Dishonored is something special. It's a self-contained first brick in what is sure to become a larger universe; a stealth action game that lets you play as a creeping assassin, or abandon that notion and go through it as a first-person shooter with mystical powers. Don't want to kill anybody? That's a perfectly executable idea. There are so many options that revisiting the full story more than once for various outcomes is part of the experience.

You are Corvo Attano, royal protector to the unmarried Empress Jessamine Kaldwin and her daughter Emily. It is immediately apparent that extreme care and effort went into the setting of Dunwall, a fantastical city overrun by a rat-spread plague, but it's not like the city of Rapture was to BioShock. BioShock fully explores the story of Rapture, it is the story of Rapture. Dishonored, on the other hand, is not the story of Dunwall – it is merely set there.

There are many elements emphasized regarding life in Dunwall, but hardly any of them are explored in this specific story. It creates a bit of dissonance over time, since set pieces and locales you'd swear should be included are not. This is all to say that Dishonored is the specific story of Corvo Attano and his reaction to the conspiracy against Empress Kaldwin. The mission structure is designed so that Corvo has an assassination target for each level – but remember that you can go through the entire game without killing anybody (more on that later). There are a wealth of options on how to approach each mission. Thanks to mystical gifts provided by the Outsider, an entity whose motives are never fully explored, Corvo will gain the ability to teleport, see through walls, bend time, summon rats, possess living creatures and more.

So, reaching a mark may involve overhearing a conversation about their location, blinking (teleporting) from rooftop to rooftop onto a window ledge, using dark vision to observe enemies through the wall and choosing just the right moment to enter. Then, once inside, possessing a rat in the house, scurrying through a vent (possession in Dishonored is a full transference of body) and finally blinking into the target's room. That's just one stealth approach. Should you choose, you can also just walk through the front door and cut down everybody in your way, summoning rats to gnaw on anyone who gets too close.

Dishonored review A whale of a tale
Killing a mark is forthright and satisfying, but what many will find far more elegant is what I like to call "the fate worse than death." During each mission, a side story is introduced, allowing the player to set wheels in motion so that the mark will instead live out their days in agony or shame. One of the true disappointments of going that extra mile, unfortunately, is that you never get a peek at the "life" you've given them after such wicked mercy.

For those who need not show mercy nor compassion, cold-blooded murder is always an option, of course, and a significant array of tools are available to extinguish life as you see fit. Guns and crossbows can be upgraded to provide incendiary and explosive ammunition, while Corvo's sword can provide better deflection capabilities. The rewire tool, meanwhile, allows Corvo to use the city guards' defenses against them. The "wall of light," for example, only allows authorized personnel to walk through it without being vaporized, while arc pylons discharge electric bolts against those who get too close. Watching a guard unwittingly vaporize himself, as you can imagine, is devilishly entertaining.

Dishonored is remarkably polished, bending stealth action in new directions and offering plenty of freedom. One tried and true genre element it doesn't depart from, however, is a reliance on trial and error. If I knocked something I shouldn't have or accidentally alerted a guard, I just reloaded, since in many cases such mistakes would change the outcome of the level and how I wanted to play. If stealth games are your kryptonite, Dishonored is more forgiving than most, but be sure to save often, because you'll be reloading twice as much and checkpoints aren't necessarily convenient. You can always let the chips fall where they may if you make a mistake, of course (Corvo is heavily armed for a reason, after all).

Dishonored review A whale of a tale
Mechanically, Dishonored hits a lot of right notes. The controls feel good and Corvo's powers can be used in many elaborate ways, all of which are necessary at higher difficulty settings. It's worth noting, however, that it's incredibly difficult to tell when Corvo will be detected by an enemy without using dark vision, essentially making it a required power – despite Dishonored's emphasis on player choice.

I've intentionally avoided discussing several story elements, not only because I hope that they'll be organically discovered by the player, but because I don't know all of them. Between direct assassinations and fates worse than death – not to mention the stories you create for yourself, the ways in which you tackle a given mission – it's safe to say that it will take several plays to explore the different variations and approaches to each level.

Dishonored may have put the cart before the horse in terms of storytelling, building a rich world I want to explore and subsequently telling a story that only scratches the surface of the universe. Just as the pacing really ramps up, it hits a point you think is the beginning of the second act, where everything is going to open up, but it's actually just the buffer level before the ending. I enjoyed the story Dishonored was trying to tell, but wanted more based on the enticing world it teased. I feel like I was offered a platter of postcards and told that only a few locations are available to visit. Still, I suppose it's better to be left wanting more than not to want it in the first place.

What makes Dishonored great are the mechanics made possible by the universe in which it exists. There is a level of replayability and creativity available here that isn't seen in most stealth action games. You aren't just figuring out how you need to get from point A to point B, but how you want to get there. Dishonored is a chat room and water cooler game, the sort where you'll remember your own choices after the game ends. I may not know how Dunwall came to be, but you can bet I'll be talking with friends about the time I've spent there.

This review is based on an Xbox 360 retail copy of Dishonored, provided by Bethesda Softworks.

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