XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Game Name: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Since entering “adulthood” and learning there’s more to it than scoring hot babes in convertibles and eating pizza for every meal, I’ve found that losing yourself in a game has gotten a bit more rare.
Now I’m not talking about immersion, which many games lately have managed to pull off astoundingly well (The Walking Dead, Witcher 2, etc.). I mean the game that you’ll pick up and start playing and the next thing you know dawnlight is pouring through your window and the pets have resorted to eating the furniture. A truly addictive experience.
The last game that I can remember adequately pulling off this feat being the strategy franchise phenomenon Civilization V, the game where you’re best friends with Genghis Khan and Gandhi keeps threatening you with his nukes. Since Civ I haven’t really found a game that would pull me in, swearing to play “Just one more round”. Then, at the insistent urging of a friend, I picked up XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Released in October of 2012, XCOM is a turn-based strategy game where you control a squad of soldiers from across the world to fight off evil alien invaders. With a premise like that it’s really hard to go wrong (*cough* Colonial Marines *cough*). In it you play as the nameless, faceless, voiceless “Commander” whose job it is to give the alien invaders the welcome they deserve.
XCOM is sort of an amalgamation of a few different play styles thrown together. While strategy at its heart, the game also employs use of cover-based tactics and RPG elements (XP and loot). Each turn your squad of soldiers can move about the map from cover to cover, peering through the “fog of war” to detect nearby enemies and blast their faces off. At the end of your turn, the enemy moves. This is typically the most distressing part of the game. The enemy AI is quite clever and utterly unforgiving of even the slightest mistakes.
As your soldiers participate in missions and blast apart gooey aliens, they gain XP. After enough XP they ‘level up’ by gaining a rank, which then allows you to allot a rank into a new skill. The skill trees aren’t very diverse, and it takes an ungodly amount of time for each soldier to rank up to an adequate level, making every one of their deaths that much more costly. I’m not ashamed to admit (okay a little) that if I lose someone above a lieutenant I’m reloading to the last autosave to try that one more time. Even just being wounded can be a costly affair as, depending on the severity of the wounds, the soldier will be unavailable for a certain amount of time while they lick their wounds. Caution is the name of the game here people. Well…no. It’s XCOM. Just…nevermind let’s move on.
At the end of a mission you’re given a set amount of ‘loot’ that includes the dead bodies of the aliens (for dissection), aliens you might have captured alive (for vivisection), and any alien tech you could scrounge (for helping with the first two). In a show of pure human ingenuity your scientists and engineers are quite well adapted to tearing apart the aliens and their gizmos and turning it into something cool and explodey. If you have too much of something you can always show your capitalist roots and sell it on the “gray market”, the black market for alien wares.
In between missions you are stuck in the XCOM headquarters. There you can manage your squad, assign new research assignments, build new weapons, construct additional facilities in the base, or review the status of the countries of the world. There are a lot of items to micromanage and everything takes time to construct, build, and research. Finding the rhythm can take a bit and include more than your share of false starts, but once you get used to it…it’s still pretty damn difficult.
Unfortunately, these aliens have decided that just attacking the good ol’ US of A is not the most prudent battle plan and so you will often find yourself travelling to various countries around the world. Since the XCOM project relies on the support of the countries allying with it, you have to make sure they’re all happy and filled with as few aliens as possible. If they aren’t satisfied with your alien killing prowess, the country (much like a slighted grade school chum) will take its toys and go home. You want to avoid this. Unless you’re a fan of probes. In which case feel free to welcome your new xeno-riffic overlords.
Another fun mechanic the game employs is the ability to customize your squad. You’re given a series of preset faces and races to cycle through while the name is purely up to your design (hehehehehe…”Major Butts”). This allows you to grow a bit attached to your little cadre of hardened killers and makes it all the more devastating when their bodies are exploded like overripe fruit.
The staff that runs the XCOM facility while you’re off gallivanting about aren’t the most three-dimensional of characters. But really they don’t need to be. This game isn’t about engaging story and hard-bitten characters that make you really think about things and stuff. No, this game is about playing a game of chess against cosmic overlords and being the best xenophobe you can be.
When I first picked up XCOM: Enemy Unknown I wasn’t too sure about it. I’d had bad luck with tactical shooters before, and especially bad luck with strategy games. Let’s face it, I’m just not that good at them. Muscling aside that trepidation I stepped into the world of XCOM and didn’t surface again until about five hours later. The gameplay is incredibly addictive and the feel of watching your squad grow and advance is akin to what a parent must feel when their child learns to use its first plasma pistol.
There’s nothing really wrong with the game, but there are a few things I would change/add. Most notably I would make more, and more diverse, maps. Maybe it was just my experience, but I found that more often than not I was thrown into either a city, an alien base, or some generic forest. These aliens are attacking the entire world. Let me feel like I’m a globetrotting, alien ass-kicker. Deserts, beaches, mountains, frozen tundra. There are so many fascinating places I’d like to kill things in.
The game is harsh and merciless, but oh so very fun. Even on the easiest difficulty I found myself grumbling as my squad was obliterated time and again. But that didn’t stop me from reloading and trying just one more time. If you can stomach the occasional ragequit you will be rewarded with a good, challenging game that really stands on its own in the strategy game genre.
If you do get the game and enjoy it, I highly recommend taking a look at the next XCOM coming out on August 19th, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. It’s set around the early sixties with a very Roswellian feel to it and personally I’m excited.
For XCOM: Enemy Unknown for the PC I give a 5/6
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