XCOM: Enemy Unknown

We are now embarking on the most critical phase of the gaming year – Quarter Four. Traditionally this is the time of year that all the big studios release their big-budget blockbusters, just in time for the mad buying rush that is the holiday season. True to form in the next twelve weeks we have Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Halo, Far Cry, Borderlands and Hitman all hitting us with the latest addition to their respective franchises with the dependable clamour of TV spots, Youtube adverts and print marketing. Amidst all the pomp and circumstance of a fourth-quarter gold rush, Firaxis and 2K Games have quietly snuck out a console strategy title, developed on a modest budget with no apparent marketing whatsoever and the true injustice is that XCOM: Enemy Unknown could possibly be the best game of the year.

Those of you who are younger than me – or gamers who have eschewed PC titles – may not be aware of the genius that is XCOM, so please permit me to bring you up to speed. In 1994 Mythos Games and MicroProse released UFO: Enemy Unknown onto the PC market and the game was almost immediately heralded as not only 1994’s game of the year, but as the greatest strategy title ever made. Pitching the player as the commander of a paramilitary anti-UFO organisation the game was split into two phases; organising X-COM’s base of operations and monitoring the global alien threat and the engagement of the enemy in squad-based fracas. The incredible balance of off-mission base micromanagement and on-mission team tactics gave the game an incredible pace and a feel that was vacant in other titles. The researching, the base-building, the steadily increasing skills of your team-members; it all felt like genuine steps in conquering the alien menace but no matter how good you were the game remained tense and challenging until the end. A year later a sequel was released – X-COM: Terror From the Deep – the reception was very high due to the original setting, decent story and unrelenting difficulty. In 1997 the original UFO team released XCOM: Apocalypse. Apocalypse is unbelievably complex for a game fifteen years old but the complexity along with the hallmark X-COM difficulty proved to be its downfall. Apocalypse was always my favourite X-COM game but unfortunately it was the last decent X-COM game as the years that followed only delivered horrible games or news of another cancelled title. Fast forward to 2012 and we have the latest in a much-celebrated line of video games vying for our attention amongst possibly the busiest lineup in recent years.

Upon hearing that strategy stalwarts Firaxis were remaking X-COM as a proper strategy title for consoles, the combination of emotions was a peculiar dichotomy of excitement and dread. Well, having played the game I can honestly say that the X-COM spirit is alive and well, even though we’ve lost a hyphen along the way.
Much like its forebears, XCOM: Enemy Unknown puts the gamer in control of the titular organisation, opposed to the growing threat of alien invaders. As the UFO menace increases the player must lead a party of specialist soldiers through a variety of scenarios stretching from alien abductions, terror raids, clearing landed (or crashed) spaceships and enemy base assaults. As stories go it’s one of the shallowest, most vacuous narratives out there but the story is practically unimportant as the way the game plays is where it truly shines. If you’re a fan of narrative-driven stories then look elsewhere but if you want a game that plays well for the sake of playing, then look no further.

The alien encounters are executed as skirmishes of turn-based combat, rendered in a 3D isometric perspective – not something you see a great deal nowadays. It would have been easy for Firaxis to resort to a more action-oriented real-time solution, perhaps a squad-level tactical shooter like Rainbox Six or a more aggressive cover-based shooter with tactical overlays like Ghost Recon. Fortunately for us the decision was made to stay true to the series’ roots and the game is stronger for the decision.
Controls are neat and the UI is very tidy – for PC users the tactical display may look a little sparse but for console gamers the minimalist approach to screen real estate highlights the combat and pares down the actions to their bare bones, keeping the pace fluid and speedy.
Movement is determined by simply selecting a space for your soldier to inhabit and ordering them to hustle, further actions are completed by selecting on-screen shortcuts and firing away; one can choose to fire their weapon, throw a grenade, use a special ability, reload or the incredibly useful overwatch, wherein your chosen soldier eschews shooting in their own turn, but getting a free shot should an enemy unit move within their line of sight during the enemy phase. With the streamlining of the controls comes the inevitable simplification of the gameplay but the newer design actually feels very fresh with soldier position, use of cover and overlapping fire lanes taking much higher precedence than they did in previous games. The narrow choice of actions has become a source of tension rather than annoyance; your sniper has one shot left in their rifle – do you relent shooting that Sectoid and instead reload to go back to full capacity or do you choose to overwatch, potentially leaving your sniper out of action in the next turn? Only having a short number of commands and a maximum of six soldiers in the field ramps up the tension no end and the game is harder than buying cufflinks for a cobra so every decision the players makes feels critical and weighty – which of course it is.

The difficulty is one of the single best aspects of the game. Not to harp on, but in the 90s pretty much every game was teeth-gnashingly difficult and the fact that Enemy Unknown has kept that just reinforces the strength of the title. The game isn’t hard for the sake of being hard – it’s not a rebarbative experience and the game doesn’t cheat by throwing unbeatable enemies at you – it’s hard because you’re not good enough. Bad manoeuvring, getting units outflanked or leaving troops outside of cover; poor fire discipline leaving multiple friendlies reloading at once or key enemies to wreak havoc with your line; these are things that will get your soldiers killed, not wounded – killed outright. On the higher difficulties (with Iron Man mode turned on) you will be saying goodbye to these characters forever so you will feel every mistake. That’s right – no quicksaving and quickloading in Iron Man – if they’re dead, they’re dead. Considering the game gives the player the option to rename their squad members, choose their nickname and even customise their look, it’s a genuinely emotional experience when Captain Barry “To Me” Chuckle is lasered into oblivion by a Heavy Floater – You watched him work his way up from being a rookie, you were there when he nailed his first Cyberdisk. Never again will you gaze upon his thick moustache and never again will you feel the joy of watching him shotgun the faces off of Thin Men. XCOM knows how you feel about losing your favoured characters because back at home base, there is a wall of epitaphs with the names of fallen comrades respectfully carved. Gentle brass music plays whilst you imagine a sepia-hinted montage of your time spent with these valiant folk. Probably.

The strategic overview mode is completely brilliant; much simpler and cleaner than in previous titles but belying serious depth, time spent in XCOM HQ is never a chore and is often a real joy. Continuing with the motif of every decision counts, commanders will often find themselves weighing up strategic decisions. The monetary budget is always tight and to succeed then shortcuts must be found, workarounds utilised and more often than not, a little luck must be had. Setting back or cancelling research programs or flogging alien artefacts on the grey market are odious tasks and ones which should not be done lightly but are often undertaken with the greater good in mind. Should you put money into launching a new satellite to increase your chances of finding UFOs, or should that money be better used to upgrade your Interceptor aircraft so that you can deal with said UFOs better? Do you undertake the mission that grants extra money but has a higher chance of getting your guys killed, or the one that adds precious scientists to your roster, but could end up with a nation withdrawing funding from the XCOM project? It’s decisions like these that make the “Ant’s Nest” part of the game so much fun. Micromanagement is entirely about making key decisions and making them constantly. It’s unlikely the Commander will be able to do everything in their career, so they can just do what they can with the resources at hand. No decision is otiose and each choice carries repercussions that echo later on – this seriously demarcates the game from its contemporaries where most games this generation have pandered to the impatient or to the attention-lacking. The only reason your team will be struggling in the later stages of the game is because you didn’t think everything through thoroughly enough, because you’ve not been paying attention. The player is sure to feel the weight of command when they decide that in the interests of the greater good they’re willing to sacrifice a soldier’s life or even the lives of an entire country.

Another aspect of permanent decision-making is the upgrade options for your troops. This takes places after missions or in the Barracks section of the base menu. Upon gaining a few kills or just seeing a few missions your soldiers will begin to gain XP and level up (don’t go mad, RPG fans – Persona 3 this ain’t) and with each new rank acquired two new abilities are unlocked, but the player must choose only one. Snipers gain the ability to shoot twice, Support get smoke grenades filled with drugs, Heavies can fire more rockets – so on and so forth. Of the two abilities for each level, both are brilliant and will have good effect on-mission. But the feeling that something is being missed out on by choosing one and neglecting the other is brilliant. Given the chance I guarantee any player will choose each ability at least once, just to try it out.
Whilst this system is great, it is not without fault. Ranking up from Rookie to Squaddie randomly determines which class the unit will use for the remainder of the game. This seems to be truly random as isn’t determined by any in-game factor. By far this is the single most frustrating thing about the game and is a clear misjudgement by the design team. In a game where decision, command and tactical thought is championed it strikes this reviewer that a design mechanic based entirely on random chance is invidiously out of place. At the time of writing some 50% of my roster is Snipers. I actually really like the Sniper unit but I only ever need a maximum of two. To gain an extra Heavy and an additional Support unit I’ve had to undertake terror missions that offer them as rewards. Having spent so long with no support troops on my roster it was something I desperately craved.

To be frank the arbitrary nature of the troops does prove to be an annoyance but it’s not enough to keep one from the game. The visuals – whilst lacking that Halo 4 shine – are very pleasing to the eye. Characters are rendered with cartoonish, action-figure statures and the armour sets and weapons are all impeccably designed. One thing which I found amusing is that female body armour is much more form-fitting than the male equivalent and this aesthetic is mirrored in the scaled-down, effeminate weapons which they carry into missions. Lighting and texturing is kept simple and ergonomic which gives the game an honestly that is sorely lacking in current titles. It won’t blow your socks off but its austere charm places further emphasis on what you’re doing, rather than staring wild-eyed at light bloom and reactive foliage. The music is incredible – Michael Mann, the composer of Deus Ex: Human Revolution created the score under the supervision of Roland Rizzo, the audio director of XCOM since the very beginning. Getting Rizzo involved is a genius move – his direction of Mann’s spooky, ominous tones and unique ear have lent XCOM: Enemy Unknown an original sound, but one which will prove familiar to fans of the franchise.

In closing – making direct comparisons between games separated by the better part of twenty years is unfair, especially when the original X-COM is still so highly-regarded by its fanbase. XCOM: Enemy Unknown must be taken on its own merits and how it fits into the landscape of modern gaming. As it stands the title is a great example of the modern strategy game; sleek, engaging and as tight as a drum XCOM is a game that fills the heart with joy and rewards timing and thought with genuine accomplishment and sweet stress relief. Full of tension and more challenging than getting sweets from a fat kid this game is my bona-fide game of 2012. XCOM may have squeaked when Halo and Assassin’s Creed roared, but that doesn’t make it a game that’s not worth playing. This game is something special and it would be a crime to allow it to live amongst us in secret.