With a blend of genuinely moving characterisation, intense ultra-violent action and some of the best stealth gameplay since the Thief series, Dishonored is one of the most refreshing games we’ve played all year.
It's a first-person adventure that mixes stealth and combat, but how you play is very much up to you. You can sneak about without being seen, grabbing your enemies from behind and rendering them unconscious, or engage in old-fashioned sword-play and gunfights to slash and shoot your foes to bits.
Players control Corvo Attano, former Lord Protector and bodyguard to the Empress Jessamine. You are framed for her murder, starting the game in a dank prison deep within the once-thriving City of Dunwall, which is in the grip of a mysterious rat-borne plague. Naturally you escape, aided by the members of a conspiracy who wish to return the Empress' daughter to the throne, and given a chance to free Dunwall from the tyranny of the usurper Lord Regent while taking vengeance on those who betrayed you.
This path consists of a range of missions and objectives, each one aiming to strike at one part of the Lord Regent’s ruling party until he is vulnerable to a direct assault. Each mission is ostensibly an assassination, but the game always gives you the choice to take a non-lethal approach. When you near your target, you can dispose of them without bloodshed, although the game's dark overtones mean their fate is rarely a happy one.
Taking the non-lethal path is far more rewarding than wading in with all guns blazing. However you approach your target – through the streets infested with plague victims, through the genteel surrounds of noble mansions or over a maze of rooftops, drainpipes and window ledges – there are ways to pick your way across Dunwall unseen. Non-lethal takdedowns of your main targets are also far more intricate than simply dropping from a rooftop and burying your blade in their back.
Not that the combat isn't fun. Swordplay is a tense game of block and counter, and your crossbow and pistol require a steady hand to be effective. Most of the combat takes place in combos, with a gunshot to knock enemies to the floor, followed up by a leap and a quick impale on your sword. The drop-assassination, where you jump from a height and plant your blade in an enemy's back to break your fall, is a seriously satisfying game mechanic.
The steampunk world of Dunwall is a mix of Victoriana, high-tech and magic, which gives Dishonored yet another layer. The mad inventions you find around the city are both a blessing and a curse: the electrical force fields and tesla-style coils can fry you in an instant, but with the right equipment they can be rewired to damage your foes.
Corvo also has access to magic abilities, granted to you by the morally ambiguous Outsider figure, which truly make Dishonored stand out from other stealth games. You can teleport in the blink of an eye, criss-crossing an area right under guards' noses, see enemies through walls and even possess animals and people. The possession mechanic opens up all kinds of possibilities - rather than simply controlling an animal or person, your entire body is subsumed inside the possessed creature, letting you take over rats to scurry through small gaps or possess fish to swim for freedom. Different skills and abilities are unlocked as you progress using mystic runes and charms which are scattered throughout the city. There are endless ways to complete each section of each mission, warranting multiple playthroughs.