"Dishonored" is a rare kind of video game that demands a methodical approach.
This tale of revenge is set in a nightmarish land, where draconian nobles dwell within luxurious mansions, while the impoverished masses scavenge to survive another day. The mysterious plague sweeping the city gives no heed to social status, ravenously felling rich and poor alike.
You are Corvo, a former bodyguard to the empress, framed for her murder and sentenced to die. After escaping execution, you must choose your path carefully. Will you be a subtle hand reshaping the political landscape, or a murderous assassin bent on bloodshed?
Your decisions affect more than just the final outcome -- though that's certainly a factor. The more chaos you spread through violent actions, the more grim the world around you becomes. A bloodthirsty player will see swarms of deadly rats roaming the streets and scores of citizens succumbing to disease. Moving in the shadows, leaving enemies unaware and finding non-lethal ways to deal with your foes, however, brings hope to a world otherwise destined for destruction.
The city's evolution grows more drastic with each mission. A route once safe to walk now swarms with guards who attack on sight, while ominous watchtowers sweep the streets in search of threats.
Dunwall isn't a particularly massive city, but it hides secrets around every turn. Careful exploration unravels a rich narrative piece by piece. A hastily scribbled note here, a journal entry there, a scientist's calculations and a series of audio files -- woven together, these threads reveal an exhausting account of the city's history, its customs and how life has been shaped by the arrival of the plague.
Similarly, Dunwall's architecture begs meticulous examination. It's possible to stroll through the open slaying everyone who crosses your path. Much more rewarding, however, is slinking unseen through the outskirts. Sewers, rooftops and back-alley passages all offer clandestine means to achieve your goals. The attention to detail is staggering and, even ravaged by illness and corruption, Dunwall is beautiful to behold.
Minor gameplay issues occasionally break the immersion. Enemy detection is spotty, visual glitches pop up here and there, and collision issues forced a handful of restarts. Even so, developer Arkane Studios deserves praise for creating a unique, steampunk world groaning under the heavy weight of oppression.
To rid Dunwall of its vile rulers, Corvo unlocks supernatural abilities by collecting magical runes hidden throughout each mission. Stealthy players can watch enemies through walls, teleport to nearby vantage points and possess animals and humans to traverse restricted areas undetected. Ruthless assassins can call forth swarms of rats to gruesomely devour their enemies or stop time for effortless up-close kills. Non-magical items, such as sleep darts and razor-wire traps, also aid each manner of play.
As a pure killing machine, however, Corvo is simply overpowered. You could maniacally murder your way from start to finish and complete the main quest in less than seven hours, but it wouldn't do "Dishonored" ($60; PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360) justice.
I found the most enjoyment mixing tactics, catching enemies unawares when possible and reveling in the chaos of battle when cornered. I often replayed missions several times with drastically differing results, exposing just how deep and varied the experience can be.
If you're willing to invest the necessary effort, "Dishonored" is a limitless playground. Those who favor stealth and exploration are sure to find a deeply rewarding experience.
Final score: 9 out of 10
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