obvious). It’s easy to hop in a game, and a scaling mechanic means you can contribute even if you join the game of a high-level player, eliminating basically any barrier from playing with your friends whenever you want.

Considering Riptide’s large scope, it’s a surprisingly smooth ride. Its addicting zombie-slaying action, dozens of interesting weapons, and immersive qualities far outweigh its dull story and occasional technical hiccups, the latter of which pale in comparison to those of the original. This outshines its predecessor in almost every conceivable way–and once it sinks its teeth into your time, Riptide is a hard game to put down.

This game was reviewed on PC.

ShootMania Storm review


ShootMania Storm is a trip back to a time when competitive first-person shooters were simply about hunting down your opponents and making sure you didn’t get shot. There are no guns to choose from, no ammo to worry about, and no cover controls to learn. Instead, what you get is a barebones shooter that rewards skill and technique without any of the frills that we’re used to from the more popular FPS titles out there.

One of the most important things that makes ShootMania stand out from today’s shooters is that it focuses on accuracy over damage. Two shots anywhere is all it takes for you to get killed, so you’ll need to master the game’s simple controls of jumping and shooting to evade fire and take down your opponents. These controls are simple enough for FPS beginners to enjoy, but mastering the technique of leading a shot is key to scoring kills.

Matches themselves are quick to get into, thanks to the various familiar modes the game offers. After navigating your way through some confusing menus, you can choose from the game’s pre-created modes, most of which offer variations on free-for-all, team, and King of the Hill-type matches. One ingenious mode in particular features a cyclone that slowly makes its way to the center of the battlefield, forcing players closer together for chaotic sudden death shootouts.

“…a barebones shooter that rewards skill and technique without any of the frills that we’re used to…”

ShootMania takes a novel, if simplistic, approach to weaponry, as it supplies everyone with the same energy gun that fires four shots before it needs to recharge. That means no interchangeable rocket launchers, sniper rifles, shotguns or other standard FPS fare. Not only does this put everyone on the same playing field, but you won’t have to worry about picking the right weapon for a specific situation. Some maps do offer special zones where your weapon magically transforms into a rocket launcher or a sniper, but these areas seem unneeded as they leave you vulnerable. You’re better off with your default weapon, even if shooting the same bullets tends to get old after a while.

For better and worse, the game also doesn’t offer a leveling system. In the hands of skilled players, some matches can culminate in tense stand-offs between two opponents strafing back and forth, hoping to anticipate their opponent’s moves and land that last shot. However, you’ll likely start to feel like the game doesn’t offer anything more than what it comes with. Winning matches simply increases your global and local leaderboard rankings, but victories don’t offer anything else that makes you feel like you’re making progress. You’re not playing for experience points, unlockables, or new weapons, so despite having accessible controls and mechanics, ShootMania actually feels like a game tailored to competitive players that are satisfied with just winning. Those who don’t live for the sheer thrill of victory might find themselves wanting more.

“…actually feels like a game tailored to competitive players that are satisfied with just winning.”

To remedy this, Nadeo also supplied the game with an impressive level editor that lets you design your own battlefields and decide what rules to give your matches. Offering a basic and advanced level creator, the editor includes all of the components from the core game, and it lets you test out your levels and rules before creating them and sharing them with the world. You may not be making any progress, but designing your own maps and inviting some friends over for frantic battles with rules you created is a rewarding experience that not many modern FPS games offer. When it comes down to it, much of ShootMania’s replayability lies in the hands of its community and the variety of inventive stages you’ll encounter on its servers–and so far, there are plenty of creative modes to explore.

As fun as it is to create your own worlds, the levels you’ll play through and create repeat the same generic visuals that make the game feel stale after playing through them dozens of rounds in a row. Even the default stages are easily forgettable, and don’t provide any sense of wonder or context as to what world your vapid avatars inhabit. The strange soundtrack that loops in the background is also uninspiring and doesn’t match the action on the battlefield, sounding more like futuristic menu music than something you’d expect from a match to the death.

“…ShootMania Storm is like a blank canvas for FPS fans’ creativity.”

Despite its bland and overly simplistic exterior, ShootMania Storm is like a blank canvas for FPS fans’ creativity. Players who miss the days of Unreal Tournament matches will appreciate the game’s simple and uncomplicated gameplay, but those looking for more than basic victories should look elsewhere. It’s not a game everyone will appreciate, but priced at $20, those who want a classic, fast-paced competitive shooter should pick this one up.

Dishonored review


Editor’s Note 4/19/13: Scroll down for  review of Dishonored‘s DLC update, The Knife of Dunwall.

Historically, new IPs with unique worlds don’t pop up as frequently when it’s several years into a console cycle. But with Arkane Studios’ Dishonored, the first-person, stealth-action title sneaks in, like its hero, and catches you completely off-guard with its overall quality. Dishonored arrives with a unique world filled with fascinating characters and intensely entertaining stealth-based combat. This strong core is topped off with the inclusion of player choice and the ability to create your own path in the world, making a thoroughly satisfying experience.

You play as Corvo Attano, the famed Lord Protector of the Empress of Dunwall. The city has seen better times, and is afflicted with an infectious rat plague that’s turning the citizens into zombie-like, blood-crying Weepers. Upon returning from an assignment to find a cure for the plague in a neighboring empire, Corvo witnesses the Empress’s assassination and kidnapping of the Empress’s daughter, Emily, and is rendered helpless. He is quickly accused of regicide by the true perpetrator and self-proclaimed Lord Regent (Hiram Burrows). But with the help of an underground resistance group, Corvo escapes captivity, meets with the band of loyalists and, begins setting plans in motion to rescue Emily and enact revenge on those responsible.

Players receive missions from the Hound Pits, the Loyalists’s home base. From here, you’ll head to an open mission area by boat where you can gather details on your target, discover secret paths, and decide what course of action you’ll take. Every target can be assassinated, but with additional effort, each one can be neutralized through unique, non-lethal means. So, instead of simply stabbing them in the neck, you can manipulate situations to get the target banished, humiliated, or even kidnapped by a “secret admirer.” It is incredibly rewarding to successfully complete the optional side missions required to pull off the non-lethal solution. You’ll learn everything there is to know about the dense world lore and the interesting target characters–like their motivations, and personalities–through journals, voice recordings and NPC gossip. Then, once you find out how horrible of a person the targets are, you’ll feel satisfied when you give them a punishment that’s (in most cases) much worse than death.

“…filled with fascinating characters and intensely entertaining stealth-based combat.”

The entire world setting immerses you in the story and creates motivation for you to rid Dunwall of it’s corrupt political figures. You explore the visually striking, Victorian-inspired city, covered in graffiti–protesting the oppressive overlord. Plagued corpses lie on sidewalks and fill rotting apartment buildings. The characters are believable, intriguing, and unpredictable–forcing you to consider the fate of every prominent character, even the Average Joe security guard. Every mission environment feels different from the last, ranging from dank, underground sewers and long abandoned whale oil factories to royal mansions and exclusive burlesque houses. But Dishonored truly excels at pulling you in with its integration of player choice.

The story maintains its intrigue by showing how your actions impact the game world. Whether you choose to assassinate or spare a target, your number of kills, or the more you make your presence known to your enemies, they all increase the world’s chaos rating. Doing less desirable actions makes Dunwall a drearier place, giving true weight to your choices. A high chaos rating fills the streets with additional weepers and rats, but it also has a psychological impact on your companions and their attitudes toward you. You can be seen as a ruthless killer, or a merciful savior, making the story all the more engrossing as you see the impact you are making.

Corvo has a variety of weapons and abilities at his disposal. Assassin-style weapons like his retractable short sword and one-handed crossbow make up his standard arsenal, but he also has access to supernatural abilities–bestowed upon Corvo by the celestial Outsider–that allow him to transport himself short distances, summon rats, and freeze time. Each of these abilities are earned and upgraded by collecting runes, and Corvo can get minor bonuses from finding and equipping bone charms. Collecting the runes and bone charms encourages exploration, but it can become annoying when the on-screen pop-ups continuously remind you to upgrade and force you to enter the menus to get rid of them.

 “The story maintains its intrigue by showing how your actions impact the game world.”

Although Dishonored has a sequential level structure, the missions are far from linear. The way you approach a goal is completely up to you. If you’re interested in action and gruesome kills, you can charge through guards with adrenaline fueled melee kills, explosive grenades, and Jedi-like force pushes. Or you may decide to get creative by combining your weapons and abilities to almost absurd levels, which is incredibly amusing. You can summon a horde of rats, freeze time, attach a spring razor (proximity mine) to a rat, possess the rat, then walk it over to a guard, the spring razor will release, shredding the guard to meaty chunks. The multiple combat options allow you to play your own way while making you feel like a powerful super-ninja, but ability limitations and powerful enemies ensure missions won’t be a walk in the park.

Unfortunately, starting off with limited abilities and weapons in the beginning of the game might leave a bad taste for some players. Some of the earlier challenges are abnormally difficult, simply because you don’t have to abilities like Time Bend or Rat Swarm to help you get out of sticky situations. Without the more powerful skills, your success will be more dependent on trial and error, which can become discouraging.

“Dishonored is a game that you won’t want to miss.”

Alternatively, you can completely “ghost” a level, leaving none the wiser to you ever being there. But, taking the stealth route is boring compared to more violent methods. You can find clever ways to circumnavigate enemy guard positions and find hidden paths in the nooks and crannies of the environment, but you’ll also have to forgo the system of combining the weapons and abilities we mentioned before. The fun-factor of patiently hiding in the shadows pales in comparison to dismembering adversaries with magic powers or sticking your retractable blade through an enemy’s chin. However, the alternate outcomes and multiple story endings lend themself well to more than one playthrough. So, getting your bloody rampage fix on the first run may inspire you to make the next pass a bit more subtle.

Dishonored combines a beautiful, stylized world filled with colorful characters, and gameplay freedom to form a fantastic adventure that you will want to revisit again and again. The open-style missions–combined with the weapons and abilities–make a thrilling playground to explore, tough enemies present a significant challenge, and the multiple outcomes, characters, and setting create an exhilarating world to discover. Dishonored is a game that you won’t want to miss.

 

Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall DLC review

Corvo Attano’s story is done, but there are still other tales to be told from the city of Dunwall. Dishonored’s first DLC offering, The Knife of Dunwall, is set immediately after the assassination of the empress at the beginning of the original game and puts you in the role of Daud, the leader of the assassin order called The Whalers. The DLC takes you through three challenging missions, gives you access to new powers, and lets you dive deeper into the lore of Dishonored. And guess what? Those additional missions are absolutely worth your time.

The Knife of Dunwall gives you more insight into the mind of the master assassin in the first part of a two-part story. Daud’s struggle with guilt over the murder of the empress and the downfall of Dunwall, as well as his subsequent path to redemption, is a compelling setup. But with the story being broken up into two parts, the story feels like it’s just that; a full story that has been chopped in half. That is to say, the intriguing introduction to the bad guy ends incredibly abruptly with a weak twist.

“Those additional missions are absolutely worth your time.”

Some of the environments are particularly striking. For instance, the first level takes you through a whale oil factory that contains butchers torturing civilians and a massive whale being drained of its valuable fluids, while it’s still alive. The corrupt moments you witness drive home the concept of Daud’s guilt and opens up the character as more than just a heartless murderer.

Outside the underwhelming ending, the DLC maintains the excellent stealth-action gameplay of the original, and gives you a few twists on the classic powers to experiment with. The levels are as challenging as ever, with multiple options in terms of the path you take to your target and whether you eliminate them lethally or just ruin their lives. You’ll also get a chance to explore more of the corrupt city’s underbelly, both in the environments and in the diaries, books, and notes you find.

“…you’ll have to wait for part two to see if Daud’s tale will be a full, compelling story.”

Daud’s alternate weapons and powers give players a few less options than what Corvo had and your abilities rely more on distraction than straight stealth tactics. The original rat summoning power now calls a helpful assassin to your side, possession is completely missing, and you now have enemy-stunning Chokedust grenades at your disposal. These options give you fewer avenues to be stealthy and creative with kills, since tactics like possessing enemies and walking them into deathtraps is impossible. However, the core gameplay is still strong, even if Daud’s abilities lean more towards the Chaos path.

Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall is an entertaining experience from a gameplay standpoint. It hits the highpoints of the original game as you carefully ghost through the environments or brutally assassinate everyone you see. If you’re looking for more of Dishonored’s stealth-action gameplay, The Knife of Dunwall will definitely scratch the itch, but you’ll have to wait for part two to see if Daud’s tale will be a full, compelling story.

Our Verdict: Buy it