Meeting Atypical Aliens and Assassins

You're reading Reaction Time, a weekly column that claims to examine recent events, games and trends in the industry, but is really just looking for an excuse to use the word "zeitgeist." It debuts on Fridays in Engadget's digital magazine, Distro.

This holiday's unceasing glut of games is a go, with store shelves making room for the onslaught of snarling aliens, sneering assassins, and slow-mo soldiers walking away from large explosions – or sometimes partially melted helicopters. These are the usual, commercially sexy suspects.

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 steampunk-ish setting is unique in itself, but the layered, open-ended approach to mission design is what sets it apart from most games this holiday, and what most brings to mind the likes of Deus Ex and Thief: The Dark Project. Your assassin, a wronged man named Corvo, combines his subtle movements with flashy supernatural abilities, all of which can interact with enemies and complex environments in ways that obey the general rules of the game, but don't follow a prescribed course.

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 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.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.