It's best not to judge a game by its cover, though, and this week's front-facing embellishments are exceptionally deceptive. At a shallow glance, XCOM: Enemy Unknown may seem like another case of meathead military dudes mowing down extraterrestrials. Dishonored, meanwhile, conveys a stylish stab-a-thon with its masked, supernaturally talented anti-hero out for revenge. Look longer and you'll find that both have roots in classic PC gaming, and both sell something console owners might not even know they want.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a challenging and consuming turn-based strategy game in which you shepherd troops through hostile environments, manage finite resources and oversee longterm research goals. There's no reward for twitchy reflexes or the seamless plotting of a crosshair onto an alien's head. When a soldier dies, they are dead forever. Played on higher difficulties, it's entirely possible to start the single-player campaign, make significant progress, and then suffer a game-ending loss. Despite all the UFOs, there is so much in XCOM that just does not fly.
Or, you'd think so – XCOM has been met with critical acclaim and been praised for its expert modernization of a classic, which debuted in a time when your processor's megahertz (mere MEGAhertz!) might have been the subject of gloating. 2K Games and developer Firaxis deserve every credit for diving in to the holidays with a game so bold and unapologetic, and so defiant of the general audience's expectations. I can't say for sure that it'll be a big hit (the alien-blasting soldiers on the cover must help a little bit), but I'm sure it'll find fans ready to lament how little of the serious, turn-based strategy genre has made it to consoles.
Dishonored is also raking in the positive reviews, and it too comes from a background of complex PC games. One of its lead designers, Harvey Smith, had a hand in Deus Ex, the shooter and RPG hybrid that was so far ahead of its time ... it kinda still is ahead of its time. The "immersive" first-person sim with stealth and action elements isn't a brand new addition to consoles – having most recently hit a high note in Deus Ex: Human Revolution – but the style of game design is relatively uncommon, and a startling antithesis to the linear, script-heavy approach of a Call of Duty.
Dishonored's vermin population carries the simplest example of that emergent, improvisational style: You can summon a swarm of rats to attack guards or dispose of an unsightly corpse (gross!), and you can possess people and creatures to keep a low profile in restricted areas. So ... why not try possessing one of your own rats?
Between XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Dishonored, we're seeing an atypical start to Q4's annual abundance of games. Their successful attempts to retrieve and retool old-school concepts for modern audiences is worth noting now, because by November we'll be hearing complaints about how everything is basically a dumbed-down action game with aliens, assassins and soldiers.
Ludwig Kietzmann is the Editor-in-Chief of Joystiq.com. He's been writing about video games for over 10 years, and has been working on this self-referential blurb for about twice as long. He thinks it turned out pretty well. Follow him on Twitter @LudwigK.