Sneaking Right Past You
Developer: Arkane Studios (Publisher: Bethesda Softworks)

If only sneaking in real life worked like it did in every well-known Bethesda game. You wanna pickpocket that guy and steal EVERYTHING from him, including his money, car, and all the clothes on his back? Well fortunately THERE'S A BARREL THREE FEET AWAY! Just wait "˜til he saunters up behind it, crouch behind and presto! You'll be 2 miles away before he realizes he's naked and no longer in his car.

It's no secret that Bethesda hasn't exactly been top notch when it comes to stealth in their games, which is why their announcement of stealth-heavy action game Dishonored came as such a shock to the gaming community. Sure, Arkane Studios was the one actually developing the content, but with Bethesda's final say, how could this game possibly succeed?

Fortunately for all parties involved, it looks as though Bethesda's influence was minimal at best (or maybe they've learned!!! I'm trying to be more optimistic"¦), because not only does Dishonored succeed as a stealth action game"”it succeeds as one of the best videogames this year.

Dishonored takes place in Dunwall, a maritime city recently devastated by a rat plague. In an attempt to reduce the probability for a second outbreak, the citizens are subjected to terrible restrictions on their personal freedoms, including a mandatory sunrise-sunset curfew (reinforced by sealed windows and doors at night, heavily armed guards, and even a 'Wall of Light' perimeter barrier that vaporizes anyone who touches it). Loudspeakers throughout the city boom propaganda fueled by their controlling government, and anyone who does so much as sneeze is shot on the spot by 'Tallboys' -guards whose mechanical stilts would put Yao Ming to shame.

Dishonored's world is grim, and filled routine, oppression and restriction. Except for you, cuz you're the player, and it wouldn't be a videogame if we didn't break all of the rules a thousand times over.

You play as Corvo Attano, ex-Royal Protector to the Empress of Dunwall who is wrongfully framed of an assassination attempt on the Empress. The framing party is none other than the Empress' consort, who kidnaps the Empress' daughter and seizes power in a chessmaster-like coup shortly after sending you to prison.

It is here where the game picks up, as a group known as the Loyalists break Corvo out of Coldridge Prison in what essentially is the tutorial level. Led by Admiral Havelock, this activist group (involving both rich and poor Dunwall citizens) seeks to overthrow the rogue government and reinstate the missing princess.

Initially, Corvo is given multiple tasks by the Loyalists involving travelling to different districts of Dunwall to incapacitate an influential member of the now makeshift government. As Corvo, you're an all-around offensive terror, equally built for stealth or slaughter. It's up to you to decide whether or not you'll want to invest in the stealth oriented gameplay or go all "Commando garden shed scene" and slice everything in sight with anything you can get your hands on.

On top of that, you can augment Corvo's natural abilities by seeking out magical runes dotted around Dunwall. These runes allow you to harness outlawed magic, which is where the more traditional Bethesda game mechanics take root. Depending on how you branch out your skill tree, you'll be able to teach Corvo to warp his position, control swarms of plagued rats, even slow down time.

For those that are more impatient, ranged weaponry is available, and playing Dishonored as a straight-up shooter is inherently possible. However, this often leads to an inventory shortage, and compounding the issue, leaving corpses in your wake worsens the possibility of the plague returning, as rats and 'Weepers' (diseased humans who are basically now zombies) come by to haunt you and feast on the dead's bodies. So unless you're the Mark Wahlberg in Shooter of shooting gamers, a more mixed playstyle is preferred.

Unlike its Bethesdan predecessors like Skyrim or Fallout: New Vegas, the area found in Dishonored isn't very large in scale; in fact in some areas is linear to the point where levels might as well just be a straight hallway. However, the game truly gets its size and density from how packed it is with opportunities to problem-solve with creativity, verve and experimentation. Every obstacle you encounter usually contains three or four ways to overcome it. For every locked door, there's likely a balcony up high you can teleport to, or a gutter down below that can be infiltrated by your slave rat. Don't have those abilities? Sneak to and eavesdrop on those guards nearby who'll more than likely divulge an alternate route to your destination. If not, steal the key hanging from their belt"¦or just flat out murder them senseless (don't forget that key!).

While the density in gameplay differentiation is definitely something to applaud, it creates a strange dichotomy for the player. Once you become too powerful, why even bother sneaking when you possess the ability to freeze time, and teleport to where you need to be? And while Dishonored attempts to assuage this issue by disallowing your health and mana to regenerate, once you get to a certain point, it's hardly an issue. Sneaking and stealing, a lauded component to the game, typically takes a backseat after gaining these magical abilities, and only becomes useful when stealing potions off the wandering merchant.

Fortunately, Dishonored remedies this balancing issue with what is one of the most important advances to storytelling in gaming I've seen in a while. Dishonored rewards its players with different story endings depending on what playstyle they've chosen throughout the game. Straight up shooters are rewarded with the worst possible ending, while those who vary their playstyle and make sure to balance assassinations with sneakings are rewarded with the best possible story ending. While it certainly doesn't force you to play the way Bethesda intended, it marries gameplay, the old-age facet of videogaming, to storyline, the new-age facet of videogaming still struggling to find its voice.

Suffice it to say, Bethesda dodged a bullet with Dishonored"¦literally. With Arkane Studios as its developer, it found a way to create a mechanically believable, fun stealth game with the rich story and RPG elements typically found in Bethesda games. While most gamers with knowledge of Bethesda's stealth track record might be hesitant, I'm glad to state that this game does not follow suit, and shines as one of the best games of the year.

Grade: A

Stray thoughts:

-Ironically enough, none of the Loyalists seem particularly loyal. Without spoiling much, you get betrayed like, 10+ times in this game from them! Then again, I guess "Loyalists" played better with audiences than "Backstabbers" did.

-Possessing creatures in this game with the Possession rune is FUN! You can possess practically any living creature in the game: rats, fish, horses, etc. Sometimes I forgot what I was supposed to be doing and just Pokemon-ed the shit out of this game.

-Your navigational tool to finding the Magical runes is this grotesque sentient heart, which offers hints and tips when you squeeze it with the left trigger. The cool thing is, sometimes it won't give you tips and just present a haunting message, like 'Why am I so cold?' I won't give away my favorite message"¦just know that it involves brains. And eating them.

-Corvo's magic runes kinda reminds me of BioShock's plasmids (which makes sense- apparently, Arkane Studios helped with design and art on BioShock 2). I just hope I don't run into a Big Daddy somewhere in this game. That was SO Borderlands 2 ago"¦

-Is Arkane Studios and Bethesda Software the new dynamic duo in Western RPG gaming to look out for? Some thought it would be EA/Bioware with Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age"¦but with the direction EA/Bioware's heading, the door's wide open for Arkane and Bethesda
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