XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a pulsing mass of contradictions. It’s a gritty story about burly, gun-toting marines fending off aliens in crumbling cities and dark forests while ducking in and out of cover, but XCOM only looks like the average Gears of War clone when you glance at it. Peer closer and you find that shooting aliens is actually a game of patient strategy, played by inches in the field, where success depends on slowly building up the skills of a private army. Its similarity to tactical role-playing games like Final Fantasy Tactics doesn’t tell the full story either, because the growth of your forces depends on the careful management of a military operation and its place in a political landscape under siege.
A bundle of contradictions: XCOM is like playing laser tag and Dungeons & Dragons right in the middle of a model UN club. It is also excellent.
In the Future, There Will be Politics
To elaborate: In the year 2015, aliens start abducting people around the globe. Not in secret, they just start landing right in the middle of cities and taking people. A coalition of nations opens the XCOM initiative, a cross between the United Nations and GI Joe, and places you in command. That means directing troops in the field, but it also puts you in charge of managing the development of XCOM’s secret cave base, funding the research of alien weapons, and allocating resources to the panic stricken countries under siege from body-snatching extraterrestrials.
The first thing XCOM does right is that it eases you slowly into your demanding leadership role without ever dumping too much instruction or story on you to frustrate retention. How to fight is the first lesson. When a mission starts, you set up your squad, their gear, and their appearance if you choose, then hit the field. Fights are turn-based, so you move your fighters where you want them, placing them behind close cover and then taking a shot. Each soldier gets two actions, and most can only fire or use a skill if they move within a close range, otherwise both actions are used to take position. This does vary by class. A high-ranked heavy can shoot twice, a shotgunning supporter can shoot after moving a long distance, etc.)Then the aliens have their go. Early outings just have you gunning down the various beasties, and naturally each type requires some careful thought on how to take them down. Fliers are dangerous because they have high ground, Thin Men (a cross between Matrix agents and Slender Man) are poisonous so they can’t be taken out at close range.
Soon the goals change. XCOM’s head of research may want you to take one of the bulbous-headed alien grunts captive or to secure technology from a crashed UFO. Do that in a fight and then you have to get your team to research what you’ve brought back. Interrogation of an alien can lead to the discovery of how to make new, vital gear so you have to have your chief of engineering develop the weapons, which costs money. Then in the middle of the action, your second in command will call you on the horn to tell you that a UFO is attacking China and you have to scramble jets to take it out. Variety is abound, and during the 30 or so hours of gameplay, you will fight your way around the globe.
It doesn’t sound manageable, but walking through each step is how XCOM is played. It never patronizes, blasting you with a window on what button to press and when, it just uses brief snatches of dialogue to tell you exactly what you should do to proceed, and then lets you explore and act on your own. The rest is learned by fulfilling your needs. You can see in the menu that you’ve unlocked new armor, but first you need more engineers and money to make it. You can get more engineers and money by helping out India according to the Situation Room, but India needs a satellite! Wait, there needs to be a new Satellite Uplink built into the grid of the base, so first you’ll have to excavate the cave, then build the facility, then build the satellite, then deploy it to India, and then you can make the armor. It takes time to do all this, days clicking away before your monthly meeting with the council overseeing XCOM, and alien threats will have to be subdued as you go lest coalition nations get too panicked and drop out taking their resources with them. Phew.
Your Friend in XCOM
Firaxis made a tightly woven tapestry, where everything works in tandem, and strategy is revealed through serving necessity. It is an airtight ecosystem of play, and deeply fun to boot. Fights may be turn-based but they’re incredibly tense. When a hutch of Chrysalids pop into view, it can be startling, forcing plans to be reshaped on the fly. Some of the various objectives introduced—rescuing civilians, disarming bombs—only intensify the action.
If there is any flaw in XCOM’s structure, it’s that the game’s hands-off approach to play can result in absurd spikes in difficulty. If you haven’t made discerning choices about what to build, who to support, and how to grow your soldiers, you can actually lose and have to restart from an old saved game, losing hours and hours of progress in the process. The game’s campaign can, depending on how you play, last for tens of hours. A single difficult fight can last for 45 minutes, so when a crucial mistake costs you six hours of play time, it stings. Flaw is the wrong word, though. XCOM is demanding but it isn’t unfair, and it isn’t meant to be played and tossed aside after running and gunning through six hours of corridors and cutscenes.
In the decades since the original XCOM’s release, patient strategy and planning games of its ilk were marginalized to the corners of PC gaming. They were there if you looked for them, but few had the scale or accessibility of this game. In a fall crowded with action, action, and more action, from Borderlands 2 to Medal of Honor to ZombiU, XCOM is truly an outlier, an alien, a contradiction. It’s welcoming but punishing, familiar yet wholly unique among its peers. That alone makes it worth playing. Its nearly perfect execution just sweetens its unusual flavor.
Score: 9.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy provided by 2K Games.)