CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As a kid, before I ever picked up a video-game controller, I had a certain fondness toward puzzles. I loved looking at the picture on the box, laying out all of the pieces in front of me and beginning the tedious process of transforming those pieces into a finished product. Sometimes I would build the border first, then fill in the middle. Other times I would simply put together pieces as I found them and let the puzzle develop naturally. But regardless of the route I took to reach the conclusion, I always felt a sense of accomplishment from placing that final piece into its hole.
If you're wondering what this little personal history lesson has to do Arkane Studios' latest hit, "Dishonored," it's this - the feeling I got from solving puzzles all those years ago is the same feeling I got from successfully completing missions in "Dishonored." In both instances, I started with only a basic idea of what I needed to accomplish and the tools needed to achieve that goal. But instead of putting together puzzle pieces, in "Dishonored" I was combining my assassin's skills and tools to extract revenge on those who framed me for murder and sentenced me to death.
Indeed, the most impressive feature of "Dishonored" is the sheer freedom it gives players to reach their goals. Most missions begin with you only knowing the general location of your objective - how you get there, and how you ultimately deal with your target when you get there, is entirely up to you. Use the teleport-like Blink ability to reach high rooftops and avoid patrolling guards on the ground. Take possession of a rat and slip through vents unnoticed. Or take the direct approach, using your blade, pistol and crossbow to eliminate threats with extreme prejudice.
The way you choose to play has implications within the game world. Creating chaos - killing guards or civilians, leaving bodies to be discovered, etc. - causes more rats and weepers (those infected with the plague that is griping the city of Dunwall) to appear, leads to additional guards on patrol, and most importantly has a direct impact on the ultimate outcome of the story.
While "Dishonored" allows you to play however you see fit, it is designed to be a stealth game first and foremost. Which is fine with me, as I enjoyed the chess match that each mission inevitably became. I tried to approach each mission the same - look for a quick way to reach higher ground, take in my surroundings and make note of guards and other characters. From there, it was a matter of staying out of sight, incapacitating those in my way only when necessary and generally trying to be as invisible as possible. But even the best-laid plans tend to go awry, and "Dishonored" forces you to think on your feet constantly and adapt to the ever-changing environment. Once you reach your ultimate target, you're often presented with multiple ways of dealing with them, including non-lethal means. The entire game can be completed without killing a single person, though that is no easy task.
And given the story that drives "Dishonored," you couldn't blame protagonist Corvo Attano for wanting to extract some permanent retribution. As the game opens, Corvo, the sworn personal protector of the empress, is returning from a mission on her behalf seeking aid for the plague that is ravaging Dunwall. But when the empress is slain and her daughter kidnapped, Corvo is charged with the crimes and sentenced to death by those responsible for the deeds. After being freed by a group of rebels seeking to return Dunwall to its rightful rulers, Corvo sets out to avenge her murder. While it has its moments, the best thing that can be said about the story in "Dishonored" is that it doesn't get in the way of the outstanding gameplay that powers the game.
Corvo's skills and equipment can be customized to suit your play style. Finding runes allows you to purchase and upgrade skills however you like, whether it's increasing your speed or the distance you can cover with Blink, or gaining the ability to make the bodies of those you kill turn to dust. Bone charms allow you to further customize your character with special abilities, and the combination of the two, along with purchasable items and upgrades, make it possible to turn your character into an unstoppable killing machine - even if you never kill a single person.
Visually, "Dishonored" is a beautiful game, from its unique color palette to the amazing architecture found throughout Dunwall. There is a great deal of variety in the environments and the buildings, but not so much in the character models. I did notice some occasional clipping issues and some stiff animations, especially during combat, but nothing that proved to be especially jarring. The audio presentation was superb, with quality voice work and a subtle soundtrack that fit the overall tone of the game perfectly.
I had some trouble with the controls, most notably when trying to use the Blink ability to reach a higher point. Sometimes the prompts to jump failed to appear and I also occasionally attacked a guard from behind when I was trying to choke him, but these were rare instances that didn't detract from the overall experience.