I've spent hours crawling above the plague-ravaged streets of Dunwall, tracing the cables of whale oil-powered security devices, using my magical powers to dart from cover to cover or call up great swarms of rats to eat my enemies whole. I've played as a pacifist force of justice, and a shadowy murder machine, sneaked across rooftops to evade detection, and fought my way through the streets in a frontal assault, and seen the results of my actions play out across missions. After all of that, I can confidently say that Dishonored is a strong contender for game of the year, and more than deserves to take its place in the stealth-action pantheon along with Deus Ex and Thief.
Dishonored puts you in the role of Corvo Attano, the Empress's bodyguard. You soon find yourself framed for her assassination. With the empire in the hands of the man who arranged her death, it falls to Corvo to set things right. While Corvo tends to fall to the flatness common to silent protagonists, the city of Dunwall manages to more than pick up the slack.
Caught in the midst of the rat plague, Dunwall is a dying city full of abandoned buildings, where the nearly-dead wander the streets delirious and roving hordes of rats attack the unwary. Tanks of whale oil power the city's industry, which has mostly turned to devices to keep the infected from trespassing out of the quarantined districts of the city. It feels real and lived in, managing to capture the exotic-yet-familiar feel of London and strangeness of divergent technologies and weird magic without falling into the brass-and-cogwheels morass of Steampunk.
The game's infiltration mechanics are a delight. Even before you add magical powers into the mix, you're able to kill or disable silently from afar with the crossbow, or set targets on fire for a distraction. Shrapnel mines shred patrolling enemies, grenades can be cooked then thrown into unaware crowds, and security devices can be rewired to harm their masters.
However, early in the game, you're given magical abilities by the mysterious Outsider. Each ability you get changes the game in a fundamental way, whether it's teleporting between rooftops or using darkvision to highlight patrolling guards, slowing time to get the advantage in a fight, or possessing rats to travel through ducts or sneak behind enemies. Every power you get opens new possibilities and makes you feel genuinely badass as you use them to evade or destroy the people who oppose you.
When stealth breaks down and fights break out, the game doesn't shy away either. With your sword in one hand and a gadget or spell in the other, fights tend to be quick and brutal for one side or the other. While Corvo can easily handle a sole opponent, being outnumbered will go bad and require a quick escape. It doesn't come up much when you're sneaking, but the environments are pleasantly destructible, with downed enemies slamming into cabinets and breaking glass, or a misaimed swing destroying a chair.
As you go through the game, you'll explore the headquarters of the Overseers, a religious order that opposes the Outsider, sneak through a brothel, make your way through numerous abandoned neighborhoods, and find your way through the flooded district of the city, hardest hit by the plague. The environment tells its own stories, managing to characterize even lowly guards if you look hard enough, but the books scattered throughout the world do the best job of fleshing things out. Whether it's fictional adventure stories from inside the world, the Overseers' holy books, or protest literature against whaling, there's clearly a lot going on in the world, making Dunwall feel even more like a real place that you're exploring.
You'll be doing a lot of exploring, too. There are numerous rare objects throughout the game, whether they're runes, bone charms, or simply loot, and all of it can be used to improve your abilities. Even on my most thorough run, I was missing enough loot to make me want to play through the level again, and every time I played, I found a new route, or else a new hidden objective that would change things later in the game.
There's just so much cool stuff in Dishonored, so many neat surprises, but I'd feel bad listing even one. Its setting is enchanting, its action is engrossing, and there are so many ways to play. The relative safety of a low-chaos run will support the player in the same way as the plagued ruins of a high-chaos run, and every time I saw my actions reflected in what happened, it drew me in even further. The game's graphics drew me in, and the ambient sounds filled out the illusion of creating a complete and immersive world that the game worked so hard to provide.
It's hard for me to find fault with the game. As I look back on my time spent with Dishonored, most of the issues I had were my own fault. While the game lets you escape from pursuers, I was always fast to hit the quickload button instead, and while some enemies were prone to accidental deaths on my pacifist run, most were my fault for tossing unconscious men into rivers, down stairs and off rooftops.
Games like this are a rare breed. A game this dense in content, rich in satisfaction, full of cool mechanics and awesome stuff to do doesn't come along very often, and as long as you've got the head for sneaking around and knowing when to pick your fights, you need to play Dishonored.