'Dishonored' May Be the Best Video Game of 2012 You Still Haven't Played

The first video game I ever played was the first successful video game: a tabletop version of Pong. That makes me a very old, very cranky, and very difficult-to-impress gamer. But I'm not the only one. There are constant complaints in the video-game industry that publishers are too hesitant to gamble on new intellectual properties—IPs that establish fresh characters, scenarios, and gameplay. I think the problem is worse than that: I think they're afraid to invest in imagination.

I have nothing against the inevitable sequels to best-selling titles—I just wish they were more fun. Typically, even the finest sequels are just very nice reiterations of what has come before, perhaps with cleaner graphics, tightened controls, an easier to access GUI. But don't hope for any re-imaginings of big-budget titles—too risky. Thus, most of the major franchises often put me to sleep through sheer repetitiveness, no matter their critical acclaim or huge sales numbers: the latest Halos, Call of Duties, Resident Evils, etc., etc. Occasionally, a brand-name effort lives up to its hype—notably, Skyrim or Mass Effect—but for the most part, we're living in a video-game era of diminished expectations.

Every once in a while, however, a low-buzz title squeaks through the system and delivers a surprisingly fun experience that surpasses its higher-profile competition.

Dishonored came out last October and didn't quite upturn the gaming universe despite getting good reviews and hitting several best-of-2012 lists. Sales have been okay, and publisher Bethesda has stated that it considers Dishonored to be a new franchise. Yet grumpy gamers demanding new IPs (like me) haven't swarmed this worthy title. So I say: Put your money where your mouths are, geezers—it's not too late.

Ostensibly a first-person shooter, Dishonored goes way beyond the tropes of that weary genre and aims for the heights of classic stealth titles like Thief and Deus Ex. (Those games' famed creator, Warren Spector, was not involved in this title, though Deus Ex designer Harvey Smith was on board at French developer Arkane Studios.) While it does utilize its forebears' gameplay focus of sneaking around and occasionally assassinating someone, Dishonored also shares an even more important quality: a detailed, complex world that's extremely immersive.

While not as open-ended as, say, Grand Theft Auto's never-ending sandboxes, its city of Dunwall is far more intriguing: a steampunk wonderland overrun by a mysterious plague, its industrial society devolving into a battle between the anarchy of the streets and the repressive authority of a military-religious dictatorship. There are inky sewers to skulk though, rooftops to traverse, robot guard towers and force fields to avoid—and it all looks rather beautiful, as if the game's production artists took their inspiration from Victorian oil paintings rather than Halo.

You play as Corvo Attano, former bodyguard to the Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, whom you failed to protect from assassination in the game's opening scene. The conspirators who killed her—the Lord Regent and the High Overseer—have made you their fall guy while also kidnapping her young daughter in their plot to take over Dunwall, capital city of the Isles. So, after getting some loyalist help to break out of prison, you must right these wrongs with a little payback. But you don't necessarily have to get revenge by the usual video-game route of wading hip-deep in the blood of your antagonists' minions—in fact, you can play Dishonored through without actually killing a single person if you so choose. While that's not a new gameplay idea in itself, Dishonored gives it an interesting twist by eschewing the typical "morality meter" of many role-playing games and inserting a "chaos system" that makes society itself react to your behavior, shaping the game's outcomes. So, if you pursue the storyline as a murderer, city dwellers start becoming afraid of you and more guards patrol the streets; if you go on all-out bloody rampage, Dunwall becomes a grim place of swarming rats and corpse-filled alleyways. In Dishonored, everything's not about you; your actions have repercussions on the world itself.

Meanwhile, your character can add new abilities of a decidedly unearthly sort. Early on, you're taken under the wing of a supernatural entity named the Outsider, who endows you with some magical powers that can come in handy. You can transmit yourself to hard-to-reach places, command the minds of guards, or sweep back a gang of attackers with a gust of wind. Armed with a thumping heart thingie, you can hear the secrets of other characters or locate special power-up items. This mix of magic and mechanical makes for an intriguing juxtaposition—not to mention an arresting style of play—that makes you wonder what this Outsider guy really wants from your character.

That may be the true strength of the game: Dishonored's storyline is absorbing enough that you can ignore how easy some of its levels are, or how small the city really is, and concentrate on finding out what happens next. Just like a good book.