In a world dominated by tightly scripted first-person shooters, rigidly focused platformers and set-piece sandbox games, boundaries are a frequent occurrence and annoyance for the modern gamer. Arkane Studios clearly agrees, and has created a game free of the traditional boundaries and gameplay hallmarks gamers have become accustomed to, one that delivers a refreshingly exhilarating experience with all the makings of an instant classic. I speak, of course, of Dishonored.
A difficult game to pigeonhole, Dishonored is in parts a stealth game, an action game, an open-world sandbox game and a platformer, with elements of first person shooter, swordplay, a little horror and some magic thrown in for good measure. It's not, by any stretch, a particularly new experience – portions of its gameplay are mirrored in countless games across numerous genres, but what Dishonored does so well is to unite these disparate elements into one single, breathtakingly replayable experience. Think Skyrim, mixed with the original Thief games, a bit of Bioshock, and possibly a little Mirror's Edge, and you have a vague idea of the deft way in which Dishonored blends its genres.
The game is a joy to play, with the two-handed combat and first-person perspective lending a visceral, powerful connection that gives the player incredible control over the type of gameplay they enjoy. Favor a quiet, stealthy approach? That's fine, use Dishonored's rune-based magic system and ''blink'' -- that is, fast jump -- around the scenery, moving between shadows. Sneak up behind an enemy, and subdue them with a simple sleeper hold, stashing the body out of sight, or drop onto them from above and slip a knife into their back.
Favor the guns blazing approach? You'll find a whole lot more to enjoy. Wield your sword and gun and hack and shoot your way through enemies, throw grenades, place traps, use scenery to your advantage and employ powerful magic, such as summoning plagues of rats -- Dishonored offers a startling amount of variety when it comes to assassinating your foes. Should you sneak through side alleys, sliding between shadows, taking out targets with stealth, or possess an enemy and turn foe against foe? Do you stop time, fill a room with traps, resume time and watch the ensuing chaos through the keyhole, or lob grenades at your enemies and blink up to a high ledge to enjoy the explosions? Every scene is bursting with variety and choice, and any scripted pieces feel naturally inserted into the action, never presenting themselves as a boundary to the player's creativity.
Combat is handled extremely well, with slow-motion kills, brutal decapitations and excellent controls combining to make every encounter a genuine, fast-paced struggle. The range of ways to kill each opponent never fails to raise a smile -- or your heart rate. The most creative I've found? Use the game's magic to freeze time as an enemy fires a bullet, walk up and possess said enemy, and then place him in front of his own bullet and unfreeze time. It's brutal, it's bloody, and it's a hell of a lot of fun.
It's not without its consequences, however. The game rates each mission – there are nine individual sandboxed missions in total – on the amount of chaos you have caused in each sandbox, and these can not only impact the game world, but also the outcome of the story. Each mission involves disposing of a particular target, either by killing them, or through non-lethal means. How you do this is entirely up to you, and that's where the joy can be found in Dishonored. Show mercy to your foes, kill sparingly, and save the citizens of Dunwall, and you'll encounter fewer rat plagues and infected citizens, and characters you encounter are more likely to remain loyal. Choose a violent, bloody, merciless path on the other hand, and you'll face greater challenges, and NPCs who are more likely to betray you. The game doesn't wish to force you to choose, though, and players will find reward regardless of how they play. What is affected is the game's ending, and I advise multiple playthrough styles to see which characters survive, and which of the two endings you receive.
Indeed, multiple playthroughs are practically a prerequisite for Dishonored. The game world is stuffed full of content for the player to enjoy -- dingy sewers to explore, characters to save or kill, side quests to complete, loot to find, books to read, signs to stare at and conversations to eavesdrop on. Each area is highly rewarding for those who take the time to explore every inch of the game map. It's possible to just run through every level, slicing and dicing, assassinating the target and moving on – indeed, you could be done with the story in a matter of hours, but you'd miss so much of the game in the process. Arkane has crafted a detailed sandbox to play in, and it's a disservice to ignore their efforts.
Of course, all this is moot, as you could waste hours simply staring at the world you inhabit. Dishonored is gorgeous. It's not the most graphically advanced game, and it's not a bright, colorful game, but its aesthetic is easily one of the best in recent memory. Its artistic design mirrors gameplay and refuses to conform to one category, but could loosely be described as Victorian Steampunk, with hints of Fascist Germany sprinkled with a dystopian sci-fi coating. It really is hard to describe, but it just works. Character models are smooth, facial expressions are believable, building and texture design lends the world a lived-in, living feel, and the game uses an excellent lighting engine to provide everything a sense of reality, as if Dunwall were somehow familiar – more so to those who have ever visited London, the game's inspiration. It backs this up with incredible, detailed sound, featuring well-known voices from some famous actors, rich combat sounds and a subtle, dramatic music score that heightens the mood of each setting. More than once a sudden music sting startled me, as I lay in the shadows waiting for a kill.
Among a sea of me-too shooters and sequels, Dishonored is a truly revelatory game, offering a fresh, original, thoroughly engaging experience that every gamer should enjoy. This many genres, this much creative freedom, this amount of replayability, it shouldn't be this good, and on paper, it shouldn't work. And while Dishonored isn't perfect – there's the odd graphical glitch, the story isn't the most original, and the ending may feel sudden and possibly unsatisfying to some – when there's this much on offer, and when it all works so well together, it's easy to overlook such minor flaws. An obvious contender for game of the year, I implore you to pick up Dishonored.