Dishonored must have been a tough game to pitch, because it truly defies categorization in this modern gaming industry. It encourages exploration, but it's not an open-world game. There are skills and equipment to level up and collect, but it's not an RPG. You'll hold a pistol and a crossbow in your left hand, but it's not a shooter. And though you can play the entire game without killing a soul, it's not a stealth game in the sense that Thief was. Getting spotted or breaking cover isn't an automatic death sentence; it simply means switching gears.

Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda
Release date: Oct. 9
Price: $59.99

Score: 9/10

It's set in Dunwall, a "retro-futuristic" steampunk city more than a little reminiscent of a fantastical and dark Victorian-era London. A plague borne by packs of hyper-aggressive rats has devastated the population, leaving the survivors sequestered in their homes guzzling snake-oil elixirs. Corvo, the Empress's right hand (and more, if the rumors are true), has just returned from a months-long sojourn in Dunwall's neighboring nations, his petitions for aid rejected, when the Empress is murdered in front of his eyes by assassins with otherworldly abilities. Naturally, Corvo gets blamed for it and thrown in a cell to await his execution.

Some months later he makes his escape, determined to rescue the Empress's kidnapped daughter by cooperating with a group of underground "Loyalists." He'll accomplish that mainly by eliminating, one-by-one, every treasonous perpetrator of the plot to murder the Empress.

Despite how awesome that sounds, the plot is rather color-by-numbers for the first half, though a second act full of twists and betrayals more than makes up for the slow start. Likewise, the city of Dunwall is drab and sad on top, but colorful and dangerous underneath. On the whole, the plot and setting certainly deserve major points for originality. But it's the emergent, dynamic gameplay, and the endless number of choices it presents you with, that'll keep you engaged throughout.


It's got layers

Dishonored isn't about player freedom as much as creating the illusion that there are endless ways to complete any goal—and that illusion is carried out with aplomb. Each of its nine missions is set in a tight-packed and detailed miniature sandbox, populated with NPCs, plague-infected zombies, soldiers and violent religious zealots, elite "tallboys" on mechanical stilts, dogs, swarms of rats, all manner of trap and defense, and massive amounts of loot.

The illusion is crafted within the layers of each individual objective and goal. For example: there may be a few ways to bypass a specific door. Use the key, break it down, or find an alternate route. That's the top layer. But where is the key? You can snatch it from a guard's belt. But it's also hanging on the wall in the gatehouse, and there's one hidden under someone's pillow in the barracks. And an NPC may give you a copy during a chance encounter in an alleyway.

What if you don't want to sneak around looking for the key? Then possess a rat and climb through a busted grate, or simply break the door down with a powerful gust of wind, if you've chosen to unlock one of those abilities. See where this is going?

The game's best mission takes place during an aristocratic masquerade party. Corvo finds an invitation (or he teleports over the wall, or he fights his way in). His goal is to eliminate one of the three noblewomen hosting the party (they're sisters), but first he must discover which one has been in bed with the enemy. Then he has to discover which sister is which (they're wearing masks, remember?). Then he can decide how to dispose of her—slit her throat in front of all her guests, lure her to the storeroom and dispose of her quietly, or find some less violent method?

You could map those choices out with sticky notes, sure, but in practice they make you feel like you've got all the freedom in the world—and that's a beautiful thing.


Tools of the trade

On top of that, Corvo's got a sizable and versatile arsenal at his disposal. He can teleport small distances, see through walls, freeze time, and summon rats; a pistol's useful in a fight, while a crossbow with sleep-inducing bolts is good for sneak attacks. Re-wire tools let you turn enemies' defenses, like walls of disintegrating electricity, against them, and silent, razor-spewing trip mines make deadly traps.

Every tool and ability is available from the start. This way, you're always free to choose your path. Each ability has two levels, and locating the Runes required to upgrade them is as easy as equipping a magic, talking heart and seeking the objective marker. It sounds cheesy, and it is—but it also ensures that players who don't want to painstakingly explore every nook and cranny can still upgrade their abilities.

That's the type of clever design quirk that Dishonored exhibits at every turn. Another is the fact that each ability is far more versatile than it may initially appear; Windblast can harm enemies, but it can also break down some doors. Possessing animals or people is great for sneaking around, but you can also possess into an enemy in the middle of a fight. Blink, the teleportation skill, is essential for combat, stealth, and exploration. Even the Rat Swarm, which seems at first to have little use outside of combat, can be summoned by stealthy players to devour bodies and ensure those kills are never discovered.


The Primer Loop

Dishonored is not without its share of problems. The silent protagonist thing gets a little old, especially during moments when you just wish Corvo would just speak up. And though the AI overall usually performs admirably, given the open-endedness of most situations, it's jarring when enemies fail to notice that their buddies are dropping like flies, or when the same line is repeated across all nine levels by a dozen different soldiers. And while I give the world's overall look and lore a standing ovation, there are some major texture issues.

I feel I should share another phenomenon that affected my experience. I called it the Primer Loop. Primer is a 2004 indie time travel film in which a well-meaning scientist becomes obsessed with repeating a single evening over and over until the reality matches the image in his mind. Dishonored allows you to save and load at any point, and I often found myself falling into a similar pattern, saving every few minutes and re-loading to that point until I did everything perfectly. It's a personal flaw of mine, but I would have honestly preferred not to have that option at all.

Small flaws and personal weaknesses aside, Dishonored is the type of game that begs to be played over and over. It's truly empowering to freeze time, send crossbow bolts into a half-dozen enemies' skulls, and watch them all turn to ash in unison (thanks to another ability that's helpful to stealth players). And a cast of memorable and well-acted characters (Susan Sarandon almost steals the show as Granny Rags—just wait and see) sweetens the whole package even further.

Dishonored co-creator Harvey Smith told me in an interview late in September that he wanted players who made it to the end of the game to feel as if they'd only seen about 30 percent of what it had to offer. And even though I completed most missions painstakingly, exploring everywhere I could and taking the vast majority of enemies out by stealthy means, my first urge upon finishing was to start again, taking a totally different approach, so that I could see the rest of it. And there's no greater compliment than that.