Criticism comes with its fair share of hyperbole, so take the following with the requisite amount of salt: Dishonored is quite likely the most inspired game since the original BioShock.
Yes, both games share a quasi-steampunk, war-torn retro vibe, and there's a fair argument to be made that the title feels so inspired because it wears its inspirations so evidently on its sleeve, but there is a thoughtfulness present in each aspect of Dishonored that makes it feel not only completely original, but infinitely enjoyable.
Warning: Some plot spoilers ahead, though we'll talk around them as generally as we can.
The Assassin's Creed
You play as Corvo, bodyguard to an assassinated empress shouldered with the blame for her murder. Framed in a conspiracy of velvet-clad power-plays, you're sprung from the dungeons by a loyalist guerilla group intent on usurping power from the corrupt king-regent. You'll aid the resistance by infiltrating key areas of the city and assassinating certain strategic targets using a set of supernatural abilities granted to you by a mysterious deity.
The city in question is Dunwall, a stylishly mechanized riff on Victorian England, ravaged by political upheaval, class warfare and a rat-born plague that's turning the city's poor into madly psychotic Weepers. It's also one of the most brilliantly conceived sandboxes in recent memory, filled from blade to hilt with alternating pathways, hidden chambers, multiple objectives (each with multiple solutions) and a vast array of secreted runes and charms by which to upgrade your skillset.
Corvo has two competing branches: his physical prowess and his supernatural abilities. Each can be leveled by using runes hidden throughout the mission level — some discovered and some earned through quest completion. Those looking for a more visceral experience will no doubt take to upgrading their sword skills, agility and stealth. But those with an eye toward the unnatural will opt for powers that can summon a horde of flesh-eating rats, slow and bend time, allow possession of animals or humans and, most importantly, blink ahead short distances.
The "Blink" ability is really a cornerstone of the game, propelling the player toward otherwise unreachable areas and opening up multiple pathways through each level. Likewise, effective combinations of these powers yield similarly inventive results, like summoning a horde of rats, which one might then possess, guiding the creatures through a series of narrow vents into an entirely new sub-section of the city. The same can be done with fish and sub-surface waterways.
Using these abilities, it is entirely possible to progress through the game without ever having killed a soul. This includes your primary targets, each of whom can be eliminated in various, non-lethal ways. Take, for example, the Pendleton twins, crooked nobles waiting to meet their fate in the plush comforts of a local brothel. One might choose to battle their way through the hordes or guards to their target; others might sneak into each chamber and arrange some unfortunate and deadly accident; others still might do a favor for a local crime boss who'll offer to have them abducted and shipped out on the next departing slave-ship.
The Sand in The Sandbox
There's a kind of grandiose intimacy to Dishonored that perfectly addresses the inevitable aimlessness of most sandbox games. Almost assuredly, there is a point in any open-world title where the player will look out on the world around him — for all its breadth and detail and simulated activity — and realize just how empty it all truly is. Buildings are simply well-textured bric-a-brac; space is justified largely by meaningless scavenger hunts, pedestrians meander the way that extras mill about in the Matrix — a moving tapestry of 1's and 0's — and for all the so-called "openness," there's relatively to little to discover. Exploration is simply a function of moving forward.
And even in the best of these titles — the Elder Scrolls series, for example — the preponderance of stuff scattered along some appetizing breadcrumb trial of loot is an illusion only half-concealed by slight-of-hand storytelling.
Where Dishonored succeeds is in reconciling the notion of a "sandbox" world with an "open" world, treating each mission as a self-contained arena with no end of pathways and secrets and relevant details, filling each location with limitless utility. In many ways, Dishonored trumps precursors like Deus Ex and Thief in this regard, making its secrets just visible enough that any action feels like the product of calculated strategy versus random discovery. It is, make no mistake, every bit as linear — your targets will be nullified; the world will adhere to its narrative — but the illusions of power, choice, discovery, exploration and consequence are realized as convincingly as we've ever seen them conjured.
You can use your sword, your pistol, your specialized bolts and proximity mines to stab, shoot and s'plode your way through the game — alarms be damned — or you can prioritize stealth and scope out every possible pathway to your targets. You could do this ten, twenty, thirty times and probably never repeat the same pattern twice.
Dishonored is something of an enigma visually. It offers a stunningly conceived world with differing and detailed interiors; its wonderful lighting and color palate elevate each location; but it lacks the nuance and crisp textures that we've come to expect from games this late in the generation. Consequently, it can often feel a bit flat and two-dimensional in spite of itself.
Narratively, the story progresses on a relatively straightforward path, a consequence of the open design dictating that events only truly progress between levels. How you do what you do ultimately impacts little — there are slightly differing conclusions for those who kill few versus many — and the stakes never feel that high or involving. For instance, Corvo is eventually given the option to avenge himself upon the executioner who tortured him in the game's opening moments, a character given so little screen-time or emphasis that our revenge feels more required than satisfactory.
But these are minor, minor flaws in an otherwise spectacular game. Ambitious, beautiful, entertaining, puzzling and, most of all, original. The only dishonor here is not to play.