The action-stealth genre is one of my favorites, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’d be hard pressed to find a game I could describe fairly as a balanced mix of action-stealth.

Games like Hitman, Deus Ex, and Metal Gear Solid all emphasize the stealth portions of the game. Yes, you could feasibly go about each of these games massacring thousands of virtual folk armed with automatic weaponry and questionable morality on a lower difficulty setting. Ramp it up to hard (or the difficulty equivalent) and you’ll probably find yourself having a little trouble trying to kill absolutely everyone when the alarms go off and seemingly cause the entire world to come after you.

I love all of these games, yet none of them are particularly well-tuned for you to actually “action” your way through them. I’m happy to report that I’ve finally found a game at last that gets a gold sticker for being a true “action-stealth” game. Meet Arkane Studio’s Dishonored. At this point, I’m sure you’ve heard the comparisons to Bioshock, because of the similar combat mechanics and steampunk influences. That’s about where I’d draw the line in terms of similarity. Bioshock had horror elements that constantly made me feel vulnerable, but in Dishonored, you know that you’re the hunter.

With an array of weapons and different spells at your disposal in the form of a selection wheel, you feel ready to take on anything.

As soon as I started the gameplay demo, I was dropped into a mission. My goal was to find the Royal Physician named Anton Sokolov (may the comparisons to Metal Gear Solid 3 begin). I wasn’t to kill him, but to kidnap him, presumably for his skill set.

I opened my weapons and magic wheel, ruminating over my approach. I grabbed up my crossbow, which was armed with sleeping darts and wandered down the street I was dropped into. Two guards were speaking to each other farther down the street, guarding an electrified cell occupied by what appeared to be a family.

I aimed my trusty crossbow and fired. Immediately, the two guards whirled around to come get me, but halfway through, the one I just struck with a sleeping dart went down. The other sprinted at me, weapon at the ready. My ranged weapon was useless in melee combat, so I grabbed up my dagger. Seeing as I was holding only a dagger and my victim a sword, I was ready to get my ass kicked.

I made the first move and boy did combat feel good. The first person melee combat was akin to Skyrim’s, although it’s a lot more polished. Generally, if you’re attacking at the same time as your opponent, you’ll end up parrying blows. The guard was no match for my superior assassin ass-kicking skills and I made short work of him. I bent down to examine their corpses. Yes, as with many RPG-like games, you have the option to loot bodies in Dishonored.

There was still the issue of the family. Feeling somewhat merciful, I set on the task of letting the family go free. The only issue was that the cell was electrified… so I obviously wasn’t going to be getting on my hands and knees looking for some sort of key, but with power always comes a source. I traced the obvious glowing wires leading away from the cell to the power source, where I first learned—and I’m sure PETA will be greatly displeased by this fact—that the world of Dishonored is powered by whale oil.

Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed the tankard of glowing white whale oil and rip it from the power… plug? As soon as I did, the hum of the power surrounding the cell died down.

With these prisoners freed and my soul-cleansing goody-goody task of the day out of the way, it wass time to cancel out all the good I just did by dirtying my hands on some dead guards.

I spent the next half hour or so wreaking havoc and thinking up of clever ways to kill guards. You really can’t help yourself sometimes when you just feel so damn empowered. Your protagonist, Corvo, is endowed with supernatural abilities, which is part of the reason why he’s such a perfect blend of action-stealth. Unfortunately, in my play time I only got to try a few of these skills. However, my favorite two by far were Timebend and Possession.

 

Don’t let what are quite possibly the plainest names possible for possibly the coolest starter skills deceive you. They do exactly what their name describes and a little more. Timebend allows you to freeze time for a short while, giving you time to run circles around your enemies and maybe humiliate them by pulling their pants down and putting a few silly hats on their heads. (Okay, the last part isn’t true… but imagine the potential!)

Possession endows you with the ability to take control of almost any organic being, which includes guards, that maid cowering in the corner, and yes, even that rat. The possession isn’t just mental, but physical as well, if that makes any sense. Rather than having to deal with worrying about being discovered mid-possession, Corvo enters the body of his possession victim. That doesn’t mean you can saunter about a level all day possessing a guard, since people with strong willpowers can and will try to force you out of their bodies.

At this point, you’re probably thinking that these powers are fine and dandy, but nothing too out of the ordinary in the realm of videogames. But imagine what these powers could do when you combine them altogether. I was too busy being excited about playing Dishonored to actually think of combining these different powers, but I’ve heard of some crazy combinations from friends. I’ve heard of instances where players froze time as an enemy was shooting a gun at them, possessed them, walked their body around to face the bullet, and the unfroze time for an epic killing. There’s also the obvious possessing enemies to walk them off cliffs and un-possessing them just in time to jump to safety. Use your imagination.

So whatever happened to the end of that mission? It’s not all that exciting. Something about having to drag along a tranquilized man really puts a dent into your killing mojo.

Dishonored’s earned its action-stealth label quite a few times over. The blend of skills along with Corvo’s array of weapons lends itself perfectly to either kind of play through. I can imagine doing quite a few playthroughs just to experience the game either fully in stealth or fully in action… and maybe just to see what kind of cool Rube Goldberg-esque kills I can scheme up.