November 21, 2012
Defend the Earth from aliens in 'XCOM'
By SEAN O’SULLIVAN, Special to QMI Agency
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a most curious artifact. In an era known for constant iteration on established formulas, 2K Games have somehow managed to put a faithful remake of one of PC gaming’s most cherished strategy titles in front of the mass market, in the hopes that the tarted up presentation will convince enough dudebros to bite.
XCOM puts the player in charge of defending the Earth from an aggressive and technologically superior alien enemy. While the lion’s share of the gameplay is spent in turn-based combat, there’s a layer of strategy over the rest of the game that bleeds into every other system, meaning that there are few decisions that can be made lightly.
Even the number of troops you send into battle can have a major impact: having more guns on the field is nice, but when there’s not enough cover to go around, soldiers tend to die quickly. If you have a well-equipped strike team that can beat back invasions with ease, then chances are you haven’t invested enough in global coverage and you'll be overwhelmed with attacks before long.
As the panic level grows in member countries, they bail out, taking their funding with them – if enough countries quit, then it’s game over. With so many countries each vying for attention simultaneously, and so few resources to go around, the feeling of constantly putting out fires will never go away.
Having to keep the world’s governments happy is also a bummer, because it means less money to invest in keeping your soldiers competitive against the alien’s ever-increasing escalation, and since they’re the ones you spend the most time with, they’re the ones you’ll care about the most.
You might not expect it from a turn-based system, but the combat in XCOM is thoroughly gripping. Each soldier gets one move and an action per turn (eg: run to cover, take a shot), or two moves (run further to cover), with distances mapped to a grid. The enemies will flank your soldiers, cannily use explosive weapons on troops close together, and retreat or entrench in a sensible fashion, making them very hard to kill.
Varying enemy types and combinations means that strategies will need to be improvised on the fly, and the surprises thrown up by the fog of war and the fully destructible environment mean you’ll never have the luxury of foregone conclusions.
The enemies will prevail in killing your soldiers, and once they’re dead, they’re gone forever. Even if you decide not to take advantage of the soldier naming and customization options, you’re apt to grow fond of them for the indispensable perks they acquire as they level up, as well as the silly nicknames assigned to them. Orders you issue play out with cinematic panache as the camera swoops down to the soldier's level, showcasing the gorgeous visuals, and even though the soldiers hold no narrative purpose, your stomach will churn when your bad decisions imperil the veterans; enough that you may find yourself taking unnecessary risks for purely emotional reasons.
For a game with so many deep systems that all require proficiency to succeed, XCOM is mostly successful at teaching the player. The tutorial starts players off with brutal combat lessons, then introduces the basic premise of research and manufacturing. The game’s story will steer the player towards certain behaviours, but these cues can be ignored. Amazingly, it’s possible to lose the game and have to start all over again, a feature that makes me all the fonder of it, because it makes victory an outcome of player ingenuity and not some inevitable conclusion to a mindless grind.
By virtue of how it stokes more parts of my brain than any game of the past decade, I’m inclined to consider XCOM: Enemy Unknown one of the most important titles of this generation. This game will test your disaster-management skills, levy you with suffocatingly difficult choices on how to spend your resources and cause you to grow so fond of your chess pieces that each skirmish takes on the flavour of a Whedonesque drama.
If you want to play more games that don’t feel like they play themselves, you need to support this one.