Col. Bertrand “Gunner” Dubois
Col. Kavita “Hardcore” Das
Maj. Carlos “Hazard” Vega
These are just a few of the names that grace the memorial wall of my XCOM base. They represent the losses faced during my campaign, and in turn speak to the XCOM: Enemy Unknown experience as a whole. Soldiers die, countries pull out of the project, and civilians face an untimely demise before help can arrive in time. It’s the sense of impending doom one expects from an alien invasion, but the team at Firaxis Games masters the subtlety of integrating dread and tension into the strategy mechanics and not an external narrative. This isn’t a game in which players become attached to stock characters and sit on the edge of their seats with each new cutscene. Rather, XCOM promotes player choice in a tough-as-nails world where consequences can be incredibly beneficial or equally devastating.
XCOM does feature a paper-thin storyline in which aliens invade the world, but the narrative simply acts as a conduit for the real meat of this turn-based strategy title. As commander of the XCOM project, the player is tasked with eliminating the alien threat through a series of small-scale battles, but the road to success begins with base operations. XCOM is about preparation as much as it is about execution, so building a formidable squad and effectively investing time and money prove critical throughout the entirety of the game. This responsibility includes a large number of systems to consider, from resource allocation to country panic meters. It’s a dizzying array of push/pull factors that boggle the mind initially, but an addiction arose as I grew accustomed to the routine. The moments in which I’d queue up a new construction project or send the research team to begin an alien autopsy were the ones that glued the controller to my hands while I played for hours on end.
That’s not to say the on-field skirmishes are lacking. In fact, I had my fair share of stress-induced moments on the battlefield, including the loss of the aforementioned Col. Dubois – that was a tough pill to swallow. With the immediate threat of psychic aliens and powerful laser rifles on the screen, the tension level increases tenfold and each individual move comes with careful considerations. Do I send my Assault soldier to finish off the nearly-dead Sectoid, leaving my left flank open? Or should I lay low and let my Sniper pick off enemies from a distance, risking an all-out alien offensive that I may not be able to sustain? These kinds of questions permeate the mind with each new encounter, as do statistical calculations due to the random nature of the game. Each shot is not a guaranteed hit; once I missed a killshot with a 75% success rate and payed dearly for it. That’s an extreme example that doesn’t happen too often, but the point is that the player must take the necessary steps to avoid the random element.
Rewards for victorious battles come in the form of money, reduced panic levels, and soldier progression. The latter helps create a connection between the player and the squad in an unusually non-personal way. The ability to customize each squad member is there, and each gets his/her own automated (and often amusing) nickname, but prowess on the battlefield was what I cared about most. As soldiers receive experience they gain access to new class-specific skills, such as the Heavy’s ability to carry multiple rockets. Naturally, the more experienced a solider, the more useful they are on the battlefield. That’s where the player/solider connection comes into play – when Col. Dubois died I was kicking myself not because he was a cool guy, but because he knew a thing or two about shooting aliens in the head. Trust me when I say that having leveled-up soldiers is key to fighting off the alien invasion.
The brilliance of XCOM does not rest solely on the effectiveness of base operations and battles. The way in which the two systems complement each other highlights the inescapable theme of player choice, and thus elevates XCOM to a far more memorable status. No matter how great I was on the battlefield, I had no chance of victory without the proper equipment. So I had to meticulously plan my finances in order to have that handy plasma sniper rifle that tore through enemy defenses with ease. It was my choice to pursue the plasma weapons research category, which meant I had to ignore other useful research projects. It really is the the ultimate game of risk and reward – a few missteps can be the difference between a narrowly successful victory and a disastrous failure that jeopardizes the entire XCOM project. I never found difficulty spikes to be so outrageous to the point of seeing the potential game over scene, but the constant threat of failure that exists both on and off the battlefield makes each choice that much more meaningful. It’s not the kind of emotionally resonating freedom that a game like The Walking Dead features, but the integration of choice with game mechanics offers its own unique enjoyment.
I also found myself having quite a bit of fun with the game’s multiplayer component. Obviously it does not evoke the same level of pressure as the single-player campaign, but there are tough decisions to be made prior to each online battle. A small pool of points are given, and the player must use them to create a dream squad. The more powerful soldiers cost more, but this means the player can create a squad that suits any play style. I remember one match in which my opponent only used one squad member and, quite simply, dominated. Best of all is that aliens are among the selectable squad members, so those annoying enemy abilities from the single-player campaign can be put to good use. My biggest complaint, and it’s one that applies to the single-player campaign as well, is the lack of map variety. There are only so many burning forests I can look at without getting a sense of deja vu. I admit the flaw is a bit easier to ignore during more hectic matches – at that point I’m more worried about an alien using mind control to decimate my squad or something else to that effect.
Developer Firaxis Games is responsible for the Civilization franchise, so it’s no surprise that XCOM: Enemy Unknown features sound strategy mechanics. But the fact that the game establishes player choice in the face of overwhelming tension is a remarkable accomplishment. Every mistake I made was my own, and the individual losses I faced during my campaign made a lasting impact. But when I reached that final story mission and my Sniper took the wide open headshot, the feeling of accomplishment was liberating. Few games elicit the thrill of victory like XCOM.