XCOM: Enemy Unknown
AMD Radeon HD 3000
Aliens have come to Earth, and as Stephen Hawking predicted, they did not come in peace. What’s more, you as the nameless, faceless Commander of the XCOM unit are thrust into the situation with no context, no explanation for their attack. Your task to combat the alien threat is seemingly Sisyphean; at the beginning of the game, the various species of aliens are superior to you in every way. They have more numbers, better technology, and nigh-infinite resources. Their attack is unceasing, unflinching, and they have no fear. Until the very last mission of the game, the aliens do not speak - they are killers, apparently without purpose. You are fighting a war, and you are losing.
The campaign against the alien menace is fought on two distinct but interlocking fronts. There is the tactical game, where you deploy up to six soldiers (or, later, robots) and engage in direct turn-based combat with the enemy. In the course of your soldiers' many battles, they will collect bits and pieces of the fallen foe: a fragment of a plasma rifle here, a sectoid or muton corpse there. Then there is also the equally important, if not more important, base-building metagame. Occasionally your interceptors will shoot down a UFO, giving you the chance at a real pay day: elerium, a valuable power source, or flight computers, which can be used to make little UFOs of your own to patrol the skies. All of these resources which you receive automatically in the course of the tactical game, provided your entire squad doesn't die, feed into the metagame. Want to research new plasma weapons for your squad, or suits of armour that let them turn invisible, grapple to the roofs of buildings, or fly (yes, fly)? All of these things are possible, but it will cost you varying amounts of credits, weapon fragments, elerium and alloys to both develop and fabricate these new technologies.
Squad leader Jesse Pinkman takes his shot.
All of this research and construction will also cost you in XCOM's most important resource: time. If you want to deploy a satellite to increase your funding and decrease a nation's panic rating, you will need to construct a satellite uplink in your base, build a satellite in your engineering bay, and then actually send the satellite out over the country of your choosing. Each of these three steps will take time, and the only way to advance time is to “Scan for Activity”. At any point while you are scanning, a random event can pop up. A UFO might be sighted over North America or aliens might land in Beijing and start abducting people. Sometimes, two or three of these will happen concurrently, and you will only be able to respond to one. You are never forced to do these random events, but any country that you don’t help will slowly become more panicked. If their panic rating maxes out, they will pull out of the XCOM project permanently; you will lose both their funding and the ability to do missions in that area.
Now, you begin to see how deviously the two layers of the game are interconnected. Once the player understands the game’s systems, it becomes evident that everything in the game is some sort of trade-off. A soldier can have any of four classes randomly assigned to him/her (sniper, assault, heavy, or support). You can also build three different types of drones that can take the place of a soldier (regular ground drones, ground drones that can also serve as mobile cover, and drones that can fly), but you only have six slots for a squad. Configuration largely comes down to personal preference, and it is easy to experiment with different line ups over the course of the game. A soldier gets shot in the course of a mission? He or she is now wounded, and will need time after the mission to recover before he or she can be deployed again. A soldier dies in the course of a mission? They are dead forever, level up someone new. Like it or not, you will end up experimenting with new units.
Soldiers also rank up the more they are used, and can choose one of two class-dependent abilities at each tier, but they cannot respec. These ability choices are never obvious, and both will have different applications. At every point when you design your squad, you will have to choose one thing at the expense of another. If you want your sniper to be able to move and attack in the same turn, that means he will not be able to shoot at any enemy his team can see. If you want your assault to be immune to critical hits, that means she will not be able to deal massive critical damage when she closes with an enemy: the tactical game is an endless system of interrelated trade-offs, and it is brilliant.
War is hell, Mr. Random.
While the game's story is barely there, the worldbuilding elements are fantastic. I am not typically the type of person to read large amounts of extraneous text in games, and it takes a very well written game to interest me in that regard. When I say, then, that the reports you receive after a given research project is completed are worth reading, I mean it. They are great little pieces of the fiction that point towards your research staff’s simultaneous wonderment and terror at such advanced technology. The general gist of most of them is something like: “We could spend decades learning from these artifacts you recovered. We had like, a week, so enjoy your new laser rifle”. The sense of the world is good, but the narrative is little more than a series of MacGuffins. And when the aliens in charge finally deign to speak to you during the final mission and explain themselves, their answer is highly unsatisfying. That’s alright, though, because narrative clearly wasn’t the focus here. Firaxis wanted to make a game that was fun to play, and they did.
The multiplayer is a fun enough diversion, but didn’t strike me enough to want to play it more than a couple of times. You can build a force of both humans and aliens to fight another player who has done the same. To me, it was only interesting in as much as it provided more insight into the mechanics of the game. The point-buy system of deploying units makes you seriously think about which is more tactically valuable: a ton of little gray sectoids or a powerfully equipped human soldier? Ultimately, though, this is a singleplayer game to me.
The insidious greys.
Technically speaking, the game succeeds on practically every level. The art and sound direction are solid: individual soldier and alien types are immediately visually distinguishable from each other, and the game ran at a smooth framerate on my machine. The sound borrows heavily from the horror genre at times, especially on crashed UFO missions. The odd, creaking sounds clash with brief clamors of distant movement for great psychological effect. Occasionally, your soldiers will even comment on this, further underscoring the tension. The game is not going to necessarily wow you with hyper realistic, high fidelity graphics but it looks perfectly serviceable and the aliens themselves are well-realized representations of many different tropes. The only time the look of the game negatively impacts the experience is during the few cutscenes, where the nondescript staff of XCOM resemble nothing so much as rows of plastic dolls. Luckily in actual missions, your armored soldiers look totally believable; it is only when characters attempt to emote that the illusion is broken.
While I have heard reports of bugs in the game, I never encountered any during my forty hour playthrough of the single-player or multiplayer matches I did, so I can’t speak to how buggy the game is; in my experience, it wasn’t at all. XCOM controls equally well with a controller as with a mouse and keyboard. While I preferred the traditional PC controls, I did plug in my gamepad for a couple of missions to see how that worked, I was incredibly impressed with how easy it was to give orders with either control mechanism.
If you’re looking for a thinking man’s challenge this year, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is there for you like a warm childhood blanket. A blanket that will make you gnash your teeth in a unique mixture of appreciation and frustration, and possibly gnash other things that aren’t teeth. Make no mistake: good men and women die out there, Commander. You just have to keep your head down and hope for the best, like a critical hit when you really need one. Or maybe that soldier you’ve kept alive all along will turn out to be psychic. Oh yeah, did I mention you can train your guys to kill aliens with their brains? Because you totally can. Seriously, if you’ve ever liked a strategy game at all, or enjoy the idea of fighting a downhill battle against an enormously superior force from outer space, go get XCOM.
- The Difficulty: I love a game that is tough but fair, a game that presents a challenge but never deviates from the rules it sets up. XCOM does this brilliantly.
- The Complexity: Flight suits, stealth suits, power armor, psychic snipers, deployable drones with plasma cannons that also serve as mobile cover...this rabbit hole goes deep, people.
- Base Building: An interesting diversion from the turn-based action that impacts your squad in all kinds of interesting ways.
- The Little Details: The game is suffused with little pieces of fiction that make you feel like you’re in the midst of a losing battle.
- The Tactics: While it seems crazy to ask for more to do in the tactical game, I really wish that the destructible environments were targetable at will.
- The Narrative: Really my only complaint with the game, and it’s a minor one. It’s just ho-hum, and moments that are seemingly supposed to emotionally significant just come off as a little silly.
The fact that XCOM exists is a godsend. A game in a genre that it’s own publisher declared “was not contemporary”. It manages not only to “modernize” the conventions of the genre and streamline it for a new audience, but also bring back the terrifying spirit of the original games, sans severe micromanagement. Only the most conservative purists would argue otherwise. Firaxis imbued this entry in the series with modern production values and presentation and put more weight behind each move. A missed shot can mean the death of your squad, so even as you climb the tech tree you’ll always feel as if you are on edge, barely surviving each encounter.
XCOM’s faults generally feel as if they could have been remedied with a little more time and polish. While the difficulty generally feels just brutal enough, with stupid decisions being punished severely, at times, especially on Classic, the game can feel unfair. A fluke of numbers and the aliens’ tilted scale can cause severe setbacks that don’t feel like the result of your actions. Additionally, while the variety of countries and nationalities participating in the project give XCOM a feeling of being a far reaching organization, it is somewhat let down by the lack of variety and maps. Do you really expect me to believe that Siberia and China just happen to look just like the US? Nevertheless, these are nitpicks, and the fact these small details are bothers attests to how many of the large details Firaxis has gotten right. XCOM is not only a godsend, but a full fledged miracle.