Morgan and Custis Pendleton must die. It's not immediately clear why, at this moment in time. Maybe it's just the anti One Per cent vibe I'm carrying around in my veins these days, but they look like bad people. Besides, they're hanging around in an oversized bathhouse, and we all know the punters there pay for sex – a crime which, in gaming terms, offers immediate justification for bloody slaughter. As it does in the real world.
So yes, Morgan and Custis Pendleton must die. The only question is this: is it to be the Quiet Way, or the Not So Quiet Way.
Well, what's it to be?
The Quiet Way
We're dropped off by boat, having travelled down the river that runs through the city of Dunwall – a plague-ridden, mutated blend of Victorian London, 18th Century whaling towns, and various steampunk oddities.
We make our way through the streets that lead to The Golden Cat bathhouse – a tall, imposing building with circular architecture. If we loitered in the preceding alleys we'd apparently find a few side quests, but there's no time for that today: the clock is ticking, and there's killing to be done. Gazing around, you can spot houses covered with canvas marked with a sinister red "X". These are the dwellings that have fallen to the plague.
As we approach the outskirts of The Golden Cat we begin to scale the exterior walls, leaping and hauling ourselves up in a manner reminiscent of Crysis 2. At points our ascent relies on Blink – a power that allows us to teleport over a short distance. Inevitably, there are guards patrolling the upper heights of the bathhouse, guards who can be rendered unconscious or have their throat slit, depending on your proclivities. Whether you spare the goons or not, you'll have to prepare for the fact that their co-workers will eventually come looking for buddies who disappear from their patrols. By a similar token, guards follow set routes but will sometimes be distracted from their routines – pausing to admire bits of artwork, or stomping on a rat.
The latter action can be particularly unfortunate if you've chosen to temporarily possess a rodent, one of the more unusual powers at your disposal. Rats offer an easy way to travel through busy areas, provided that no-one tries to kill you. Find a body of water, and you might prefer to transfer your soul to a fish, swimming into previously inaccessible areas. It seems that when you perform one of these hostile takeovers, you somehow transfer yourself entirely into the host creature; when you're done with the possessed beastie, you'll simply revert to your normal form. In other words, you don't have to worry about leaving your empty shell behind like a lost piece of luggage.
If you'd rather not get ratty (or fishy), there are still plenty of options for sneaking around. The high walls of The Golden Cat's interior are conveniently lined with tight ledges, allowing plenty of opportunity for eavesdropping. We soon find ourselves deep inside the building's guts, and by peering through a keyhole we catch Morgan Pendleton with a prostitute. Rather than taking the direct approach, we fiddle with a nearby set of pipes, filling the room with steam and scalding the pair to death. Morgan and his brother squeal in agony as they're cooked alive, their boiled frames disappearing beneath a blanket of vapour.
After another extended spot of sneaking, we find Custis in one of the upstairs bedrooms; unsurprisingly, he's also got female company. This time we use our possessive powers again – the more expensive variant. Your powers in Dishonored are governed by enchanted Whale bones, rare items, that you find on occasion; it'll cost you dearly to reach the upper levels of the possession skill, and it's not hard to see why: here we simply possess Custis, and walk him out onto the chamber's balcony, much to the surprise of his lover. Then we re-appear next to him and unleash a powerful wind blast, firing our victim straight over the edge and down onto the streets below, where he presumably splatters like an egg.
And then we creep away, no doubt to plan our next assassination.
The Not-So-Quiet Way
This time, having taken a different route to the area, we start out on a rooftop. There's no need to be quiet or stealthy here, and every guard we encounter meets a messy death. Some die to falling blade attacks, a la Ezio Auditore; others have their violence delivered face-to-face. But everyone dies. For much of the assault we're dual-wielding – a long blade in our right hand, a crossbow in our left; at points we switch out the crossbow for an ornate-looking pistol. All three options seem pretty lethal, despatching the guards in seconds.
Once inside we make a beeline for Morgan. He calls for guards, and a trio of warriors show up at once – but even this amassed opposition poses little threat. As our foes pour out into the room, we pause time and fire off a flurry of crossbow bolts. As normal chronological service resumes, all three guards tumble to the floor with perforated necks. By this point, we've already moved on to our next victims.
The massacre is a bit of a blur to be honest; the exact nature of Morgan's demise is lost amid the chaos of non-stop execution. There are so many options: an incendiary bolt causes one man to burst into flames, screaming and writhing as he goes to meet his maker. His colleague steps on a Spring Razor trap and is immediately diced by a storm of acrobatic wires, tumbling to the ground in bloody chunks. There's even time for a quick spot of Errol Flynn-like swordplay. Skilled opponents can present a challenge in such confrontations, avoiding and deflecting your strikes with blades of their own. A correctly-timed block on your part will throw your target off balance, however, allowing you to follow up with a coup de grace.
And Custis Pendleton? Well, he takes a fall again, but this time there's no need to make it look like suicide. Instead we use the wind blast to send him straight through a window. He barely has time to make a surprised face before we cannon him to his death in a hail of broken glass.
On this occasion, we escape using a trick that was discovered during playtesting: technically it's something of an exploit, but Arkane Studios has elected to leave it in anyway. Rather than working our way back through the bathhouse, we follow Custis' example and leap over a balcony. Gravity does its thing, and the ground rushes up to greet us with instant death... then, at the last second, we possess one of the pedestrians in the street. A moment later, we return to our usual form, unscathed. This is more or less the gaming equivalent of that urban legend about surviving a falling lift by jumping at the right moment; it feels cheeky as hell, but it's still quite cool that you can pull it off.
A group of nearby guards are less impressed by our efforts to cheat the reaper. They rush towards us with swords drawn, until we use our powers to summon an aggressive wave of rats. The swordsmen are distracted by the infected vermin swirling and nipping at their legs; we possess one of the rodents, then use this furry hiding place to scurry away to freedom.
Those were just two ways to approach the mission, but Arkane promises that the full game will offer even more possibilities - including the option to remove the Pendletons from the picture without hurting them. This is the first time we've had an extended look at Dishonored, and it has to be said that the game is already looking seriously impressive.
There are strong shades of Deus Ex here, both in the open-ended play and the intelligence of the meticulously crafted world - hardly a surprise, given the involvement of lead designer Harvey Smith. But Dishonored also has a sharply-defined personality of its own - bleak, sinister and quietly self-assured, with a game world that is both futuristic and yet strangely rooted in Victorian history.
It's a fearfully potent mix. If Dishonored isn't already on your radar for 2012, it should be.
Dishonored will be released later this year on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.