The call to action has been heard for decades. Aliens have landed. They want to take over – perhaps even use you as a food source (“To Serve Man”… It’s a cookbook!!). It’s up to you to fight back. You’ve fought through alien invasions before. They land. You kill them. You fight another day – slightly bruised, a little more weary, but always alive.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown reminds us of one thing. In any war, people die – and especially, when it’s alien war. When it comes to video games, and not real life, this is a good thing.
In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you control a group of elite soldiers tasked with saving the world from an alien threat. There’s nothing new about this premise in gaming. Aliens attack just about as much as Princess Toadstool gets kidnapped. At first glance, the gameplay isn’t revolutionary either. It’s a turn-based strategy game. So you’ve heard the story and played this type of game before, right?
Unlike most turn-based strategy games or alien invasion titles on the market, XCOM forces you to value the life of every soldier. Similar to an RPG, each soldier has a leveling system. As that soldier goes on missions and accomplishers various tactical objects, he or she is promoted in rank. The first rank puts you at the level of “Squaddie.” Here, you establish your role on the team, which could be anything from a Heavy weapons soldier to a Sniper. As that soldier progresses to the second rank and beyond, he or she has the chance to choose between two skill bonuses to learn. Health and defensive bonuses come with promotions. Your soldiers also see Aim boosts as they become more seasoned.
Bonuses ensure that players will always want to take their best soldiers into battle. Then, you’ll have to think about each soldier’s “Will” attribute. If a soldier’s Will is low, that soldier is more likely to panic during a mission or even run away.
These RPG elements are all great things. But, here is where the RPG side of the game changes. After a few missions, you’ll quickly realize that death is inevitable. Try as you might to restart and keep all your soldiers alive, someone will always die. You can’t simply level grind through weaker opponents then take on the stronger enemies. This is the cold, hard truth about war that Firaxis Games, developers of XCOM, forces upon the player. When soldiers die, they’re name gets marked forever on your Memorial wall.
The strategic elements of the game are multi-tiered both inside and outside of missions. While you’re on a mission, you’re choosing which path to take and where to strategically place your soldiers. Soldiers have two movement areas. You can move a few spaces, outlined in blue, and then choose to attack or issue a tactical command. One of these commands is called “Overwatch.” If you put a soldier in Overwatch, that soldier will automatically fire on any enemy – during the enemy’s turn – that comes within the soldier’s field of vision. Once you issue a tactical command or attack, you end your turn. Players can also move longer distances, outlined in yellow, but that negates your ability to attack. Special rank promotions can give a soldier the opportunity to break these limitations.
Each mission has a unique layout. Often there are buildings that you can enter with multiple floors. Also, if you restart, the board will change and the enemies will appear in different places thanks. Try as I might to cheat the system, Firaxis bottled up all those loopholes by generating enough random seeds to always keep me on edge. Soldiers died and each soldiers named was burned forever in my memory.
Back at the base, making decisions is just as important. Your goal is to keep at least eight nations within the union. If panic levels spread due to alien abductions, nations will fall out of the union. Your objective should be simple. Just keep the panic levels down by taking every mission that comes up.
Not the case.
Typically, aliens schedule abductions on more than one continent at the same time. You can save the people of Australia, but in doing so Canada and South Africa may suffer. Time is an important factor in XCOM and you can never get it back.
Players will spend just as much time on the field as they do in their base. Gamers have to build out their underground base, adding on new facilities to research alien intel, create more weapons and better monitor alien activity. Structuring your underground fortress correctly can lead to bonuses. It’s a difficult juggling game and funds are tight. Players can “hit” the black market to sell alien corpses and other forms of loot, but you’ll always feel like you’re a day late to saving a continent from panic and a dollar short in hiring new soldiers to replace the ones that you have already lost.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown harkens back to the glory days of gaming, where lives mattered. With this release, Firaxis successfully took a beloved franchise and re-created a paradigm for other development shops to heed. Sometimes players shouldn’t be coddled. Failure is just as important as success when it’s done right.