XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Developed by Firaxis Games
Released in 2012
Played in 2012
Played on Xbox 360
Played to completion

What it’s about

Alien life exists, and apparently wants your lunch money. The invasion has begun, with attacks and abductions taking place around the globe. A council of nations activates the “XCOM Project”, a paramilitary organization tasked with the defense of Earth from extraterrestrial threat. But we’re in a recession, so they want it funded at bottom dollar. You, your 15 soldiers and 2 fighter jets need to hold back the tide until you get your allowance with next month’s report card.

How it plays

Turn-based. Isometric. Tactics. I think that the box would have needed a warning label if it had been hex-based. The system at work here is a beautiful balance of streamlining and depth. The basics of combat are simple. In combat you can take an action (like shooting or healing), move and then take an action, or move twice. Your whole team moves, and then theirs does. There’s full cover and half cover, and half cover isn’t really worth a damn so don’t bother. The game teaches you these basics very quickly, and you immediately understand the flow of gameplay.

But what really shines about the design is that this basic template has a million subtle exceptions provided by upgrades to your squad, gained by leveling your soldiers up, specializing them, equipping them and so forth. For instance, a properly upgraded heavy can fire twice in one turn if s/he doesn’t move first. A master support specialist can take two reaction shots when on overwatch instead of one. An assault trooper can (after activating a special ability with a cooldown) move twice and then shoot or enter overwatch. And so on.

These exceptions and special cases are introduced gradually by the game; you’re frequently even given a choice between two exceptions and can only pick one. You custom-tailor the ways in which you’re allowed to cheat those basic rules to maximize the synergy of your squad. When dealing with an entrenched foe behind full cover, you could spend turn after turn taking pot-shots and hoping to beat the odds. OR you could use a heavy’s rocket attack to destroy the cover and damage the foe, then use another soldier (now with a clear shot) to finish it off. OR you could use the assault’s flush ability to force your foe to leave cover, running out into the overwatch fire of the rest of your crew.

I can’t say enough about how good the ground game is here. Your starting squad of 4 can expand in time to 6, giving you the option to split your forces into two fully functional teams pursuing individual objectives. The enemy AI is devious and deadly, especially on the higher difficulties. And I haven’t even mentioned the psionics yet! I might need to breathe into a paper bag.

How it feels

I kid XCOM about its cliche premise, but in truth this is probably the best treatment of the alien invasion scenario I’ve ever seen. The game sells the hell out of the fear and tension implied by the premise, because this game is hard and failure matters. What its plot lacks in originality it more than makes up for in sincerity. You may snicker the first time you see the bulbous heads of the little sectoid enemies in the tutorial mission. I promise you, you won’t be laughing a few more missions in. And those are the easy ones.

This game has total mastery of tone. It plays you like an old guitar; you will play this game on the edge of your seat. It accomplishes this first by being genuinely challenging even at lower difficulty levels and downright diabolical at higher levels. Second, it gives you a lot to accomplish with shockingly tight resource constraints and forces you to scrape and save for just about everything you want. It keeps you in this desperate mindset where you can’t afford to plan for how you’re going to make it to the end of the game because you’re just trying to get to the end of the month. And third, it uses a trio of characters in its cutscenes to move the story along and sell the tension in a very minimalistic way. It would have been so easy for these three to be overwritten, to be too much in the foreground. Firaxis manages to find the right balance, giving you this choir to comment on story developments while leaving you (the unseen commander character) and your soldiers as the real heroes of the story.

I should note that everything I’m saying about the feel of the game (and indeed, everything else) applies to the game when played in “Ironman” mode, where autosaves keep you from calling a mulligan on any mission that goes badly. When you make mistakes, when you get soldiers killed, when you get civilians killed, you have no option but to press forward and make the best of this bad situation. If you don’t play this game in Ironman mode, you are cheating yourself out of the drama inherent in knowing that dead is dead, withdrawn is withdrawn and that nobody (not even Mr. Savegame) is coming to save you. It’s just you against the unstoppable alien menace, and yes, you will die, probably over and over again. That’s how you learn.

What worked

I could talk for days about the brilliant mechanics of this game and never do it justice. Instead I’m going to tell a little story from the game. Now of course everybody wants to tell you about their personal version of the game, their roster of soldiers, their big wins, their crushing defeats. I won’t pretend to be above that. But bear with me here, I have a point to make.

I’ve been playing this game off and on for about a year, switching between normal and classic difficulty as my mood and level of hubris vary. I had, until this past Friday night, never finished it. This game always beat me in the end, and yet I still kept coming back because it’s just that well made. I didn’t feel discouraged, I felt electrified — here was a game that took me seriously as a player, took seriously my capacity to learn and grow and adapt. (Do you see what I mean about this game being in complete control of tone? The game puts you in the precise mindset of the commander figure you are playing.)

A few weeks ago I got the XCOM bug again and put the game back in the tray, determined to give it another try. At the new game menu I selected “normal” difficulty (I wasn’t suicidal this particular time) with the “tutorial”, “ironman”, “new economy”, and “not created equal” options checked. You might think it’s silly for me to include the tutorial, since I ought to know how to play this game after a year at it, but there is something about the story content of that tutorial that so perfectly sets the scene for me that I have to play through it again every time.

The tutorial survivor, a heavy like always, was Julian Torres, soon to be known by the callsign “Hulk”. Around him I built a pretty badass squad, including a support (Scotch), assault (“Seraph”) and sniper (“Omega”). Together this crew steamrolled the first quarter of the game, and for a while I even thought I might have this game in the bag from the get-go. In our very first terror mission, we cleared the map with just 5 civilian casualties, a pretty good day compared to my past experiences. But then the second terror mission rolled around…

So as not to belabor this story, I’ll skip the grisly play-by-play and tell you that this mission was a bloodbath that will remain etched into my memory for a long time to come. I lost 4 soldiers almost immediately, including Hulk. Scotch and Omega were my two survivors, and they ran around the level avoiding contact with the Cyberdisc that shredded much of the rest of my crew while rescuing all the civilians they could. In the end, we actually saved all but 4 — enough for the game to score me “Excellent” — but Scotch was killed when the CD vaporized his cover with a miss and then its damn healbot drone took a break from healing to one-shot-kill my medic. That left Omega alone to kite this hunter-killer droid around the level until its health could be whittled down to nothing.

In a single mission, my wrecking crew had been reduced to a single guy who was now going to spend the next week in the infirmary. The next couple missions… did not go well, to say the least. Oh, we accomplished our objectives — we always got the job done, but the attrition rate when bringing rookies on these mid-game missions was terrible. Even once Omega was back in the field, he came back more than once as the sole survivor of a wiped out squad. (His callsign ended up seeming grimly prophetic.) But slowly, painfully, we started to claw our way back. A rookie here or there survived to get promoted. And promoted again. Soon I had officers. Soon we were bringing whole squads home from the fight. And then, gradually, we began to win.

Omega was the among the first soldiers to be sent into the psi labs. He was the only positive result in the first batch, beating out a guy with an incredible 126 Will stat. He just wasn’t the main character, though. This had become Omega’s show. He led the assault on the alien mothership. He frayed a mind or five. He volunteered to stay behind.

Pour out a forty for Omega, savior of mankind. The only soldier I’ve ever served with to clear 100 kills. I hope you’re partying with Hulk and Scotch and Seraph now, buddy.

What’s my point here? None of the above was scripted. I think I was probably as emotionally invested in the above story as I have been in any game I’ve ever played, and it all exists at the intersection of my choices as the player and a random number generator. And yes, I have probably seen a dozen games of XCOM end in defeat before this. But you know what? I wouldn’t have felt like I felt this time without those failures. Without knowing how close it was to coming apart. Without knowing that I didn’t have protagonist-immunity. The details of this sequence were randomized, but they didn’t happen by accident. This game is a marvel of design.

What didn’t

Yeesh, I feel like I’m nitpicking here, but what the hell. As I mentioned before, the ground game is excellent. The squad based tactics experience is, if not flawless, then as close as I’ve played to it. But when you get back to base things feel a lot less developed. The base-building mechanic feels a little undercooked, where all I am getting for careful placement of facilities is a slight efficiency boost. The ant-farm cutaway view is nifty at first glance but completely cosmetic; everything you actually do in your base is handled through menus at the top of the screen. You don’t even see your own soldiers moving around in the barracks or rec room, just generic placeholders. As I understand it the original XCOM included base invasions, where you needed to defend your home turf. That sounds spectacular, but even short of that, I feel like the base management is never more than housekeeping between missions.

And then there’s the interceptor… I don’t know what to call it. Loading screen? It’s not a cutscene and it’s certainly not gameplay. You basically just watch the computer roll dice against itself for 30 seconds. If there is anything in the game that would benefit from a complete reconstruction in an expansion pack, this is it.

What I’d change

If the game is going to make me responsible for constructing my base, let those decisions matter. Base invasions are a great way to accomplish that, and they have the effect of combining the tactical game with the base in a very intimate way. The interceptor mechanic really deserves gameplay of its own. I have never played a turn-based dogfighting game, but boy would I like to.

I’m partial to hex grids, too.

Lessons learned

Take from the past what worked best. Bring it forward into the future with care and tact. Evoke the feel of the thing instead of slavishly recreating the mechanics. Simple basics with many situational exceptions is a winning formula for a tactics game.

Hindsight from 2013

An expansion has been announced for this game, and everything I read about it makes me sad. The developers feel the need to tinker with flow and feel of the ground game, which in my opinion was tuned to perfection in the original release. The addition of another class strikes me as courting heartbreak, but the truly upsetting thing to me is the introduction of this “meld” resource which exists on the battlefield but self-destructs if not secured in time.

Listen, a little hustle can be exciting from time to time. The bomb disposal and terror mission types in the game are terrifying and exhilarating because they force you out of your routine of careful, methodical advancement. But that only works because they are uncommon exceptions to routine. This new mechanic invites us to charge carelessly forward in every mission, hunting for that precious meld. How many soldiers do you really want to lose this way? Perhaps it would be prudent to bring a few rookies on each mission to serve as human minesweepers, rushing out ahead while a MIDI rendition of Flight of the Valkyries plays on the soundtrack?

There were places where XCOM was weak, but that’s not what’s being discussed by the spokespeople for this expansion. They are talking about fundamentally changing the flow and feel of the game. I’ll probably buy it, because they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt, but my trepidation levels are high.

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