XCOM is a game with a lot of history, especially for older gamers. The first game in the franchise was released back in 1994 and instantly solidified its status as a cult classic. Despite being a turn-based strategy game, it quickly became notorious for being one of the few games that could scare the pants off of gamers. There were mostly two reasons for this. The first was an extremely steep difficulty curve. Now, I’m not talking about something as steep as say, Dwarf Fortress, but it was still pretty steep for its time. The second major reason was the difficulty. The game was difficult. Extremely difficult. You had to play perfectly to not lose any of your squad members in the field. The first game – XCOM: Enemy Unknown – is still widely remembered by older gamers as one of the best turn-based strategy games ever created for its sheer depth. Many hearts were broken when 2K had originally announced plans for a reboot of the franchise in the form of a first person shooter. Boycotts were declared and hate mails were sent. Shortly after, turn-based strategy veterans Firaxis – of Civilization fame – picked up the reins for a return to form of the franchise in the form of a reboot of the original game. The question is this though – does the game hold up? Does it stand the test of time? With the shift in genre preferences, can it carve out a living in a world dominated by the Call of Battlefields and the Gears of Uncharteds?
The XCOM base has an antfarm design that makes navigation easy
Let me paint you a picture – a picture with WORDS! There was our heavy weapons guy, lying on the ground thanks to a critical injury caused by a Sectoid – a low level alien – with a lucky shot. Our sniper picks off that Sectoid immediately, maybe he felt angry about the fact that some alien had just shot his friend, or maybe it was a tactical decision and the Sectoid posed too much of a threat for the rest of the team. Nevertheless, the sniper shoots that Sectoid down and moves to another position to take aim on another group of aliens to the east. The support guy tries to make his way to the heavy, with the assault giving him cover with his shotgun. Just as the support is about to use his medkit to get the heavy back on his feet, he gets shot down by a Sectoid that the sniper hadn't noticed. Mortified, the assault uses his medkit on the heavy instead and the sniper shoots down the rest of the aliens. Four people went to the field that day to salvage components from a crashed UFO, only three returned – one of who will be out of action thanks to his injuries for two weeks. This story describes the very essence of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. While it does have a large over-arching and comically pulpy plotline about an alien invasion, the major strength of the game comes in the form of the little stories you encounter and help create in each and every mission.
The main gameplay is split into two parts: the on-field stuff and the base management stuff. Veterans of older XCOM games will notice a startling change to the base management. Earlier, you could have any number of bases and their placement was always of strategic importance. Firaxis has done away with this and added what at first appears to be a very simplistic antfarm-style base management system that has a surprising amount of depth to it. Navigation through the base is easy with everything often being just a click or two away. The base is where a lot of the action takes place. This is where you manufacture and launch satellites to prevent countries from pulling out your funding. This is where you train soldiers and customise everything – from their names to their appearances. This is where you will keep aliens after capturing them alive so you can interrogate them to gain access to new technologies to research, along with information about where they may strike next or what their plans are, so you can be better prepared the next time. One of the most important things you will find yourself doing here is appeasing all the countries so that they don’t panic and pull out of the XCOM program. You have to report to the council once every in-game month where they evaluate your progress and reward you accordingly.
You have to take your time and think up different tactics in every mission
The meat of the game, though, is the on-field stuff. You are allowed to take four soldiers to the field in the beginning – though this can be beefed up to six through proper training – where the game becomes a tactical game of chess with aliens and giant guns. This is where the game becomes a rollercoaster of emotions where you will end up laughing as your squad does something stupid that you ordered, and then quickly end up in tears because that stupid order you gave got your level 9 assault killed. Death in the game is permanent, so you’ll have to be ultra-careful when you send your squad out. One of the first things taught to you in the game’s tutorial is to always take cover and be as careful at sweeping out your surroundings – and these will be things you learn the hard way if you decide to skip through the tutorials. One of the most important things to remember is to not get attached to your soldiers. They will die, very often, and you are advised to keep rotating all your soldiers so that everyone gets levelled up equally. The game offers four difficulty options. Easy and Normal are pretty self-explanatory and the latter provides a pretty decent challenge to those new to the franchise. My difficulty setting of choice was Classic – a difficulty specifically designed for veterans of the XCOM franchise. This is where the game gets truly difficult and brutal, much like its predecessor. There is a fourth difficulty setting called Impossible, but that may be overdoing a challenge a bit and wouldn’t be advised unless you are extremely sado-masochistic.
Graphically, the game is nothing to write home about, but it does deliver well thanks to the Unreal Engine. One major gripe I have with the graphics stems not from fidelity but from the aesthetics. Firaxis went for a beefy alpha male look for all the male squad members, while females are generally conservative when it comes to flexing muscles. This, I have noticed, is always the case when it comes to games made on the Unreal Engine, including the likes of Gears of War and Batman: Arkham City. The game is also very buggy when it comes to visuals with a lot of texture pop-in after a fresh load. Other bugs are very minor, including soldiers aiming in a completely different direction from where their bullets or rockets are going, and some minor gripes with the camera when multiple levels of elevation are involved.
Mission Control - where you find countries to save
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is simply way too good to pass up, especially if you are a fan of turn-based strategy games – a genre that has been severely lacking for quite some time now outside the oddities that come from Japan such as Disgaea. While the game has a considerable learning curve, even with the tutorial, you’ll quickly get the hang of things by the time you finish your second mission. Even once you get the hang of things though, you will lose, a lot. And you will keep coming back to it. An important thing to note is that the game has a considerable amount of replay value thanks to the extremely high number of maps that Firaxis has put in the game to replace the randomly-generated maps of the original XCOM, along with randomised enemy placement. These two combined help make sure that you will never have the same game twice. In a world that loves linear and tightly scripted shooters that hold your hand through and through, a game that isn’t afraid to drop you into the deep end of the pool and laugh at you while you flail and thrash about in your attempts to get out, comes as a much-needed breath of fresh air.