XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the latest modernisation of a classic game developed by Firaxis and published by 2k. Although the franchise has a colourful history of cancelled games and relatively unheard of releases, it’s heyday was back in the mid-nineties with the original Enemy Unknown and the sequel, Terror from the Deep, being the titles that most gamers will be familiar with.
Their premise was as simple then as it is now. Aliens have started invading a near future earth and it’s down to you to build a base, recruit soldiers and then begin fighting the threat. As you work your way through the missions you research your enemy to unlock their superior technology, allowing your squad to level the playing field and defend the Earth from near-certain defeat.
This creates a game in 2 halves. First, your base building. You home is your castle and the key to your success. With only limited funding available you have to think hard about what to build and when. Your main prioritises are to create satellite uplinks, so you can monitor for alien activity and keep the countries funding you happy, build laboratories to carry out research more quickly and arguably (at least in my play through) the most important; engineering. These are the guys that actually build the upgrades and reduce your costs.
The second half is the superb turn based game play. Each missions involves some kind of event, i.e. an abduction, or you’ve shot down a UFO. You’ll deploy your squad to investigate, and as you use cover to your advantage, you point and click your troops across the map turn by turn, outflanking and out manoeuvring your enemy as you rack up the kills and unlock new abilities for your troops. That’s the theory, at least.
In reality, the game is never this simple; at times it’s even brutal. There’s rarely enough full cover, and when there is it will get blown up exposing, and damaging, any ducked behind it. Moving to the best position to shoot an enemy from may leave your soldier exposed, especially if they miss their shot. Retreating to safe cover could alert unseen enemies to your location or leave carefully positioned soldiers in bad locations. In XCOM, even the best laid plans turn to chaos when battle commences.
When death befalls a member of your squad, and trust me, it will, you always know why. It’s always your fault, and there was always a better way to do it. Proof is in reloading a save and trying again, but the real experience of XCOM is had by learning and carrying on a man down. Failure, to a certain degree, is tolerable and designed in to this game. But the better you play and the more careful you are the easier things become and the more upgrades you unlock for your soldiers.
By the time I had finished my first play through I was surprised it was over. My base was not yet finished, I still didn’t have all the satellites up in the air, the s.h.i.v unit I’d been spending a fortune trying to upgrade was not ready and I certainly didn’t have enough money to buy the best equipment for my 6-man squad.
And this was the moment that XCOM’s Sid Meier pedigree revealed itself. Xcom is a game that demands more than one play through because you simply do not have enough time to see everything in the game first time round. Not without paying severe penalties at least. In your first play through the unknown element provides a thrilling ride as you discover that, no matter how hard you try to take it steady and perform 100% of your research and upgrades, the aliens are not going to stop invading. This isn’t Command and Conquer; digging in and hoarding is not an option, there simply aren’t enough resources. But neither is charging in to the story advancement missions with an ill-equipped squad. Certain death awaits those who do.
By the time you come to play for a second time the unknown elements have turned in to knowing just how scarce your resources are. Now the game is about intelligently prioritising what you know works to achieve the best results and have that perfect play through. It becomes a puzzle, one that will keep the hardcore strategists delighted as they seek to hone their game. Throw in a new multiplayer mode to really test your skills against the world’s best players, and you’ve got yourself a game worthy of staying in your collection for years to come, possibly baring the achievement of best in its genre.
But it is not without its woes. The interface stinks of the 90s. Especially around your base. Because you’ll only be able to afford a couple of sets of items at the best, your soldiers have to share. But there’s no quick way to see which of your 20 soldiers has that plasma rifle you want to give to your new rookie. So you have to hop through 2 menus for each soldier as you inspect their load outs and locate your items before you can assign them to another soldier. It’s tedious and wastes time before missions.
The graphics are also frightfully dull. I concede this isn’t a game that promises any kind of cinematic experience, but I just found many of the mid-battle cut scenes were poorly executed. Aliens seeming to be in one position for their dramatic entrance, but then in a different position when the camera is zoomed back out was a frequent bug of mine. When the cut scenes didn’t work it ruined the moment.
The game also crashed a total of 3 times in my play through and I encountered a nasty, circumstantial bug that froze my game – shooting down a UFO while your team are en-route to a mission will cause your game to lock up and I feel better quality assurance really should have picked up this quite likely
scenario. The other crashes were simply during the enemy’s turn. I don’t know if the code just didn’t know what to do, but on a couple of occasions the enemy would just stop mid-turn. As though it couldn’t calculate a move so it would just sit there. I’d need to reload my last save and hope too much progress hadn’t been lost.
But these bugs are forgiveable in such a well balanced game. I’d like to see a patch resolve the issues I’ve mentioned, but otherwise XCOM is a solid game. Luring the player in to their own demise and not revealing the right way to play until they’ve already screwed up their game is daring on the developer’s part, but it works and demonstrates simply exquisite game design skills.
No matter how great you think you are, at the end of the game you’ll be desperate to go back and play it again properly. And this is something games simply don’t do enough any more. It’s the true definition of re-playability, taking the player out of their comfort zone and forcing them to practice and learn a new game. XCOM doesn’t taut your second play through as just some crappy alternative ending because you consciously decided to take a different route at a linear story’s cross-roads, it’s about solving the puzzle in a better way.
I welcome a game that treats me like an intelligent adult, that recognises that sometimes I actually want to just play and learn things for myself, instead of having every action sign-posted and my hand held from start to finish. I loved that I didn’t actually know how to play this game until it was too late! Sadly though, I can’t see XCOM doing that well in the charts.
It’s simply not the type of game that’s translated that well in to modern mould and its release in the run up to Christmas is foolish. It’s a game demanding attention and dedication I can’t afford it right now because I have other games to play. Where was this when I was on the cusp of selling my dust-coasted consoles in May? Do enough gamers even want to unwind this winter with a drawn out, complex and brutal war against a vastly superior alien race, or do they want to run and gun in modern staples for quick rewards? This is the decision gamers must make, and I implore you to prove me wrong and to give this a one a go. Don’t let a great game rot in bargain bins as just another cult classic.