In this post-PC, pro-app era of entertainment XCOM: Enemy Unknown has no business being a game. Let alone a good or bad one (spoiler alert: it’s the former). Nonetheless it exists and does away with the plethora of menus that make up most strategy-laden affairs. In it’s place is a UI that would make Jony Ive cry tears of joy regardless of your platform of choice. The premise is simple. Aliens have shown up and they’re wreaking havoc. Nations of the world are in panic and they turn to the first, last and only line of defence against the extraterrestrial threat; XCOM.
Aside from being a snappy acronym for Extraterrestrial Combat, XCOM represents the pinnacle of humanity’s military and scientific efforts against an invasion of this magnitude. You are the commander of XCOM and your actions determine the course of civilisation and history as we know it.
If that last line seemed a bit overdramatic it’s warranted. XCOM has two parts to it. The first is controlling a squad of soldiers on the ground and violently ending a variety of non-earth creatures with your weapons of choice while the second has you managing research and manufacturing of new tech between missions. Both are of paramount importance to your success.
Unlike other games where aliens are simple cannon fodder, one wrong move can decimate your entire campaign. Even at the lowest difficulty setting, you will need your wits about you if you have any hopes of survival let alone victory.
Manoeuvring of your troops takes place along the map in a turn based fashion akin to Valkyria Chronicles, Disgaea, Front Mission and if you’re a senior citizen, earlier X-COM games. Attacking enemies depends on distance and environmental cover which peppers each level. Get a clear shot and you’ll litter the battlefield with corpses while taking aim when your foe is in cover.
There’s a fog of war that impedes your view of the environment and even if you’re up against a lesser number of enemies than you have soldiers, you’re never quite able to shake the feeling that each turn has you up against insurmountable odds shaping your progress into one of caution. Making it the digital embodiment of being always outgunned, every enemy kill is a small celebration in itself.
Play carefully and you’ll see your fledgling rookies blossom into war hardened veterans with a sweet number of abilities to boot. What was once a panicky, manic sniper transforms into colonel who can put a bullet between the eyes of a sectoid in his sleep. Try diving head on into battle and you’ll have a list of fallen soldiers on your memorial wall longer than the Indian Constitution. It makes for a rather rewarding experience that few games can match.
Furthermore, you cannot accept every call for help that comes your way. You’ll usually have three to choose from. Aid one and you’ll lower the panic level in the area as well as gain funds, resources or additional soldiers. You can even ignore these missions but not without repercussions such as the possibility of countries pulling out from XCOM completely. This makes each choice dependent on what rewards are important to you in addition to their difficulty level that’s displayed.
Congruently, your chances of winning are greater with the right kind of gear and facilities at your base which you choose right at the beginning of the game. Setting up shop in the US makes building aircraft cheaper while doing so in Europe gives you an edge in research.
Success also depends on how quick and often you research alien corpses, manufacture satellites to gauge threat levels and how fast you can scramble your aircraft to locations of UFO sightings. Installations and vehicles have a substantial lead time (measured in days) before they’re constructed some of which, have pre-requisites such as power, funds for monthly maintenance or a set number of engineers or scientists needed to bring your plans to life. Eventually you’ll find yourself looking at a diorama of your headquarters and figure what to put where.
So if like me, you thought that getting a satellite up over Africa is an easy task, think again. I ended up losing the whole continent because I did not factor in the additional days needed to build a power plant and uplink structures. Think ahead and review your projects and construction work often. It might just make the difference between a nation stopping their funding of the XCOM project or showering you with additional resources.
And speaking of nations, each month, the council of countries that fund the XCOM project rate your performance and reward you with cash and resources such as engineers and scientists accordingly. This entire, almost holistic experience of managing troops, research and choice makes XCOM an elaborate game of chess powered by the Unreal Engine. Difference being, chess would allow for an ideal outcome. Reason being, there never really is an absolutely perfect scenario in XCOM. You will lose troops, you will restart your missions and if you lacked the required foresight and research you will start the game again from the very beginning.
The game’s adherence to it’s own rules of checks and balances will have you playing for “just one more turn” before you realise you haven’t bathed, shaved or gone to work for a week. Yes, it’s that damn good. It’s even good enough to consider on consoles. While the PC version has the edge in terms of loading times, eye candy and control options, it’s a slight advantage at best. The experience is pretty uniform across the board so go with your preferred platform.
If you’re a fan of turn based games or not, XCOM is one game every gamer should experience. Not only have the nice people at Firaxis manage to make the genre accessible but they’ve managed to keep the core elements sacrosanct. So much so that if you tear away the graphics, awesome Michael McCann (of the Deus Ex: Human Revolution fame) music and have all of it replaced with something as rudimentary as Pong and it would be as addictive if not more so. The core gameplay elements are strong enough to have you hooked for a very long time.
Yes, it’s a reimagining, a reboot or whatever have you, but it’s also quite possibly one of the most exemplary achievements in gaming this generation.