I was relatively late to the game with picking up XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I had heard the name a few times and seen friends and family playing it on Steam, but the only impressions I got were the grainy shades-of-blue squaddie imagery and the erroneous idea that it was some kind of third-person shooter. However, when the lovely green “-75%” appeared next to the price suddenly all the positive comments I’d heard and read about became that much more persuasive.
Upon first opening XCOM, I wasn’t really aware of what I was playing. You get thrown head-first into an introductory tutorial mission upon starting a new game and this was the first time I discovered that XCOM isn’t the game I thought it was, its actually a turn-based squad strategy game, akin to the retro classic Commandos.
At first, I’ll admit, I wasn’t impressed. The over-sized and blocky weaponry of the squad members, paired with the tank-like build of the men and the skinny femininity of the women made the whole thing border on ridiculous. The environment around your headquarters also feels very surreal and unrealistic, like everything is made from painted polystyrene. On top of the aesthetics, I also thought there wasn’t a great deal of drive or direction given to the player and I frequently found myself looking at my underground base full of various facilities thinking “Ok, now what?”
It only took me a few hours of game play however for all of these complaints to pale into insignificance. Once the tutorial missions are over and you get to decide your own course of direction in your battle against the alien menace, that’s when XCOM comes into it’s own.
So you’re sitting in your underground super-secret base when suddenly one of a wide variety of emergencies happen (alien abductions, alien terror attack, UFO landing, council request, etc.) that you need to handle. Then begins a series of choices that can have long-term affects on how the rest of your game plays out. Firstly, you have to choose which squad members you want to send on the mission and what you’re going to equip them with. This is relatively simple at first because they’ll all be rookies without any special skills and you won’t yet have any decent equipment. However, after a few missions your troops will start getting promotions and specialising in their own type of combat and suddenly each mission becomes a painstaking choice between more grenades or another medikit, and do we really need two snipers? Throw into that mix the fact that one wrong choice on the battlefield can lead to a trooper being out of action for several days (at the very minimum) and who you choose to take with you suddenly becomes a far more significant issue.
The battles themselves are very well designed. The landscapes are nicely detailed without being too cluttered and they all force you to make the heart-quickening choice of safety versus fire superiority. You will end up fighting in a wide variety of locations and situations, where each of your squad members will either excel or become useless, sometimes in the same mission. There are also a good amount of enemy variants that each prove to have their strengths and weaknesses, forcing you to change tactics at a moment’s notice to be able to effectively combat them.
Once the battle is over, assuming you were successful, you will receive alien artefacts such as alloys and a new element known as Elerium. If you killed any enemies you will also collect their corpses and your science team back at base can be instructed to autopsy them in order to learn more about your foe. This adds a great dynamic to the game in that depending on what missions you undertake and how you perform, different research will become available to you. The research you perform will then allow your engineering team to construct new technology and this will have a direct effect on the outcome of later missions, and so the whole process repeats.
Politics also plays a role in the game as the alien invasion sparks panic around the globe. A cross section of nations from all continents form “The Council” which ultimately funds the XCOM operation and expects to be protected by it. Consequently, when several emergencies happen at once, panic will erupt in the places that you don’t have time to defend. If this panic is left unchecked the member nation will leave the Council, taking it’s funding with it. If too many countries abandon XCOM, the aliens win. Consequently you may have to take on more difficult missions to please countries, sell arms and resources to them, and pay to manufacture satellites to provide UFO surveillance. Just when you thought it was hard enough keeping your guys alive, now there are also political implications to your actions on the battlefield.
Despite all these different aspects and game mechanics, XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn’t feel confusing or overly stressful. Everything is fluid and there is a freedom of choice rarely found in games of this kind. Even while juggling all the different elements outside of battle, the game still delivers the thrilling feeling of successfully blowing the face off of a giant roaring monster from point blank range with a shotgun or expertly picking off a psychic grey from across the map with a well placed sniper shot. In fact, all of your careful planning and research leads up to these glorious moments of alien destruction, when you realise that you made the right choices and who knows, maybe you can actually win this thing?