Man-eating rats, prostitutes, and death by steaming. If only all stealth-action games were as exciting as Dishonored.

There’s often a correlation between the amount of fun you have in a game and the utter ridiculousness of its weapons. Saints Row: The Third has its dildo bat, BioShock has its swarm of bees, and DishonoredÂ…well, Dishonored has rats. Lots and lots of terrifying, swarming, man-eating rats. There’s really no greater way to vanquish your enemies than to have them devoured alive by 50 rats like they’re giant, walking pieces of cheese. But maybe you don’t think so. Maybe you’d rather see your foes steamed, frozen, or skewered with a crossbow bolt. Maybe you’d rather not kill anyone at all.

Therein lies the beauty of Dishonored: the freedom to play as you see fit. Sure, you play as an all-powerful, supernatural assassin, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a mass murderer. How you take out each of your targets is entirely up to you. If you want to be merciful, knock someone out. If you want to be mean, throw someone off of a six-story building. If you want to be a sadistic bastard, shoot someone in the face at point-blank range with a crossbow. It’s your call.

There’s no in-your-face moral system to tell you whether your actions are good or evil. Instead, you’re left to your own devices and gently guided by the narrative. Your character is Corvo, an assassin tasked with protecting the empress of a stylized steampunk city known as Dunwall. Unfortunately for Corvo, he’s falsely accused of the empress’s murder and must clear his name by disposing of a number of targets throughout the city.

Between each mission, you’re dropped into a hub world where you can upgrade your equipment and powers. And boy, you can choose from a lot of powers. You can summon a plague of rats, teleport over short distances instantly, possess people and animals, slow down time Max Payne-style, and see through walls. You can also master a range of weapons, including a crossbow–complete with flaming fire arrows–a pistol, and the deliciously gory spring razor. This range of powers is combined with a level design that does its best not to restrict you in any way; if you see a great sniping spot on top of a roof or a distant vent that would simply be part of the scenery in a lesser game, chances are you can get there and use it.

This opens up a huge range of possibilities for a completing an objective. Your journey through the narrative might be mission based, but the missions themselves are their own individual sandboxes. One such mission takes place in the Golden Cat Ballroom: a burlesque house for the rich and powerful inhabitants of Dunwall. Corvo is tasked with taking out two brothers inside the ballroom, which is heavily guarded and full of potentially alarm-raising prostitutes.

You can enter by the front door, but that would be too obvious. Instead, how about possessing a nearby rat and using its smaller frame to sneak in through a nearby vent, past the armed guards at the entrance? Or you can use Corvo’s teleporting power, blink, to teleport up to the roof of the building, which gives you a great vantage point for silent sniping with the crossbow. The difficulty then is getting down again without fatally injuring yourself. But with an inventive use of Corvo’s talent for possession, it’s entirely possible. You can leap off the roof and possess a bystander at the bottom on the way down, letting you walk away unscathed and unnoticed.

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

Inside the building, nearby characters speak of one of the brothers enjoying a steam bath, while the other is enjoying a “private” visit from a female employee. This is a hint that it’s often wise to let enemies live, just so you can eavesdrop on their conversations and pick up clues. Once they’ve outlived their usefulness, though, you can use blink to quickly teleport behind them and deal a sharp blow to their heads, knocking them out silently and letting you drag their unconscious bodies to nearby rooms to avoid alerting passing guards.

Corvo’s dark vision proves useful for further stealth, letting you see through walls to discover nearby enemies and your targets. Indeed, you find one of the brothers lurking in a steam room by seeing through the wall. But a locked door prevents you from entering directly, at least without finding the key located in another room. A nearby fishpond holds a cleverer solution. By possessing the fish and swimming up through a set of pipes, you emerge in the steam control room, where–you guessed it–you can crank up the steam and boil your target alive.

There are multiple ways of taking out the other brother, too. When you find his room, you can possess his female companion, using her to distract him before you emerge to swiftly knife the target. Then again, you could possess the target himself, leading him outside to a quiet spot before finishing him off with a few shots of your pistol. Either way, your target is dead, and you haven’t raised the alarm. If nearby guards do happen to hear a noise or catch sight of you, then you have to go for the brute-force approach to escape the building.

Fortunately, this looks to be as much fun as the sneaking, thanks to a whole bunch of offensive powers. If you’re overwhelmed by attackers, you can freeze time, stopping them in their tracks and making them rather susceptible to being shattered with Corvo’s Shockwave power. Or you can set them all on fire. Or you can slow down time, dodge their bullets, and plant a bunch of spring razors in their path. Then, when time resumes at normal speed, they run straight into your traps and are turned into a neatly sliced pile of meat. Or, most sadistic of all, you can summon a swarm of rats to devour them alive. Even better, you can possess one of the rats afterward and use it to sneak out of the building unnoticed.

While there’s no overarching moral system in Dishonored, there is the chaos system, which works much like a behind-the-scenes AI director. Actions you take earlier in the game may have an impact later on, with different characters and enemies appearing or disappearing. It’s a neat touch that ensures there’s variation to each player’s experience without beating you around the head with supposed moral choices at every turn.

That's one way to get a haircut.

That’s one way to get a haircut.

So that’s man-eating rats, prostitutes, and death by steaming. Not bad for a game that’s as much about stealth as it is about combat. And we haven’t mentioned the hugely stylistic art style, based on 1600s London. That city has been transformed into a warped, steampunk version of itself, thanks to the efforts of former Half-Life 2 artist Viktor Antonov, and it looks fantastic, even at the game’s early stage in development.

Dishonored is due for release on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC later this year. Keep reading GameSpot for more soon.

By Mark Walton