If the fear centres of my brain weren't completely full up with spiders (and that's just given me a mental image that's going to squat in my head for a few weeks) then I think Dishonored might have given me a serious phobia of rats.
Seriously: Dishonored's interpretation of our long-tailed friends is horrible. Your first proper introduction to its horrible scuttlers is when a swarm of them attack and kill a pair of guards, quickly reducing the corpses to red stains on the floor. Shortly thereafter, you have to sneak past another load by throwing a corpse to them as a tasty, putrefying distraction. They're fast, they're lethal, and they swarm – and “swarm” is always a pretty scary word. Brr.
They're also a pretty good metaphor for the decay that's going on in the city of Dunwall, which forms the entire setting for the game. Dishonored casts you as Corvo Attano, the Lord Protector to Empress Jessamine (or, if it's easier, “bodyguard and trusted confidant.”) In the game's opening scenes, the Empress is murdered, her daughter is kindnapped, and Corvo is framed for both crimes. After a rather speedy prison breakout, he's hell-bent on rescuing the daughter and taking revenge on the guilty parties with the aid of a band of rebels that are less than happy with the way the city's going.
But I mentioned rats as a metaphor. You see, in the wake of the Empress' death, the city is falling apart. A plague has been sweeping the streets, reducing people to zombie-like Weepers, and it's helped along by the rising number of rats. Sections of the city are being closed off due to infection and infestation. Martial law has been instituted, and the populace is terrified, hungry, and unhappy; graffiti predicting the end of the world adorns the walls, and things are falling into chaos. What was once a beautiful city – and, looking around, it's easy to catch glimpses of what this place used to be – is now darkened, dirty, and fearful. If rats are a symbol of urban decay, then it's hard to think of a fictional place that better fits them.
Interestingly, how far the city falls into decay is entirely informed by your actions. If you – as Corvo – take your revenge as bloodily as possible, slaying as many guards and civilians as you can and executing your targets without hesitation, then the city becomes ever darker and ever more fearful. More rats, more Weepers, more guard patrols. If you instead sneak through the city unseen, only knocking the occasional guard unconscious and finding non-lethal ways of dealing with your targets (some of which are, honestly, more horrible a prospect than death) then things will stabilise somewhat.
Yup: sneaking. It might not look it from the screenshots but Dishonored is a stealth game to the core, and it bears more similarities to the Thief series than pretty much any other game I can mention. Seriously, try to guess whether I'm referring to Thief or Dishonored in the following paragraph.
You sneak around a dark city clearly inspired by Victorian London, but with added elements of steampunk and ritual magic. Levels tend to be open, offering a variety of different approaches to your eventual goal, and these maps are stuffed with treasure to steal and secrets to uncover. These secrets may result in more treasure or in hints to side areas or hidden routes, or they may simply add background detail to the world.
The correct answer is “both of them.” While the two games have their differences, Dishonored is very much a spiritual successor to that much-loved series.
One of the key differences is that Garrett (the protagonist from Thief, although I hope you knew that already) was, although highly skilled, completely human. Corvo, on the other hand... well, he's certainly human, but an early visit from an amoral, godlike being called the Outsider leaves him with supernatural powers. Early on, these let Corvo see through walls and teleport short distances. By the end he'll be able to bodily possess almost anything in sight, send people crashing into walls or off ledges with gusts of wind, summon a plague of rats from thin air, and even stop time – all of which gives him quite an edge over a standard city guard.
What makes this entertaining is that all of this offers you a wonderful degree of choice. Another key difference is that Corvo's teleportation powers give him a greater degree of verticality than Garrett ever had; rather than crouching in the shadows, Corvo can perch, unseen, on the rafters. If two guards are below, then... well, there are dozens of ways the situation can resolve. Let's give a few examples.
Corvo could wait for their patrol to take them elsewhere, and sneak off. He could summon rats to distract and possibly kill them, and head past while they're distracted. He could stop time, fire a crossbow bolt at each, then restart time. He could leap down and skewer one mid-fall, and then kill the other before they could react. He could drop down in front of them and duel them. He could stop time, drop down, kill one, grab the corpse, and then teleport back up before the other one knows what's happened. He could possess one, walk around the corner, and then leap out and hide. He could... oh, I'm sure you can come up with plenty of other possibilities. The point is that this is the sort of game which offers choice in how you deal with every single encounter, and this means it's the perfect breeding ground for breathless tales of your own accomplishments.
You've probably noticed that these powers offer Corvo plenty of opportunity for direct confrontation, and while true, this is rarely the best way to go about things. Part of it is that the game is clearly geared for stealth, as there's always somewhere to hide and watch proceedings, so you'll miss a fair bit if you just charge through like in any first-person shooter you'd care to name. The other part is, simply, that direct combat is rarely satisfying: Corvo's powers mean that it's all to easy to cut a swathe through most enemies, and stabbing a bunch of people in the face isn't nearly as enjoyable as stalking them for three minutes, waiting for a gap in the patrol, and then taking them down from the shadows with ruthless efficiency.
No, this is the sort of game that you really need to drink in. There's something hidden around almost every corner, so exploration rarely goes unrewarded; there are entire areas that are completely optional. Yes, you might find a rune letting you boost one of Corvo's powers, but it's testament to the world building that it's just as satisfying to find a spectacular vista, a notebook detailing some more of Dunwall's background, or simply a room that – by its very presence – explains a little bit more about the world you're in and the attitudes of its denizens.
This also isn't the sort of game that rests on its laurels. Almost every level offers a unique challenge of some description. In some cases it's as simple as a cunning layout or a new type of foe; in others, such as the mid-game level tasking you with infiltrating a masked ball, it completely turns the game on its head. In that instance, you can wander freely without fear of detection while trying to discover the identity of your target and the best way to deal with her without drawing undue attention. Or you can simply massacre 90% of the room in one fell swoop. Up to you.
Dishonored is a fantastic game in almost every respect. Its mechanics slot together superbly, and the sterling level design gives ample opportunity for you to try out all sorts of tactics and strategies. The world never feels anything less than a real place; even after a complete playthrough, there's still the nagging sense that there's a lot more going on in the world than you've seen, and a lot more background detail tucked away.
It's certainly true that if you simply charge from the start of each mission to the goal marker, stabbing wildly at everyone in your path, you'll be done rather quickly and will probably be left rather dissatisfied. If, however, you play Dishonored the way it's meant to be played – if you turn off the waypoints, stay quiet, take your time, and truly explore this grand decaying world – you'd be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying stealth game.
Just remember: there's always a consequence.