Let’s not mess about: Dishonored is a masterpiece. Priding itself on gameplay that’s consistently malleable, it’s an experience in which there is no such thing as wasting time, and the worst crime that you could ever commit against it would be to charge through it at speed. It’s so confident in its own elastic foundations that, a few valuable text-based pointers aside, it barely even feels the need to teach you anything. You learn how to play it solely via experimentation and failure, and because it’s so well-written – in a very quiet and understated way, mind you – some of those failures pack an authoritative dramatic punch. If you want to get the very best out of Dishonored – and it doesn’t sound intimidating at this point – disable the mission objective markers as soon as you begin.

Though surprisingly compact, the dank, sullen city of Dunwall is an open, near-infinite network of dazzling puzzles. You can commit to a specific gameplan at the summit, but the most rewarding tack is to simply go with the flow. Your “Chaos” rating – the status of which is solely dictated by your behaviour – will zip around like mad as you avoid (and fail to avoid) engaging in combat, but testing the limits of this system will immeasurably reward subsequent playthroughs. And even if you’re a gung-ho shooter fan looking for action, the tease of Dishonored’s constant, vast array of challenges will almost certainly stop you in your tracks.

Think that building is impenetrable? It isn’t. Suspect that you can’t get to the end of that street without being detected? You’re mistaken. Anything seems possible even when you’re keeping things simple, but precisely how you go on to upgrade your attributes fundamentally changes everything. Here’s an example: you can upgrade your Blink skill – enabling you to teleport across longer distances – or you can upgrade your ability to slow down time, which gives you the capacity to actually freeze time for a short period. Brilliantly though, you can also use the lower-tier versions of these two skills in tandem with eachother, so there’s a demanding halfway point if you want to work on both attributes incrementally. Replay value, you say? Forget about it.

There’s also a possession system which gives you the ability to take fleeting control of your enemies, but pre-upgrade, this skill only allows you to possess one of Dunwall’s vast community of plague-ridden vermin. Post-upgrade you’re able to occupy human enemies for a very brief spell, but true to form, the bottom-tier process of possessing rats radically changes the game in itself, gifting you with the ability to (amongst other things) access innumerable new pathways. Despite all of these variables though, there’s never any right or wrong way to tackle any situation and if you ever get stuck, you probably aren’t being mindful of exactly what’s in your arsenal, and what it all does. If there’s a problem, there’s always a viable solution.

You’ll happen upon idling NPCs constantly, and engaging with them – or simply listening to what they’re saying to each other – will either embellish your mission with fresh clues or open up an entirely new route to your quarry. It may not be an especially original vision of diseased and oppressed dystopia – it owes stylistic debts to Brazil, Bioshock and The Darkness to name only three – but Dunwall is nevertheless an utterly bewitching place that positively begs to be explored. Scrutinising every last nook always results in something valuable, whether it’s chunks of back-story, clues or Runes and Bone Charms which are essential if you want to enhance your armoury.

Presentation-wise, Dishonored is more than fine though rarely spectacular. You’ll notice a few light graphical imperfections on occasion and in terms of gameplay, a few decidedly last-gen issues arise, such as when you exit an area with enemies in pursuit, and there’s only a 50/50 chance that they’ll actually bother to follow you. The AI is no great shakes when you’re in combat, but when you’re skulking around in the darkness it’s essentially perfect: unlike most games where stealth plays a part, the shadowy illusion is never broken, and if you ever get spotted it’s entirely your fault. So there are flaws, yes, but they do nothing to chip away at the overall package. It’s complete. Beautifully, miraculously complete.

Dishonored is out now on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.

Watch the official launch trailer for Dishonored below:

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