Learning to lead an elite tactical squad against an alien invasion force is, much like learning to kill zombies, probably a good idea, you know, just in case. You should probably own a crowbar, too. Never one to ignore my own advice, I set about saving the world from evil alien beasties in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Somewhere along the way I lost most of the staff of AWESOMEoutof10, entire countries fell to chaos and I built a robot. So, not a total loss. It can be an unforgiving game that catalogues all of your failures, and most decisions you make, no matter how good or well thought out, are punctuated by sacrifice.
I agonised over the orders I gave, weighing up the risks of leaving one of my squad without cover, or commanding one to run past an enemy in overwatch, just waiting for an opportunity to strike. As much as it’s a turn-based tactic game about blowing up aliens, it’s a story about countless losses and constant struggle.
The worst part of being the Commander of XCOM isn’t dealing with petty nations who think they deserve the most attention, it isn’t the constant threat of abductions and invasions, it isn’t trying to protect the entire planet. The worst part of being the Commander of XCOM is visiting the memorial for your fallen troops.
Pipes and drums play in the background. Behind the list of names is a wall with photos of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and below lies discarded shot glasses for libations in their honour. Every name represents a personal failure. I should have placed them in better cover. I should have ordered them to move away from that burning car. I should have given them better armour. Every time I clicked on the barracks, the option to visit the memorial would appear — a continual reminder.
That depressing place is only one tiny room in the massive XCOM complex, presented like ant farm filled with soldiers, scientists, engineers and probably a bunch of admin staff. Initially the base contains the essentials: barracks, a lab, a workshop, the situation room, mission control and, of course, a power generator. With a lot of digging, research and a hefty budget, more rooms can be added, offering more actions and options.
Every room is important, but it’s mission control that acts as a gateway to the combat. Satellites and interceptors, both which can be bought at the workshop, detect UFOs, landing sites and abductions in progress all over the world, and when found a force can be sent in to deal with the invaders. The action takes place on an invisible grid and is a strictly turn-based affair. The maps are randomised, so you never really know what the situation is going to be like when you arrive. You’ll know that you’re dealing with a crashed ship in a burning forest, or an urban incursion, but nothing more.
The encounter locations have a decent amount of variety, from woodland areas to massive UFOs, unfortunately many of them are a tad generic. Even though the squad goes all over the world, it might as well all take place in America. Nothing is particularly distinctive and Shanghai looks just like Liverpool which looks just like Boston.
Soldiers start off with very few abilities and only the most basic weapons and equipment. Options are essentially limited to positioning your troops, ordering them to fire, or ordering them into overwatch — an ability which gives then a shot out of turn if an enemy moves into their line of sight.
Once the squad sized is increased (to a maximum of six) and troops level up, things get a bit more interesting. They even get nicknames like “Loki” or “Omega”, which obviously makes them more bad ass. Progressing down two advancement trees, soldiers can be specialised and fit into a variety of roles, and each of them gets a set class once they hit Squaddie level.
Eventually you can deploy laser toting robots, alien tech, grappling hooks to reach higher places and all manner of explosives. Battles remain simple and fluid, but the breadth of options expands frequently. While mission objectives rarely deviate from “kill everything” they still manage to offer exciting situations and emergent gameplay. A lot of this comes from interacting with the environment. Buildings can be scaled to scout out enemy positions or find a sniping spot, vehicles can be blown up to take out multiple aliens close by, squads can work together to capture aliens alive for interrogation. These myriad actions turn each encounter into its own separate story, like an episode of so many science fiction shows.
The time my squad were sent to Melbourne to deal with alien abductions wasn’t just some forgettable 20 minute battle around a grocery shop. For Lt. Astruc there was a personal stake, what with Australia being his homeland. He almost gave his life in that encounter, when he ran out into the middle of the street to stabilize a fallen comrade. After he saved her life, he was shot three times in the chest; yet he managed to survive, albeit in a critical condition.
Melbourne is also where Rookie Hansen earned his stripes and made up for panicking during his last mission. His superior, Lt. Astruc, and another Rookie were surrounded and without cover. Astruc was bleeding out and the Rookie was clueless — nobody other than Hansen was nearby. Crouching down in the back of a pickup truck, he grabbed his rocket launcher and aimed for a nearby car, just behind the aliens. The resulting explosion sent the hideous creatures sky high and it almost looked like they were trying to get home. His team mates were saved and Hansen became a permanent member of the XCOM squad until his shocking death and eventual monstrous reanimation at the hands of a Crysalid.
The heroic acts and sacrifices of the squad tell a much more compelling story than the actual one the writers concocted. Having minions working for me and referring to me in the base added a bit of character to the simple process of developing new technologies and protecting the planet, but they don’t do a great job of humanising XCOM. The plot is threadbare and they tend to just natter on about stuff and occasionally reveal a plot point or important objective.
The impact of losing a Major, or watching a nation leave the program as aliens tear it apart — all the while being incapable of doing anything about it — is far more dramatic than a slightly boring cut scene. The game never lets you forget that there’s a good chance you’re going to screw up and everyone is going to die. The Council, a shady body that funds XCOM, rates the effectiveness of your command each month, and when you can get an A despite losing two countries and several squad members, then you know things are dire.
You never find just one abduction site, there’re always multiple countries that need your help, and saving one means the others become less stable. Do you go and help the Americans and get rewarded with more scientists, or do you ignore them and help the Germans who are close to giving up hope entirely, giving up resources that you might need? No matter the choices you make, there’s likely one group getting shafted. Every victory becomes increasingly more bitter-sweet.
The alien menagerie is a grotesque one, and in the case of the Thin Men — reptilian Men in Black infilatrators — downright terrifying. Their movements, sounds and appearance create a constant sense of unease, and the way they appear from the fog of war, scurrying, leaping or charging is never a pleasant surprise. Most of them fall quite easily — though so does your squad — but taking them all out with quick explosive strikes means less rewards and no chance of prisoners. Taking them alive is the most challenging, but smartest approach. This requires team work and clever positioning, and the risks can be immense.
The extremely polished experience starts to crumble a bit when it comes to the camera, unfortunately. Whether it’s because it’s a multi-platform title, or just because the camera wasn’t particularly well thought out — it leaves a lot to be desired. It can only be rotated by 90 degrees, and there’s no real zoom, though one can look at different layers, like roofs, or other floors. Dealing with multiple levels can be a frustrating experience, and navigating becomes a bit of a chore, especially when the camera sometimes chooses to focus on the roof when all your troops are inside. It’s a minor annoyance that’s quickly rectified , but it’s symptomatic of greater design flaws and the restrictive camera.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown demands to be replayed, even more so if you started on a lower difficulty. The Classic difficulty in Ironman Mode is where the game is at its most punishing, and despite remaining less complex and more focused than the original UFO: Enemy Unknown playing it this way will undoubtedly be quite a nostalgic experience.
Rather than being a mere remake or a sequel, XCOM has carved out its own place. It’s not UFO: Enemy Unknown and it’s not trying to be. Instead it offers new experiences, and it’s certainly more welcoming to newcomers. If you’re still not sure if you should play it, think about how useless you’ll be when aliens do invade. I’ll be up to my neck in alien gore, saving the damn world. What the hell will you be doing?