Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

XCOM: Enemy Unknown for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a remake/reboot of the 1990s strategy classic, and unlike most reboots of 1990s strategy classics it’s not an FPS! I don’t play many strategy games; sure, I’ve dabbled in Fire Emblem and Advance Wars, but I tend not to get very far due to the shameful fact that I’m usually incredibly bad at them, and lack the patience these games generally need. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is therefore the kind of game which would normally fly straight under my radar, if not for the ecstatic love this game seems to inspire. You couldn’t visit any gaming blog without someone or other raving about how wonderful this game is, so against my better judgement I picked it up with a voucher and decided to give it a go. Hey internet? You were totally right!

The plot of XCOM is fairly simple; the player is the faceless, nameless commander of the XCOM project, an international taskforce with the mission of halting a global alien invasion. The player leads XCOM through several key victories to attempt to repel the alien forces, building up the XCOM project and keeping the Council Nations that fund XCOM happy.

XCOM immediately appealed to me due to its international flavour; this isn’t simply a tale of Americans saving America. The whole world throws their cards on the table, and the whole word is the focus. The actual international environments the player engages the enemy in aren’t particularly impressive however; I know this is an alien invasion, and everything is all shattered and broken, but it may have been nice if there was some kind of distinction between Argentina and Japan.

The actual plot of XCOM really isn’t anything special at all. The small handful of characters, figures who head up areas such as the scientific research and engineering wings, aren’t particularly interesting or memorable in any way. However, I was probably more invested in XCOM than I was in most games I play. There is a strong narrative in this game, but it’s a narrative reliant of the imagination of the player. My squad of alien fighting commandos had zero actual personalities, but…well, I grew fond of them, and without realising it I’d ended up getting invested in these empty avatars. I was imposing my own imagined personalities on these soldiers; there’s absolutely no reason why I should imagine my French sniper lady as a troubled renegade, but…er, I did. I was given no reason to believe that my heavy weapons expert, a huge hulking bald man, would conceal a more sensitive and erudite side, but I found myself, with no conscious effort to do so, imagining them this way. Now, of course this isn’t something that will happen with every player, but reading around it seems that I’m not the only one. Firaxis deserve credit for this; even if they didn’t actually make the epic, personal tale which formed in my head, they created a game which is extremely open and friendly to this kind of experience, and I suspect that this was their intention.

The gameplay of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is divided into two clear halves; on one side we have the battles on the ground, commanding your squad in turn based encounters, with the other in the base, managing resources and construction. Both halves are very well developed, with neither feeling tacked on to the other; they function in harmony, which is actually pretty rare in games like these. The turn based combat, of a squad originally of four that can be expanded to six, starts out very simple with all of your troops starting out the same, but before long things will get a bit more complex as your troops take on individual roles. I started the game with four generic soldiers, and ended it with such motley troops as a psychic run and gun assault trooper, a heavy weapons guy with a jetpack and a rocket launcher and a little drone which could fly around and rain death from above. Developing your troops, through both a levelling system and the crafting of new weapons and armour is incredibly satisfying, and significantly raises the stakes, because, as in Fire Emblem, when these troops die they stay dead. There are a decent range of alien foes, with different attack patterns and posing different threats, and these sections are a lot of fun, although never quite reaching the staggering complexity that Advance Wars could sometimes slip into.

After each battle, the player is transferred back to their base, and it’s here that I had the most fun. The player can upgrade their squad, build new facilities, launch new research projects, and manage their global position. Twenty countries support XCOM, and when 8 leave due to rising panic the game ends. Like, actually ends. There aren’t many games where you can straight up fail; not go back to the beginning of the level or anything like that, but actually fail, so the stakes are high. The whole game is a delicate balancing act; I need to research laser weaponry to stand up to tougher aliens, but if I do I won’t have enough money to provide satellite coverage over China to protect their populations, but I won’t be able to protect their population without laser weaponry oh dear lord I’m so stressed out. This game is not a relaxing experience, and that’s why I love it. Not only is there a financial cost to everything, but building projects and research take time to complete as well, with some taking up to twenty in game days, days which could be filled with UFO attacks, alien terror strikes or abductions. There are more complex base management games out there, and there are more complex turn based strategy games, but I haven’t played any game which marries the two so successfully.

Probably the biggest let down of this game is it’s visuals. XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn’t really have a coherent visual style. The visuals of this game would have done very well to have been stylised in some way; I can’t help but feel that Borderlands-esque cell-shading would have been a great look for this game. The environments are unimpressive, murky and dark but not in an atmospheric way, merely dull to look at. The earlier alien designs are impressive, particularly the sinister ‘Tall Men’, and I quite liked the self consciously cliché design of the grey, bulbous headed ‘Sectoids’, but later enemies are often rather uninspired. The sound design doesn’t fare much better; perhaps a bit more customisation in the voices of our soldiers would be nice, I’d quite like my French sniper to actually have a French accent! The visual and audio design of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is extremely conservative, in a game which in other ways takes some real risks.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is very much a game which exceeds the sum of its parts. Most games which mash together a bunch of different elements fail, but XCOM succeeds comfortably. Nonetheless, this game feels almost a template for something even better to come; purists will tell me that that game is the original XCOM on PC, but screw those guys. If you enjoy turn based strategy games, this one is a no brainer, but I’d also highly recommend it even to those who aren’t. This is one of the most rewarding and satisfying game experiences I’ve enjoyed in the past year, and a game which comfortably lives up to the hype. XCOM-line-up

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