The story of Dishonored is set in Dunwall, a fictional industrial city with an aesthetic inspired in part by early 1900s England. Much of the city is in a state of lockdown put in force by the oppressive government. Guards constantly patrol the streets, reacting to curfew-breakers with hostility, employing roadblocks, security checkpoints and advanced, futuristic security systems and weapons to keep the citizens of Dunwall in check.
You are given the role of Corvo Attano, who at the beginning of the game is bodyguard for the Empress of Dunwall, Jessamine Kaldwin. After returning from a mission to seek aid from foreign lands, (due to a plague that has overcome the city and infected many of its inhabitants), things quickly go horribly wrong when the Empress is assassinated despite your efforts to protect her. To make things worse her daughter Emily is kidnapped by the mysterious assassins, and you are blamed for both the murder and abduction.
You are promptly locked up and put on death row while power-hungry men take over from the Empress. Through the rest of the game you are sent on missions to assassinate corrupt officials and politicians, rescuing Emily and eventually hunting down those who killed the Empress in the hopes of clearing your name.
While not the most original story, it is told well and supported by a cast of believable (if somewhat stereotypical) characters brought to life by some (mostly) great voice acting. I felt something for most of the NPCs I met, ranging from pity to disgust and pure hatred by the end (I seriously had to restrain myself from stabbing a story-critical NPC in the throat due to how vile they were); Dishonored's narrative is rife with betrayals, shady deals and political corruption and as such the people you meet typically have something to hide, be it skeletons in a closet or secret perversions.
Many diaries, notes, extracts from books and other texts can be obtained while exploring Dunwall, all of which provide more insight into the world and the characters that inhabit it should you care to explore to find them (which I did, being a bit of a completionist). Some of the texts describe aspects of the world beyond Dunwall; there are mentions of various continents and foreign lands in the diaries of sailors, political reports and though you never get to visit those locations, they create a feeling that you are part of a larger universe.
Developer Arkane Studios does a great job of creating a non-linear gameplay experience and catering to player choice in Dishonored. Each mission area is designed as a sandbox in which the player can choose from multiple routes to traverse and methods of dealing with enemy characters, completing objectives and assassinations. The choices you make also have an impact on the world; choose to kill the majority of your targets, the Citywatch guards and fire-breathing (yes, FIRE-BREATHING) gang-members and the city becomes darker, plague-infested rats and Weepers more plentiful and NPCs react to you differently.
Corvo can be equipped with weapons and powers that can be used to compliment different play-styles. In a very Bioshock-esque style, Corvo uses a blade in one hand and in the other an equipped supernatural ability or other equipment such as crossbow or trip-mines. You can go on the offensive and outright kill those who cross you using your blade and gadgets including grenades and a pistol, along with abilities such as Rat Swarm, which does pretty much what it says on the tin and summons a swarm of plague-ridden rats to munch on your foes and eventually devour them.
For a more stealthy approach, players have access to sleep-inducing darts for the crossbow, a rewire device that lets you disable alarms and security measures, alongside abilities like Blink which lets you teleport short distances, and Shadow Kill which causes enemy corpses to combust and disappear when you kill them with a sneak attack. Early on you meet a man called Piero, an famous inventor who can upgrade your weapons and equipment in exchange for coins which are scattered throughout the city, and the supernatural abilities are purchased and upgradeable by acquiring mystical Runes.
You can mix and match any combination of weapons and abilities to suit your play style; In my first playthrough I opted for a mainly stealth-based arsenal, though also made use of my offensive weapons as I messed up a lot when trying to be stealthy and got into fights more often than I anticipated.
Traversing the world in a first person perspective took a bit of getting used to, particularly when trying to leap across rooftops and thin pipes. You get used to it though, early on you are given a power that lets you teleport short distances which assists greatly in moving around the world and a few hours in I was jumping/teleporting around Dunwall with relative ease. When engaging in sword fighting the first-person view is a hindrance when trying to keep track of multiple enemies, I found the sword combat a bit awkward and usually boiled down to swinging my sword wildly while shooting and gulping down heath tonics.
Instead of water and steam power for machinery, Dunwall utilises processed, volatile whale oil as its primary fuel for everything from street lamps to huge, missile-launching turrets. Whale oil plays a large part in the game mechanics; you can disable gun turrets and the deadly "walls of light" that block pathways by removing the nearby whale oil tanks, you can can also shoot or throw the tanks to cause explosive havoc. Your pistol and crossbow can even be modified to shoot explosive/incendiary ammunition using the oil.
Visually, the game emulates the aesthetic of 1800-1900s English cities very well. The environments you explore are a selection of beautifully bleak, grimy, run-down buildings on cobbled streets, underground sewers, huge suspension bridges and opulent, aristocratic residences.
The architecture and design of the buildings inside and out is superb, lighting effects are lovely, although some of the textures are noticeably rather ugly in places if you stop and look at them (bear in mind this is for the PS3, I can't speak for other versions), there's some screen-tearing here and there along with minor frame-rate judders but nothing too distracting.
The game is well polished, a couple of glitches I encountered include the occasional disappearance of the marker used to target where you want to teleport, and at one point I actually fell through the ground and into the space beneath the environment models, although this happened only once in my third playthrough and in very specific circumstances so I imagine it would be unlikely that most people experience this.
Dishonored is a great example of what can be produced when a publisher puts faith (also money) into an original concept. Though it borrows many game design elements and mechanics from various other games, Arkane Studios manages to implement them all effectively and cohesively in Dishonored to create an engaging and exceptionally enjoyable game.