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Dishonored: Dunwall City Trials review

National stealth service.

Dishonored is many things, but a casual distraction is not one of them. It's a thoughtful, weighty game in which every action must be weighed, measured and carried out with as much care and precision as you can muster. Such an experience was always going to be tricky to fit into a bite-sized downloadable shell, and Dunwall City Trials - a collection of 10 standalone challenges - is, inevitably, a mixed bag.

The tasks ranged before you vary wildly, teasing elements of the core game out into specific, isolated chunks. While that core game allowed you to play the gleeful murderer, it never tried to mask its disappointment whenever you headed down that road by accident or design. It is, at its heart, a stealth game. It's just one that grudgingly accommodates the occasional bloodbath, tutting at your lack of grace along the way.

Strange, then, that of the 10 trials on offer, only two fit into what most players would consider the “Dishonored experience”. These are the two stealth trials. The rest are divided into three combat trials, two puzzle trials and three movement trials.

It's no surprise that the stealth challenges are the pick of the bunch. The first, Mystery Foe, sets you loose in a small palace map on an assassination mission. The twist is that you must first reach four clues in order to find out which of the numerous characters is your target. It's a stiff challenge: there's no time limit, but there's zero tolerance for being spotted or triggering an alert, and any innocent fatalities mean immediate failure. Thankfully the map is rich with traversal possibilities, whether you favour teleporting across the chandeliers or scurrying through the vents as a rat.

Every challenge contains a hidden doll, adding an additional layer of challenge tying everything together.

The location of the clues and the identity of your target change each time you play, so this is one you'll come back to time and again. Indeed, it could easily have been a mission from the main game, and even in this relatively limited form it's a far more interesting hitman game than the latest Hitman game.

Also hugely enjoyable is the self-explanatory Burglary challenge. Here you must infiltrate a dilapidated mansion and steal six golden clockwork eggs, along with as many other valuables as you can grab. You can be spotted three times before it's game over, but you'll earn more points for evading the many guards patrolling the multi-storey building than for incapacitating them.

What's missing in both Mystery Foe and Burglary are the richer textures of the main game. There's no story being told here, nor will you overhear much in the way of enjoyable gossip while skulking around. A huge part of the appeal of Dishonored lies in the way its compelling world dovetailed with the gameplay mechanics. By scratching only the second itch, Dunwall City Trials offers less of a balm to fans than it might.

The two “puzzle” trials also scratch the right itches. Bend Time Massacre is not only a great name for a band, it's one of the DLC's best offerings. Here, you start out watching characters milling around inside enclosed rooms through large windows. Your job is to kill a set number of them, and the second you break the glass time slows down. The challenge gets tougher with each round, forcing you to explore, find the perfect vantage point, pick the best window to enter through and pick out the environmental hazards that will assist you in your grisly work. Bonus rounds in between each stage offer even more precise conditions to meet.

Your reward for good performance is to unlock an expert difficulty for each challenge, as well as concept art.

Kill Chain is broadly similar, asking you to string together kills with no more than a few seconds to move from one target to the next. It's seriously tough, requiring thorough knowledge of Corvo's varied skillset, and truly dedicated players will find hours of entertainment trying to think their way through this domino rally of death.

Elsewhere, the trials on offer tend to pull so far away from the original game's strengths that their appeal is unavoidably limited. A straightforward wave-based survival arena is moderately amusing, but the slashing and blasting wears thin far quicker than the sneaky stuff - even with a rather neat system that pits rival factions against each other regardless of your involvement, and upgrades your abilities and gadgets between rounds.

Assassin's Run is another challenge that starts out fun before becoming an annoying grind. Armed only with a crossbow, you must move quickly through the environment taking out every guard you see. To begin with it's a sort of speed-stealth hybrid - tough but rewarding. Then it starts throwing gangs of crazed Weepers at you and it becomes more of a frantic shooter. Not bad, but a poor use of Dishonored's toybox. Oil Drop, meanwhile, is little more than Duck Hunt with a Dunwall twist, as barrels of whale oil tumble towards you so you can shoot them.

The movement challenges are stronger, but still feel insubstantial. Bonfires is a checkpoint race by any other name, as you dash and blink around trying to reach red markers before time runs out. Train Runner, meanwhile, is an obstacle course where you simply have to navigate to the end in the shortest time possible. Kill Cascade has you performing drop assassinations as you make your way down a series of dizzying platforms. The harder the kill, the more points you score.

The achievements are, appropriately enough, incredibly difficult and demand perfect performance.

I can see these trials being a hit with the speed run crowd, but they're ill served by Dishonored's sometimes sticky movement and wobbly targeting. Lining up a teleport jump is a fussy affair - on the 360 joypad at least - so having to wrestle with the thumbsticks and radial menus against pretty steep time limits is less fun than it could be.

Taking a “glass half full” approach, you could say that this rather unwieldy spread of mini-games and challenges offers something for everyone, regardless of your style of play. Alternatively, you could bemoan the way that the game's strongest elements are the ones reduced to a couple of trials, and that these are the best ones with the most replay value. I'd gladly have swapped the rather pointless Oil Drop and Bonfires for more chewy puzzles and stealth maps.

The mitigating factor is the price. At just 400 Microsoft Points (or your real money equivalent on PC and PS3) there's not much point feeling too aggrieved that some elements are less to your liking than others. Dedicated single-player story DLC is on the way in 2013, so while this selection of piecemeal distractions doesn't always play to Dishonored's strengths, it's ample to tide us over until something more substantial comes along.

7 / 10