How many games let you play as a fish? It's a question that nags at us as we sit watching the very first gameplay demo of Skyrim publisher Bethesda's latest adventure.
If you haven't already seen the brutal, beautiful CG trailer check it out now. It shows a savage steampunk world where our hero, Corvo, has been accused as assassinating the Queen. Is he really guilty? It's implied that he's not, but er, he is an assassin...
The trailer - despite showing zero actual gameplay - is pretty decent taste of what Dishonored is all about. A world divided by class, the upper echelons employ military force to keep disease-spreading riff-raff out of their neighbourhoods. As a mood setter, it's a great trailer.
Now why were we thinking about fish? We're getting to that. Bethesda's game demo is split into two parts - a stealth playthrough of the Golden Cat Bathhouse (yeah, it's a brothel) and a not-so-stealth playthrough. The reason? Developer Arkane want to show off the various ways you can play through each stage. They're keen to point out that Dishonored isn't a free-roaming game. Each level is self-contained, although there are loads of ways to complete them.
Fish? Right, right... The developers start the stealth playthrough. Out on the streets hand-painted prostitutes lurk around hand-painted buildings, propositioning hand-painted guards. Visually, it reminds us of a delightful bastard child of Borderlands and BioShock and although the world is fundamentally grim, it's a colourful and enticing place to be.
It's all in first-person, and Corvo picks his way past the guards, who are busy trying to move the hookers along, and stands in front of the Golden Cat. The developers stop and tell us there are 7-8 different ways to infiltrate the building, but they're going to choose something a bit different.
There's a river running alongside the building, and peering down into the water our hero spots a handful of fish. Finally. A quick delve into a pop-up menu and the possess power is selected. Corvo targets one of the fish and 'becomes' the scaly beast. In fish-form he's able to swim up an inlet pipe into one of the basement rooms of the Golden Cat, after which Corvo extricates himself from the fish's body and stands inside the building.
Scientifically it makes less sense than an episode of Fringe, but that's ok - Dishonored is a very alternative version of reality, and a place where a supernatural assassin like Corvo fits right in.
Now to deal with the real business at hand: taking out three brothers as part of a contract. They appear as markers in Corvo's field of vision (like the quest marker arrow in Skyrim) and pretty soon our hero is close to the first target. He's inside a steam-room entertaining a young lady. The developer driving the game quietly grabs and chokes the lone guard - a pleasingly slick animation that sees Corvo dash forward and execute a quick sleeper-hold, before popping the unconscious body into a fireman's lift in one fluid moment. It makes the stealth fast and aggressive, like Splinter Cell Conviction.
What does impress is how light on his feet Corvo is, even when he's carrying a body. This means you can hide sleeping enemies pretty much anywhere in the level. During the demo we see the devs stash victims on ventilation pipes (which hang down from the ceiling), in shadowy corners, and even on window-ledges. Dishonored is a corpse-hider's delight - stick that on the box, Bethesda.