There are a few games out there that capture the soul, creating a world that the player just falls into, a world that we haven't seen before, where as much is not said as is said. If I think back to some of the great games of the past, such as Thief or Fallout, part of their appeal was the sheer scope of the world they crafted, where the game itself seemed but a small window that fired the imagination. Dishonored is another such game.
Set in an industrial revolution capital city, beset by a deadly plague, Dishonored creates a world of contrasts; rich & poor, technologically advanced vs squalor, with a hint of magic thrown in for good measure. The plot itself is not enormously unusual (although it has just enough twists to keep it fresh), but what sets Dishonored apart is the way it's told, the depth of characters/environment & the sheer scope of opportunity presented to the player. The world itself is suitably morally dark & ambiguous for the setting, with some excellent portrayals of just what people have to do in such an epidemic. All of the enemies fitted in well with the setting, from City Watch to anti-magic Overseers to thugs & assassins, and I was particularly impressed with the choice of animals as potential antagonists rather than mere backdrop.
There is strong influence present from the likes of the Thief series or Deus Ex, but taken further such that you truly can choose how you will complete each mission. Nothing stops you killing every living thing on the level (if you can), but equally, you can choose how best to be that shadow in the dark that was never seen. Do you save a passerby being mugged in the dystopian backstreets, risking your primary mission with delay in return for potential information & the warm fuzzy feeling of having made a difference in the dark, or do you pass on by, leaving them to their fate? The game reacts to your choices at a subtle level - individual choices tend to feed back immediately if they're going to, but your overall approach is reflected as the game progresses both by the missions & the characters you influence. What sets stealth games apart from most is that the world doesn't revolve around the player; the world instead goes about its business & the player disrupts it. However, Dishonored ensures that the world feels your influence over time - in that sense, the world still does revolve around you, and is a refreshing blend of design choices.
In terms of actual gameplay, the game allows you to pick from a variety of powers gifted to you by the enigmatic chaotic entity The Outsider (chosen & upgraded via runes found during gameplay), as well as a pretty large number of more mundane weapons, and yet the real magic of the game is that you might use none or all of these at your discretion. Do you blink across behind that guard, or snipe them with a crossbow? PC controls are a little fiddly, as the game would really like you to have three primary controls due to the way sword combat is implemented, but once you get a feel for it, combat is well executed & yet remaining challenging if you get into a full-on melee with multiple enemies. The game's defaults aren't necessarily the best but you can remap just about everything, and most importantly, turn off a vast array of 'helpful hints' that make the game significantly more easy - by default you get a pointer to where to go next and alert meters on guards and other such things that no self-respecting stealth player would keep turned on. Dark Vision is a power to use sparingly as well.
At a more technical level, the graphics & sound are absolutely superb. Everything fits. The graphics are a muted palette of watercolours, and thus it's rather like playing in an extremely detailed painting, and yet the choice works well for the setting. It also enables the game to play with fairly minimal requirements as the texturing is pretty low resolution without detracting from the experience. There are a variety of tweaks out there for the engine's ini files to improve the default settings (that are more aimed at a console's limitations) and improve the game experience further. Field of view can be tweaked (thank god) although it could have done with a wider range. Level design is excellent. There are few occasions where you feel like the designers had to throw in convenient cover for the player's sake, and almost always alternative ways to approach every problem. The chaos system enables quite a bit of replay value, along with the challenges of achieving ghost or clean hands playthroughs, or a playthrough without powers... Much like the game itself, the replay value comes from the player seeking new ways to approach the game.
Like any game, there are of course things one can criticise. The lack of use of shadows makes for a sometimes confusing experience until one gets used to simply dealing with line of sight - if the guards are looking at you, chances are they can see you, even if it's night-time and you're in very deep dark shadow. If you're playing from a ghost perspective, the controls are awkward because there's an assumption around use of the sword, when in truth you'll never use it. The game has a combination of hints & powers that really can make the game too easy; it depends on the player's willpower to turn them off and give themselves a challenge. The plot really needed one or two more missions to ramp up the suspense & divert the player to other areas - as it stands it's feasible to sink 20 hours into the game if you're thorough, but only just. Perhaps DLC will address this. It really depends on whether you're the type to blindly follow a pointer to the next objective, or one to wander and enjoy the entirety of the game's world, read every book, find every painting, and so on.
In summary, Dishonored is a superb entry into the stealth genre, worthy of sharing shelf space next to Thief 1-3. It crafts a masterpiece of a world, one that I would be delighted to return to. A thinking person's stealth game where you can perturb the world as much or as little as you like - destined to become a classic, I feel.