One seemingly-forgotten joy of videogaming stems from experimentation and discovery. Too many titles these days drag players from setpiece to setpiece by the wrist, forcefully directing their gaze while issuing commands and dispensing advice like an obsessively over-attendant parent.

The belief that players could work things out for themselves was focus-grouped out of mainstream existence years ago; replaced by onscreen prompts, repeating audio hints, and depressingly linear design. The trust most game-makers once had in their audience is gone, and now a player’s role is too often reduced that of unthinking servant, doomed to progress from A to B to C on a game’s pedantic terms.

So ingrained is the fussy micromanagement of modern gaming that once the leash is taken off, it’s not only refreshingly liberating but also somewhat overwhelming. Arkane Studios discovered as much when trialling its latest game, first-person adventure Dishonored. The paradox of choice initially proved paralysing for many, but liberation and freedom trailed in its wake.

Dishonored is set in Dunwall, a dystopian, steampunk city strongly reminiscent of Victorian London. Arkane executive producer Julien Roby tells Gameplanet that the team “focused on a design that was inspired by London in the late 1800s. The plague era was the look and feel we tried to go with as it gives the game a dark tension and a sense of controlled chaos.”

Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall screenshots

Protagonist Corvo Atano is an assassin gifted with supernatural powers who has been framed for the Empress’ murder. His revenge takes place against the backdrop of an Orwellian, totalitarian regime bent on eradicating or enslaving the poor while turning the city into an industrial superpower. The mission we play involves infiltrating a high-society soirée to murder the host, Lady Boyle, but it’s a masquerade ball and we’re unsure which mask conceals her identity. Further, the party is populated by as many guards as guests, so even obtaining entry will require some planning.

A full-frontal assault is tempting, particularly because at this stage of the game Corvo not only has a crossbow, sword, and pistol at his disposal, but also a number of intriguing powers, each of which may be levelled up to produce greater effects. Dark Vision is an x-ray filter that highlights objects of interest as well as nearby enemies and their field of vision, Blink allows short distance teleportation, Possession lets Corvo inhabit the body of an animal or human for a short duration, Warp Time freezes all but Corvo temporarily, Devouring Swarm summons a small army of rats to overwhelm and consume any enemies, and Wind Blast whips up a mighty gust that may be used to redirect missiles, push enemies out windows or off rooftops, and more.

Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall screenshots

That’s quite the offensive toolkit, made stronger by the ability to combine powers and weapons in a number of satisfying ways. For example, Corvo might summon rats, freeze time, and then attach an explosive to one of the swarm, before possessing that rat and piloting it into the middle of a group of guards.

Despite this, and the fact that Corvo can kill absolutely anyone he wishes, storming the gates is ill-advised. Power usage is curbed by regenerating mana levels or prevented outright by special devices and besides, foes are both aggressive and numerous, and only too happy to return fire from deadly muskets or rush in for some ferocious swordplay. The melee is brutally efficient too, with heads and limbs quickly liberated from those who don’t fight defensively enough. A perfectly-timed block allows a quick counterattack, but button-mashing hack and slash tactics will see Corvo cut to ribbons in short order. It’s certainly possible to progress throughout the game in this manner, but unlike many games that offer stealth alternatives, it may well be the tougher route.

Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall screenshots

Fortunately the game is designed for alternate approaches. A lean mechanic, deep shadows, and keyhole peeking keep Corvo undetected as he learns guard patterns or listens in on conversations to glean helpful information on how to progress.

Throughout the game, all doors can be opened one way or another, and all roofs scaled. There is a lot of verticality to the level design, and much to achieve outside of the main objectives. Exploration is always rewarded with things such as items or encounters that fill out the background story of Dunwall. “In the demonstration we have shown off there is a room in the Boyle Mansion upstairs that gives you a chance to grab a lot of loot as well as appreciate the art nearby,” says Roby. “The room is optional and can be found if you explore and take the time to search outside your main objective.” Arkane also claim that you’ll only see 60-70 per cent of Dishonored in one playthrough. That things such as the identity of Lady Boyle is randomised each time will keep repeated playthroughs fresh.

Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall screenshots

We found four distinct ways to access the party, and once in, our “avante garde” mask allowed us to move about freely and strike up conversation in the hopes of finding our mark. But then more options arose. Perhaps we don’t have to kill her after all? It is possible to finish the game without killing a soul, after all. Lady Boyle’s fate sealed, we made our way back out of the party, avoided the constabulary on the street, hopped into a small dingy waiting on an adjacent canal, and slid away into the darkness. Subsequent playthroughs reveal completely different ways of completing the mission, along with a pleasingly high level of interaction with the environment. Basically: if you can think it, you can do it.

“Elements in Thief and Deus Ex have helped us design this game,” says Roby. “There are a lot of spaces in which players can explore and do as they please. This gives them the option to do loot hunting or appreciate the scenery.” The scenery is certainly striking, Dunwall is an extremely coherent and evocative city populated by unique and interesting characters. But it’s the way the game rewards creativity that is truly exciting. The numerous options open to Corvo, the fact that small actions see repercussions in the behaviour of the AI as well as the within the larger story beats, and the way any playstyle is catered to, make the exploring the whole marvellously grotesque painting that is Dishonored an incredibly enticing proposition.

Additional reporting by Jae Leong.