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Dishonored: stealth gaming is back, with a handful of dark magic

Arkane and Bethesda's latest could be this year's top sneak 'em up

It's commonly agreed that the stealth videogame is in a bad way. Assassin's Creed was supposed to be the Sultan of Sneak, but decided to be the Overlord of Open World gaming instead. Splinter Cell's last outing proved deadly but not always silent, and Thief hasn't been glimpsed in action for years.

The drift is regrettable, but explicable. Stealth might be the brainier gameplay choice, but all too often, classic stealth devolves to patience and pattern recognition - toggling crouch mode and waiting for guards to look away. Do it wrong, and even the most reductive, idiot-proof shooters seem fascinating by comparison.

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Good news, shadow-brethren. Dishonored is the most promising stealth game we've laid eyes on in years, and it's not even a "pure" stealth game. Quick recap for those who missed the spectacular debut trailer: Arkane's latest casts you as the assassin Corvo, framed for the murder of an Empress. Corvo's none too shabby in a straight-up fight, thanks to a finger-twitching array of crossbows, pistols and blades. But why bother with (hawk, spit) combat when you can teleport through windows? Why run in all guns blazing when you can possess your target, walk him onto a balcony and punt him into the street?

Dishonored's stealth systems look fantastic because they flow together so naturally, given a bit of skill on your part. And this is possible because stealth abilities don't stop at monitoring view cones and staying away from ground level - the roster encompasses nefarious spells and gizmos, allowing you to bypass the laws of nature and thus the clunky, stop-start rhythms of older stealth titles.

By far the most flexible and impressive is Possession, which allows you to (example numero uno) leap into the body of a fish or a rat to infiltrate a building. Or you could (example numero duo) snap yourself out of a death plummet by possessing a bystander just before you hit the ground.

It's possible to get through the whole game without killing a soul, using your Blink teleport to squirrel through tiny gaps in the scenery and slip seamlessly from rooftop to rooftop. You don't even have to kill your targets, though how exactly you'll complete missions otherwise remains to be seen. Camera movement echoes certain of DICE's efforts, with just enough heft and sway to convince.

While the levels don't appear to be as open-ended as those of Hitman: Blood Money, there's a random element: targets don't stay put, but shuffle through different destinations. Manipulating the environment is the key to showier kills. At one point during our demo session, the handler broiled a man alive by venting steam into a brothel bedroom.

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It's often diabolical, always ingenious and always entertaining. Dishonored's claim to being stealth's saviour isn't uncontested - Assassin's Creed 3's wilderness setting promises a bold new angle, and Splinter Cell 6 should be an interesting prospect. But from what we've seen, Arkane's leading the pack. Enjoy the new screens, and look out for a full preview from Matt soon.

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