Dishonored PS3 review – many kinds of magic

The genius of Dishonored is primarily evident in its flexibility. Example: it’s late in the game. You’ve specialised in a few abilities and you’re well-practised with them. A ten-foot armoured Tallboy soldier blocks your path, accompanied by two footsoldiers – you need to get to the building behind them. The stilt-wearing scumbag spots you and fires off an incendiary arrow. You stop time and leave the arrow suspended in the air, switch to your possession power with a flick of L2, occupy the Tallboy and walk him into the path of his own arrow. With time still paused, you hop back out and Blink up to a second-storey window, ready to unpause undetected and watch the fireworks.

Or, you could spend an hour sneaking around, knocking each guard unconscious and dragging them into various unoccupied rooms of the pseudo-Victorian, pseudo-London public house playing host to the murder party. Or you could fire an arrow into the whale oil tank the Tallboy’s carrying on his back, lob a few sticky grenades at him until he tumbles, then engage with each group of guards, stopping time, firing arrows at all but one, then ‘hiding’ in the sole survivor and walking him off to somewhere… secluded.

Or play it like a straight shooter and fill everyone with antiquated lead in real time. Or re-wire a Wall Of Light forcefield to disintegrate unsuspecting guards (the third or fourth of whom will figure out something’s amiss and test it by chucking a rock through it. Or explore any number of narrative-based solutions that different characters reveal. That’s one level.

The abilities you wield as Corvo are basically PlayStation’s deadliest, most creative toolset, and they’re mechanically near-perfect – for a game that gives the player control of time and space, it very rarely fails to match your ingenuity with powers and never breaks the rules that govern how the world works. That consistency’s incredibly important when you’re second-guessing how a guard’s going to react or rewiring a Watchtower (read: giant mechanised steampunk sentry turret) to attack enemies instead of you.

Occasionally, you’ll be frustrated by a slight imprecision in the Blink ability’s signposting of where you can and can’t teleport to, but again: this is a game that entrusts you to control time and space. That takes some serious coding.

But beyond not tripping over itself, Dishonored really excels in making you feel super-powered. It’s been every game’s prerogative since forever to give you that feeling, but rarely does it amount to much more than pressing a button and watching someone die. The Darkness 2 had a great crack at it earlier this year, but Arkane Studios has really achieved something special with how it empowers you. It takes a level or two to become fluent, to think vertically, to switch and combine abilities on the fly. But once you’ve nailed it, you feel incredible.

The skillset reinvigorates stealth gaming by never forcing you into a passive, waiting-for-the-guy-to-pass role. There’s always an instant solution, you just have to think outside the usual constraints while soaking in the conversational and visual clues in every scenario – and that solution’s usually so brilliantly evil and satisfying you wish someone was there to see it over your shoulder.

During a particularly stealthy run through the Lord Regent’s mansion, I watched two guards carrying whale oil to replenish a Wall Of Light’s power. One spotted me and dropped the whale oil in surprise – the following explosion killed them both instantly. I laughed so much I had to pause the game for a minute and just take it in.

It succeeds because it gives you the freedom to mastermind incredible set-pieces for yourself, rather than showing you a scripted sequence. It’s as good as first-person gaming gets, and it’s set in one of the most original gameworlds in years, calling to mind Half-Life 2’s oppression-ravaged streets, and an intricate level design style reminiscent of Deus Ex, System Shock and Thief games from the old days, necromancing gaming maxims that seem to have all but died in recent times.

After you’ve spent a while in the steampunk whaling town that is Dunwall and felt so utterly convinced of its physical reality that you could swear you went to primary school there, ask yourself: is there any way this place wasn’t built by someone with the mental capacity of a NASA cyborg? Somehow each of the nine levels that comprise Dishonored’s campaign achieve an incredible combo – immersing you in a consistent and believable fiction, signposting opportunities to use your powers in the most enjoyable ways possible, and facilitating any number of playthroughs using totally opposing tactics. ‘Non-linear’ doesn’t even scratch the surface.