There is a reason why you ought to quiver with anticipation at the title of this article, and not because it contains the words ‘hands on’ or because it’s easy to conflate the words ‘enemy’ and ‘enema’, but because this game is not the XCOM 2K Games have been touting at the past couple of E3s.
This is a new X-Com game by Firaxis, those amazingly wonderfully strategic minds who brought us Sid Meier’s Civilization, Pirates and Railroads.
For those unaware of why everyone keeps getting excited about these new X-Com games, the original was a tactical turn-based strategy title for PC from the mid-90s which was so relentlessly difficult it made you want to eat your keyboard one key at a time, then try to swallow your mouse. It involved you taking on an alien invasion on a number of different scales. You could direct the entire war from the general’s armchair (or in its case the command centre orbiting Earth), plan your research or fight in the actual battles themselves, taking command of one individual squad as they fight the aliens on the ground.
I’ll transition into talking about XCom: Enemy Unkown here since as far as a premise goes, the two are indistinguishable. The ground-based fighting is the meat-and-potatoes of the gameplay itself, everything surrounding that is a beautifully crafted way for the player to see direct repercussions from their actions, with failed missions having results and taking on missions which are too hard for your pay grade being true to form rather than compromising to enhance the ‘player experience’ (which has become shorthand these days for ‘loss aversion’, a strategy within game development whereby players should never experience failure because it might upset them).
This most certainly is one of those games pompous assholes will point to whenever someone complains about the glut of familiarity to be found in ‘gaming these days’ as a prime example of the variety.
So with that 90s style of difficulty firmly in mind, XCom: Enemy Unknown will present a challenge. You’ll find that running and gunning as a strategy has about as little place in a game like this as a dinosaur, and you’ll have to pay close attention to things like laying down covering fire in order to prevent enemies from moving whenever you intend to do so. Managing the number of moves each character has per turn is vital stuff, as any major sprint simply must end up in solid cover lest you get capped during the aliens’ turn.
Each round gives you plenty of options: you can move around, take cover, lay down coverfire, lob grenades and other usual fare, mixed in with specific objectives and some sublimely done curveballs including sudden enemy spawns and behavioural traits of AI you’ll have to counteract on the fly.
Then when it comes time to trek back home and relish the good work you’ve done on the field, the home base is a marvellous cut-out cross section of a huge underground bunker, amply stocked with laboratories, hangar bays, gymnasiums and war rooms. It looks cool, is highly functional and allows you to take full control over any aspect of the game’s trajectory that you’d like. You can buff up your troops, visit your scientists to see which alien devices that you’ve captured from the field have yielded usable new technologies, plan your next place and time of attack and much more.
It’s often easy to see why a turn-based strategy game wouldn’t receive a massive amount of funding. Next to first-person shooters and even real-time strategy games, the demand just isn’t there as a general rule. But once in a while, a company does take a chance on a decent TBS game. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to see that it’s not exactly a giant risk to make Civilization V, OR to allow the creators of that franchise to have a crack at another one which is based on a classic and much-loved franchise, but dammit it’s still good to see some decent production values on a game like this, risky or not.
And of course, the whole game really is steeped in lavish visuals, gorgeous fog effects, a rather cool Roswell-at-night colour palette and seemingly great audio. It’s tightly polished and just feels clean to play – nothing feels amiss or budget as your making move after move to take down assorted alien grays. It’s packed with in-game cinematic sequences to set up each mission, and characters will talk with full lip synching as you’d expect in a big budget action game.
This most certainly is one of those games pompous assholes will point to whenever someone complains about the glut of familiarity to be found in ‘gaming these days’ as a prime example of the variety which does exist out there. Although, that said, those same pompous assholes are most likely to be the ones trumpeting the lament for ‘games these days’ rather than being rational about things, so perhaps not.
Either way, whether you’re a fan of turn-based strategy games or not, the controls are inviting, the presentation is slick, and there really is very little stopping you from enjoying the game. If it does little else than serve as a reminder as to what diversity can potentially exist in games, great. If it manages to exalt itself as a classic of modern gaming and an example of re-imagining the 90s done right, even better. Either way, regardless of your interests, the curve is generous even if the game can be quite punishing. Give it a go when it comes out in October.
By Leigh Harris - Bio