"Dishonored" is a playground.
On a plague-ridden, steampunk seaside world that vaguely resembles a Victorian English colony, you're given a palette of options and set loose to play. You can use magic powers and killer contraptions, or your bare hands. You can hop across the rooftops and air ducts, or crawl through the sewers. You can kill everyone, or no one.
With the absorbing setting and the abundance of choice, "Dishonored" blends the best of "Bioshock" and "Deus Ex." But Arkane Studios molds the game's pedigree into something that feels so new and exhilarating that it stands alongside its highly regarded progenitors, not beneath them.
All those play decisions are directed toward a goal. As Corvo Attano, bodyguard to the empress of Dunwall, you're framed by a mysterious cabal for her murder and the disappearance of her daughter, Emily. An alliance with a group of bar-dwelling loyalists carries the prospect of revenge, but it's up to you how bloody to make the conspirators' comeuppance.
The quiet, nonlethal, non-magical path, which I took, poses a thrilling challenge. No matter your choices, you command a short-range teleportation power called blinking that turns stealth takedowns/kills from a waiting game into a burst of hyperkinetic action. Holding a button brings up a reticle that projects where you'll blink to, and once your target turns his back to that spot, you can rush in and take him out without raising anyone's suspicion. This chain of events quickly becomes second nature, but never easy nor dull to execute.
The levels of "Dishonored" also lend a hand to the sneaking player. From the blasted and brick-littered city hubs to the decadent stone-and-velvet government mansions, each is dense with routes for Corvo to travel and corners to hide. Blinking is a helpful climbing tool, but if you'd rather stay low, you can acquire the power of possession and scurry through tiny pipes as a rat. With the latter magic, you can also evade enemies by hiding inside their own bodies.
Automated defenses that would flash-fry you in a second can be disabled by tracing their power lines to tanks of whale oil (a power source you'll discover has revolutionized life on Dunwall, if you read some of its many lore-deepening in-game documents). Pluck the tank out and your path is safer — or you can rewire the gizmos to zap your enemies dead.
There are also side quests you can complete for a battle-scarred gang leader or a batty old lady (voiced splendidly by Susan Sarandon) that can make your missions easier, or reward you with runes and bone charms to bolster your magic. With some snooping, you can also discover indirect — and sometimes nonlethal — options for dispatching Corvo's more well-guarded targets.
There's also the way of the gun — or rather the single-shot pistol, which numbers among Corvo's limited, but formidable weapons. Though no less challenging than sneaking, shooting up Dunwall doesn't quite reward you like the quiet approach does. Finding a secret after blowing up everyone guarding it just isn't as satisfying as finding it because your silent maneuvering swept you there. But if you want to uncover all of "Dishonored's" many tucked-away bits of history, characters and power-ups, you may need to spill some blood.
However you play with Corvo, "Dishonored" coarsens the path with stellar AI. Rare is the moment when you can stroll by a patrolling guard from 20 feet away without catching his eye. In a fight, they're just as sharp a danger, generally preferring to swarm and stab Corvo, or lob grenades and fire bullets from afar. Just getting by common foot soldiers, with the occasional blinking assassin and armed, stilted tallboy among the opposition, is so consistently tough that conventional boss battles are wisely omitted.
The wealth of play styles and the unyielding thrill of using them makes "Dishonored" the most fun, deeply rewarding video game I've played in 2012. And I expect to play it again, vastly differently, quite soon.