Dishonoured lets you possess a fish. Not just own one in a tank, much like Commander Shepard does, but actually transfer your soul into a slippery little salmon. As a supernatural assassin tasked with uncovering a conspiracy through copious murdering, you'll have to consider every potential way of reaching your targets; stealthy roof infiltrations, teleportation, all-out gunfights and everything in between.
Or you could possess a fish in order swim unseen through sewer ducts, entering your target building in the most unexpected way possible.
Having tried out Dishonored at E3 2012, I've come to a couple of major conclusions. First of all: every game should allow us to possess a fish as a mandatory PEGI requirement from now on. It's just so great. But secondly, and (arguably) more importantly, Arkane Studio's newest FPS is going to provide us with the most gameplay choice and variety we've seen since Fallout 3, perhaps even Deus Ex. Factor in the gorgeous Victorian steampunk setting, and you've got a recipe for one of the most delicious games of 2012.
Players will assume the role of Corvo, the loyal bodyguard to the empress who's falsely accused of her murder. Put on death row, he's approached by a mysterious agent who grants him some otherworldly abilities and the opportunity to exact some furious vengeance. Loosed upon the city of Dunwall, a Victorian era-inspired town powered by volatile Whale Oil, Corvo will pick his own paths to his victims and decide how best to use his devastating skills to advantage. The striking mix of 1890s grandeur with smoke-belching, magic-powered technology is a sight to behold, bolstered by a unique and surprisingly colourful art style designed to look like "a moving watercolour painting."
The hands-on session was prefaced by two guided demonstration of a mid-game mission, wherein Corvo was tasked with infiltrating an upmarket Brothel - the Golden Cat - to assassinate two members of parliament. Brilliantly, though, each playthrough was entirely different, demonstrating that each level will offer multiple infiltration points, strategies and markedly different opportunities for wholesale slaughter. Every major assassination mission will be prefaced by some non-linear crawls through the city streets, meaning that you can end up forewarned about defences and even in position for a markedly different approach (street level, sewers or rooftops, for example).
Stealthy players will have a huge number of skills at their disposal. Darkvision highlights enemy positions through walls along with their vision cones, making sneaking a doddle. Targets identified, you'll then be able to use the immensely powerful Blink teleport to instantly hop short distances, using it to quietly move from cover to cover, effortlessly scale up walls, leap between the spokes of a waterwheel or keep behind a guard's field of vision. As already mentioned, Possession allows you to dominate small animals such as rats or fish, seeing through their eyes to size up the situation or using their tiny bodies to infiltrate via non-traditional channels. When upgraded, though, you can possess human beings, for either nefarious or hilarious ends.
Dishonoured isn't all about glitzty magic, though. Peeping through keyholes or pickpocketing unwary NPCs is just as important as employing your powerful skills, especially considering that you'll have to pick and choose between being a jack of all trades or a specialised killer - not to mention a steep mana cost for the most powerful abilities. Doing so will grant you useful information about enemy positions, master keys and all manner of useful tidbits that make your life easier. More bloodthirsty players may even seize the opportunity to silently subdue or kill unwary NPCs, dragging their comatose or bleeding bodies into the shadows.
Our guided tour through the Golden Cat demonstrated these skills in action, with Corvo swimming into the Golden Cat courtesy of his fishy friend, using Darkvision and obliging rat to identify the guards and quickly blinking behind obstacles as they changed position. The Golden Cat alternatively had nearly a dozen other entry points, such as the roof, windows and, controversially, the front door. Pickpocketing the proprietress resulted in a master key, and overhearing a couple of conversations between the working girls located the two targets. One died during a 'tragic accident' involving a locked sauna door and a fully-opened steam valve, while his compatriot was possessed, walked onto a balcony and summarily booted off the ledge. Both targets down, no collateral damage - and both deaths would be logged as suicides or coincidences.
Killing civilians will eventually lead to a darker ending, but if you're unconcerned about that sort of thing, there are plenty of opportunities to go loud. A pistol and crossbow (with alternate ammo types) make light work of foes at a distance, and some slick one-button swordplay allows you to thrust and parry enemies who decide to dance up close. Much like the Assassin's Creed series, a perfectly-timed blow triggers a devastating counter, which usually involves a short but brutally efficient combination of sharp steel and soft necks. Various skills are also available to the less discerning player, such as the Windblast, which amplifies a lazy backhand slap into a powerful wave of force that smashes enemies and projectiles into the distance. Even the teetering Tallboys - massive armoured exoskeletons armed with explosive arrows - will be vulnerable to having their own shots smacked back at them. The ability to slow time for short periods can turn the tide of a desperate last stand, and of course, Blink is just as good at getting behind or above opponents as it is as an evasion technique.
Combat is incredibly difficult, though. Corvo may be capable of thoroughly brutalising single targets, but when facing multiple threats, he's fragile and vulnerable. Skilled players will be able to chug health potions, use the windblast and deploy counters to keep the fierce guardsmen at bay, but like most things, combat will be better in moderation. Brilliantly, Dishonored will let us employ stealth and action on our own terms, deciding the best recipe for success on a second-by second basis.
The second Golden Cat playthrough was short, but there was nothing sweet about Corvo's methods. One guard was sniped from a distance, and after a quick spot of Blinking, his compatriot was beheaded with a gruesome perfect parry. Another squad was ambushed with a jump assassination, at which point, Corvo began a dual-handed pistol rampage, gunning down visitors and guards alike, windblasting anyone stupid enough to stay rather than panic, break and run. Sticky grenades (that old chestnut) are on hand for some humourous delayed kills, while judicious use of the slow time ability made targeting specific enemy limbs much easier. Sadly, reinforcements proved too much for poor Corvo, who perished before being able to retreat to safety.
Dishonored, then, is an incredibly exciting proposition. Its intricate, massive levels offer us choice and freedom to do as we please, while the versatile skill system arms us with the tools to get the job done - our way. Its setting provides a unique and striking canvas for the action, while the watercolour art style instantly elevates it above the crowd. Arkane Studios are crafting gameplay that's bound to become the talk of water coolers the world over, as players compare how they approached each objective in completely different ways.