Protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe – without the black suits…
I remember the incident quite well. It has left me feeling guilty, it was my fault after all. I had sent my team in to pick up an alien abduction survivor, but by the time we got there, the place was swarming with aliens. My heavy, complete with his rocket launcher, had been in my squad from the beginning and felt like he was invulnerable. I had him climb on top of a bus and, spotting an alien hiding behind an abandoned car, had him fire a rocket. The rest of my team were busy taking out other aliens and approaching from the other side. The rocket damaged the alien, but not enough and I found myself holding my breath as the alien fired back at my soldier. The alien missed completely. It was now that I had a decision, send my soldier to find some cover, or risk taking another shot at the already injured alien. I decided to have him hold his ground, the second shot was bound to be a kill shot. however, the shot missed and everything suddenly seemed to go in slow motion as the alien took aim and returned fire. Pulse after pulse of laser gun shot hit my soldier and he fell to the ground, dead. The finality was shocking, I had killed my best squad member through a bad decision. The battle against the aliens has to continue, a civilian that could hold important intel was at stake, but for a moment I felt like quitting and turning my hand to running a farm. Maybe being in charge of an international task force was not for me.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an entertaining mixture of turn-based strategy and management sim, the likes of which are rarely seen on the home consoles. Of course, the game from Firaxis is also available on the PC, but given the spotty history of strategic games on teh consoles, it is perhaps the Xbox360 and PS3 versions that make the most impact. Generally speaking, strategy titles on the consoles suffer from awkward controls and fail to instill a sense of excitement required to make the games a success. But XCOM has managaged to perfect the controls for the tactical side of the game, included a deep management side and raised the levels of tension by building an interesting story and making the player develop a bond with their squad, providing as much axcitement as you would find in the average FPS game.
The way everything is linked together is very smooth and natural. Being in control of an international defensive task force, known as XCOM, the player is charged by the various member nations to take care of the frequently occurring alien incursions. What these aliens want is something that will be revealed as the story unravels in the game, but to start with the player will have to content themselves with just taking care of business.
The tactical side of the game is stunningly effective. The player sends in a squad of soldiers with various objectives that usually result in locating and eliminating the alien presence. The game area is viewed from from a slanted top-down angle and gameplay is turn-based, with the player able to move and/or perform an action with each member of their squad before helplessly watching on as the aliens take their turn. Cover is of the utmost importance and players will find their squad moving from cover point to cover point as the fog of war is slowly removed from the map and the alien placements are revealed.
What makes these encounters so tense is the fact that squad members surviving missions get promoted and learn various specialisations that make them more effective on the battlefield, depending on how the player uses them. These veterans become more hardened, the more obvious choice for upgraded equipment and even get nicknames, making the bond much more personal. Whilst loosing any member of your squad is a blow, losing these veterans is actually heart-wrenching, a fact that Firaxis plays on by having a memorial in the barracks back at base.
There is very little by way of compassion in the game, and it will certainly not pull any punches, even on the normal difficulty level. The fact that there are further levels of difficulty to test the player seems like some bizarre form of torture, but they are there nonetheless to add extended playability to the game.
The difficulty is carried through to the other side of the game, the management of the base. Players not only have to deal with the various alien incursions, but also have to manage the finances, the research and the sponsors back at the base. As missions come through, the player has to choose which to take and which to leave, basing that decision not only on the rewards available, but also on the current panic level of the country involved. Once the panic level gets too high, the country in question will pull their funding and make your life even more difficult. The game is unrelenting in the way it makes sure the player suffers the consequences for every bad decision they make.
As the squads return from their missions, they will bring back with them alien technology and bodies, which can be used for research of new weapons and such. These things take time, but can be hastened by hiring more scientists, and the fruits of this research can result in new equipment for your squad, or to sell on the black market for some much needed additional funds.
Players will have to build holding cells for live alien specimens, satellite uplinks to watch the skies and impressive planes to patrol the skies when a threat has been detected. The management side of things is enjoyable and very involved, and when the two different modes of play are combined, the player will find themselves losing hours of their life to XCOM.
And that doesn’t even take into account the included multiplayer. Whilst it may seem a bit superfluous with such an involving single player game, the multiplayer encounters, which replicate the single player tactical game, are still a lot of fun. The turns have a time limit and the players get to use both aliens and humans. What more could you want?
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a rare thing, a strategic game that works incredibly well on the home consoles. It is deep, exciting and challenging, and likely one of the best games this year. Firaxis have proved that there is a place for this genre on the Xbox360 and PS3 when done properly. If you don’t already have it, pick up XCOM now, build a relationship with your squad and shed tears when they die. It’s an interesting experience and one that shouldn’t be missed.