We don’t get many thinking man’s games these days. It’s usually shoot first, ask questions never, and maybe occasionally press X to interact while the really cool stuff happens in QTEs or cut scenes. But XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a different kind of animal for a different kind of gamer. Of all things, XCOM is the most taxing on your brain — and sometimes your heart.
The premise of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is simple: aliens have landed, and you’re in charge of wiping them out with an elite task force. But this isn’t a run-and-gun scenario, it’s a tactical shooter. Every scenario takes place in map made out of tiles, with the areas your squad can’t see covered by a fog of war. Characters can move and attack, with certain moves taking place of both actions, and some attacks taking the place of both actions.
As you move forward, enemies and obstacles will be revealed to you, and it’s up to you how you deal with them with the limited actions available to you per turn. And the really scary part is that any of your soldiers can get caught off-guard at a moment’s notice, effectively ending their short, pitiful digital lives. This means that you have to carefully plan your advance, staggering your movements and letting soldiers in the rear cover you as you slowly survey the area. It makes for some really intense, often scary scenarios when you have no idea what kind of certain death might be lurking around the next corner.
While it might be complicated at first viewing, the tactics of XCOM really shine as you start digging further into the battles. Once you’ve been able to level up your soldiers (more on that later), there’s nothing more satisfying than using the sniper’s double tap ability to save you from a particularly hairy battle, or letting your assault soldier scatter the enemy so all your overwatchers can take them out as they make a run for it. It’s one of those games that makes you fist pump all by yourself, because you’re proud of yourself every time you overcome its challenges.
Even though the combat in XCOM is methodical, fun and intense, the game could have easily been made or broken by its leveling system. Fortunately for the RPG nuts among us, this is another area where the game excels.
Each kill you earn during battle gives your soldier a bit of experience. Over time, they start leveling up, gaining HP, keeping their composure better during battle (rookies sometimes flee in fear) and generally just kick more ass. Since any turn can end a soldier’s life, the two of these things combined really give you a sense of attachment to your men, and you want to do nothing more than protect your soldiers, which you have named, customized and equipped since their first missions. Trust me, it’s a bit of a gut punch when you lose your most experienced man in the midst of a mission gone to crap, but it’s one of those things that makes the game so damn appealing. You really feel something when you lose these guys, and the leveling system contributes to that.
But your upgrades aren’t just relegated to your squad. Between missions, you use items scavenged such as alien corpses, weapons, technology fragments and such, along with any cash rewards, to research new weapons, build new aircraft to intercept UFOs and learn more about your enemy. On top of all that, you get to play building planner as you’re put in charge of the layout of your base. You get to decide where the barracks go, where the research labs are housed and even things like power supplies. And this isn’t just for show — the way you lay your base out can make it more or less efficient.
As if that wasn’t enough to manage, you also are responsible for upkeeping the relationship the XCOM program has with the rest of the world. As the panic level rises during the alien crisis, different countries might pull their support from the program, which means you make less money per month, and can’t upgrade your tech as quickly. Trying to balance each of these whiny, fearful countries is a pleasure and a pain, as you do everything you can to keep everyone happy. The council will ultimately give you a report card at the end of each month, telling you how you did — just another stresser for the leader of a secret alien-fighting project.
Truth be told, I was almost more addicted to the base management and leveling than I was the actual gameplay. There was nothing better after each mission than spending money, seeing what new tricks my squad had learned, and decking them out with shiny new gear. And of course, once that’s done, you just have to jump into the next mission and try it out, right?
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a breath of fresh air for a gaming palette that is a bit numb to the overabundance of first person shooters on the market. It requires you to take your time, use your head, keep your cool and try missions from multiple angles. And even though that sounds like the game is slow, it makes for some riveting moments of total desperation when your squad finds itself in an alien ambush, and you know that someone you care about might have to die in order for you to complete the mission. That drama comes from you more than it comes from some poorly written story, and the game is all the better for it.
I can’t recommend XCOM enough. It’s not the best game you’ll play all year, but it’s one of the more addicting and unique. It doesn’t offer much in the way of in-depth gameplay, or really crazy strategy, and happens to get a bit repetitive while you’re waiting for certain tech to research before you can move forward with the game. But it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.
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