Dishonored preview – to be stealthy or not stealthy?

As pre-release previews often teach us, games often set out to offer dynamic, emergent experiences allowing players to tackle them with stealth, aggression, or some style in between. Sadly, final products rarely live up to their full potential, despite their designers’ ambitious goals. Dishonored, Arkane Studios’ promising first-person action entry, may just buck this trend or, at least, skewer it with a length of sharp steel.

Proving their game’s backed by more than marketing-spun bullet points, lead designers Harvey Smith and Raf Colantonio take a novel approach to demo-ing it. Rather than attempting to wow E3 attendees with scripted events and cinematics, they play the exact same mission twice, but showcase a very different play style each time.

Opening in Dunwall, Dishonored’s richly-realized fictional city, we catch up with main character Corvo. Falsely accused of killing the Empress he was sworn to protect, Corvo’s now seeking answers and revenge…well, mostly revenge. Oh, and he’s also a supernatural assassin. Did we mention that?

Tasked with infiltrating a bath house and exterminating two of its best patrons – a pair of crooked politicians – Corvo first adopts a stealthy approach. Utilizing a combination of cover spots and a short range teleport ability dubbed “blink,” he makes his way to the shady establishment. Colantonio claims there’s eight different ways to breach the building, but for this sneaky run Corvo forgoes the front door, window, and rooftop, in favor of a more creative method of entry; conjuring one of Dishonored’s cooler powers, he possesses a fish and swims in via the sewer system.

Now inside the building – and his own skin – Corvo uses “dark vision,” allowing him to peer through walls and pinpoint patrolling guards’ line of sight. Upon eavesdropping on a pair of gossiping working girls, he learns the whereabouts of his targets (their locations are also conveniently updated on a mini-map.) Following a few minutes of sneaking in the shadows, peeking through key holes, and blink-ing between cover points, Corvo finds the brothel’s Madame; creeping up behind the clueless mark, he steals her master key and heads to the basement where his first hit’s apparently relaxing in the steam room.

After quietly siphoning the life from a guard, the shadowy killer accesses the steam bath’s control area with the stolen key. Cranking the heat, Corvo cooks the first target a nice extra crispy before sneaking off to find his second victim. As Corvo continues to carefully navigate the brothel undetected, Colantonio explains that his powers can be upgraded with runes he finds in the world – clutching a creepy mechanical heart will even help him locate these precious gems. We get a taste of Corvo’s upgraded “possession” ability when he takes over the body of his next target, convincing the snooty parliament member to off himself in a way that‘s, well, let’s just say unbecoming of an aristocrat.

Having gotten his sweet revenge, Corvo’s mission comes to a close. As we discover in the second go-round, however, revenge is a dish best served not with a side of stealth, but with a heaping helping of bullets, blades and flesh-eating rats. Immediately displaying his more urgent approach, Corvo forgoes swimming through the sewers in favor of scurrying across rooftops. Combining a double-jump with the blink ability, the fleet-footed death-dealer’s able to navigate Dunwall’s cityscape with ease.

Calling our attention to what he calls a “drop assassination,” Smith lets the leash off Corvo’s blood-letting arsenal. Falling down on a group of unsuspecting guards, the anti-hero unleashes a ballet of bullets and blades that could make Assassin’s Creeds’ killers blush. Abilities such as the Force push-like “wind blast” and action-slowing “time bend” only complement the cinematic display of shattered skulls, sliced throats, and spilled innards.

Carving a bloody swath through guards and prostitutes alike, Corvo pauses only occasionally to trigger “rat swarm.” As sinister as it sounds, the power summons a pack of rodents to viciously tear through targets until they’re reduced to pulpy red puddles. Trading the eavesdropping and keyhole-peeping of the previous play-through for slick combinations of supernatural power and weapon attacks, Corvo’s deadly dance leaves our eyes struggling to keep up with the lightning-quick action. With bodies, blood, and bloated rats in his wake, he tracks down the pair of crooked politicians. His approach to silencing them is far less inventive this time, but it is satisfying hearing one scream for help while the other drops his name in a last ditch attempt to dodge death, even as his entrails stain the pretty carpet.

As much as the two-sided demo sells us on Dishonored’s ability to cater to different gameplay styles, it’s the title’s immersive setting that continues to pull us in. Described by Smith as “a steam punk-inspired cross between plague-era London and an American whaling city in the 1850’s,” Dunwall’s right up there with BioShock’s Rapture and BioShock Infinite’s Columbia in terms of inspired originality and oozing atmosphere; in fact, we haven’t been so taken with a world since setting foot in the former title’s soggy city. Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt Dunwall spilled from the creative mind of Half Life 2’s art director, Viktor Antonov.

As absorbing as its atmosphere is, Dunwall’s population-wiping plague and iron-fisted ruling class doesn’t’ exactly make it the ideal vacation destination. That said, if you’re a vengeance-seeking supernatural assassin wrongly accused of murder by a corrupt government, well, then, you’ll have a hell of a time in Dishonored’s twisted world.

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