By Patrick Shaw | 04-26-2012 11:00AM

Last week, Bethesda revealed Dishonored, its upcoming first-person action game set in an alternate reality where a plague ravages its steampunk-inspired world. But Arkane Studios' co-creative directors Rafael Colantonio and Harvey Smith are quick to point out that while Dishonored’s fictional universe draws heavy inspiration from real-life historical periods like 1850's London, the developer has built its stylized city of Dunwall from the ground up. “This is a place that doesn’t exist on Earth,” said Smith, who adds that the game’s designers have put a tremendous amount of energy into making its sci-fi universe feel like a place that could actually exist.

In Dishonored, players assume the role of supernatural assassin Corvo Atano, a former bodyguard to the empress who has unfortunately  been murdered. Since her death, a ruthless tyrant has taken over Dunwall. The developer explained that players are encouraged to explore the city -- and avenge the empress' death -- as they see fit. It’s up to the player to decide if they want to primarily rely on stealth to carry out missions or behave in a much more violent, head-on manner. “It’s actually even possible to play the game without killing anyone,” said Smith, who cites PC classics like Deus Ex and Thief as influencing the direction they’re going in with Dishonored.

As the hands-off gameplay demonstration commenced, Corvo approached one of Dunwall’s unsuspecting guard’s from behind. Instead of taking him out in a particularly flashy manner, he choked the life out of his target with his bare hands to avoid alerting other guards. But the player can approach this same situation in a variety of other ways. For example, the player can use their crossbow weapon to kill the guard or even use one of their supernatural powers like summoning a horde of diseased rats to literally devour him alive. The wealth of options at your disposal in any given situation really go back to Arkane’s emphasis on player freedom throughout the experience.

The player collects ruins in the game, which grant them various supernatural abilities ranging from the power to teleport short distances (called “blink”) to temporarily possessing the bodies of enemies (or even fish or rats like the ones that consumed the guard during the demo).

After dispatching the guard during the demo, Corvo took out numerous other guards using both stealth and more aggressive tactics. One device in the assassin’s arsenal of particular interest is the spring razor, a trap that brutally tears through the bodies of enemies with razor wire when triggered. Gadgets like the razor trap effectively illustrate how ruthlessly violent you can be if you choose to.

At the end of the mission being shown, Corvo reached his ultimate target: Custis Pendleton, a villainous member of parliament. Arkane demonstrated a couple of different ways in which you can assassinate Pendleton, including possessing his body and making him jump out a window, and simply stabbing him in the throat with a dagger.

While Dishonored is still in a relatively early stage of development -- the game currently has a loose 2012 release date for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 -- it’s shaping up to be one of the most exciting new franchises this year. Hopefully, the energy Arkane’s artists are putting into crafting an imaginatively original sci-fi world shows in the rest of the game. In any case, Dishonored is definitely a new IP to watch out for in 2012.