Approximately 80% of XCOM: Enemy Unknown equals these adjectives:
And there’s another 20% and that’s fun, but let’s talk about the 80% first.
XCOM is, with little to no reservation, a terrific and hugely important accomplishment in video game design. It is turn-based combat that is almost consistently breakneck and non-stop in its pacing. There is a tremendous depth in this 80% of the game, while retaining a simplicity that does little to compromise a game that is endlessly enthralling. It’s baffling just how simple the game is to pick and up and play, to understand the basic mechanics driving the entire game, while having such a huge tactical depth that is unheard of in a game that has a bajillion dollars behind its development and marketing. XCOM: Enemy Unknown must be a miracle, for one would think even Firaxis, with all its years of experience in this field, could not pull off a game so… miraculous.
The purity of its design is apparent from the very first mission. The move set is limited – move, fire, toss a grenade, hunker down for a defensive bonus, reload, go on overwatch allowing a soldier to take a reaction shot on patrolling aliens caught in his line of sight – and are critical in determining the outcome of battle.
“It’s unbelievably heart-thumpingly insane.”
The choices you are making are not minute but rather actions in very broad and absolute strokes. It’s not a matter of issuing an order of taking two steps to the right, turning towards an open flank and then deciding whether to take a quick snapshot or a considered aimed shot. No, XCOM operates somewhere in the middle, between a very limited set of decisions and careful, micromanaged planning and for the most part, the tools Firaxis gives you are more than sufficient, but most importantly, this middle ground of tactical options gives the game a furious pace and emulates a high-octane intensity that you’d see in a shooter where everything must explode. With the game providing a small set of options that are easy to understand, but are all options that are absolutely key to use well and master, the game goes at a clip where it never meanders off. It’s unbelievably heart-thumpingly insane. Really, it’s hard to believe just how many paper bags you’re going to need to breathe into after a mission.
Nothing is guaranteed – hunkering down means you’re mitigating the chances of being hit, not outright surviving every plasma blast directed at your squaddie’s face. A 92% chance to hit means an 8% chance of missing. Every decision matters, every movement is critical, and it is all surrounded with an air of uncertainty that can mean another turn at life or complete and utter death. So, yes, ass-clenching, but it is so simple and so immediately understandable. There is no deeper meta-game here or a purposeful obfuscation of important knowledge. Your back is against the wall, and you are always outnumbered and outgunned, and here is a broad set of options. Pick two at most, end your turn, and pray. If you did right, then XCOM will certainly be one of the most rewarding and best games of the year. If you did wrong, XCOM will crush hopes, inhale dreams and lugee a defeat onto your face, but if you have the iron will, you will do right again, and XCOM will be rewarding that much more.
Firaxis slowly layers upon this with soldier classes and their abilities as they level. Assaults have an ability to use up both movement points and still fire at the end of the turn, heavies can pin down aliens with suppressive fire, supports can carry up to three med-kits, snipers can fire at any alien that a soldier can see, as long as the sniper has a clear line of sight. There’s a great synergy between all the classes and the individual abilities of a class tend to be dependent on others to really maximize its potential. It’s hugely important and is another beautiful, transparent layer of the game that feeds into its depth.
However, it’s here when the decisions on what abilities to commit to are more obvious and always certain. Some skills clearly outclass others, making the choice easy between some of the level-ups. There is a someone out there who did not choose the HEAT Ammo ability when given the choice. He has my deepest condolences.
And then the 20%, the macro-level, base-building strategy game. It is certainly not horrifying, or white-knuckle, or anything that describes the majority of XCOM, but it is certainly fun. Researching new technologies, engineering satellites to shoot into space to intercept UFOs, excavating new rooms to build and maintain to help the war effort and managing panic levels from countries losing their minds over how War of the Worlds is totally happening for reals and how it totally sucks.
For all the options it presents, once again, it fails to reach the depths of the decisions that have to be made in the combat. Engineers are always more important than scientists, satellites are priority Number One when starting in the game, you do not pick North America or Europe as your base of operations for their bonuses are too insignificant, and building laboratories is a waste of time, because again, scientists are chumps. It’s also a really detached experience; as your base grows, it’s just hard to care when almost none of the facilities that you’ve built are interacted with. There is no sense of an accomplishment, of some great feat of engineering.
It is important and there are still tough calls in the strict limits it imposes on you with money and time. There is never enough money; never enough to build all your facilities, to buy the new weaponry. There is never enough time; never enough to launch satellites in time, to transfer an interceptor to France to help patrol its skies before France is lost to a UFO blitz.
“It is a game when purely examining its design and intent, must be nothing short of a divine intervention.”
Losing on either side of the game means a doomed Earth, and so, once again, your call, Commander. The weight of responsibility and an unending series of difficult decisions are what defines strategy games, but few have consequences that can be as perilous and damning as XCOM’s. Even a squad suffering wounds from combat can mean weeks of your best soldiers in the medical bay, with only rookies to fill in their gargantuan shoes. A failed interception can mean losing satellites, leaving countries in the dark. Killed in Action means Killed in Action. And what’s perhaps a greater feat is that the game never ever gets lost in complexities. It never gets buried in micromanagement, and Firaxis knows just how much to give, to push the mechanics just so much so, to find interesting new elements when streamlining. To get it so right is a joy to witness all on its own. It is a game when purely examining its design and intent, must be nothing short of a divine intervention.
Ah, but okay, a few caveats. The game should be played on Classic difficulty on Ironman, with the Impossible difficulty reserved for sadists and prosecuted gangsters. The difficulty on Classic is at its pitch perfect. Difficult but fair, any bad decision will most likely result in catastrophe, with the off chance of that 92% chance killshot from the muton graciously missing and you start breathing once more. With Ironman on, reloading is eliminated, and gives the game a permanence that truly completes the intent of the game. Without Ironman is to play XCOM incorrectly, and if that sounds elitist, then so be it.
Though to even approach Classic Ironman, however, requires a solid understanding of XCOM, and so some hours into Normal is almost necessary if you’re going into this all bright-eyed and optimistic. Normal gets to be a cakewalk the further you go, and the game loses its entire point by the end of it, leaving an indifferent impression, but then you ramp it up and XCOM becomes the monster of a game it is.
For a game that depends on its fairness to prevent it from being an exercise in eating your keyboard from psychotic rage, there are a few glitches that threaten to compromise precocious line between fair and unfair. Most frustrating is the camera – it can hang up on tight spaces and worse, fails to gauge the elevation properly, resulting in a literal roof over your characters, making maneuvering your soldiers keyboard-eating frustrating.
Something less glitchy is a failure of providing the needed information. Line of sight from your soldiers determines what he can shoot at and what he can see and occasionally, it’s hard to know if moving him in position will give him the sight lines. There’s nothing in the game that will clearly tell you if moving a dude to so-and-so position will guarantee eyes on the prize and it’s really a matter of figuring out how sight lines work through trial and error and being careful about it.
What is the greatest threat to XCOM’s replayability, however, is the map variety and the lack of it. The maps repeat, with the variation being the enemy threats and where they spawn. It’s just enough to create uncertainty in every combat situation, but it’s never enough to keep the maps fresh. A secondary disappointment is the lack of place the maps have. Missions are all over the world, but a gas station in India looks like a gas station in the Miami. The game needs more maps, a lot more.
The PC UI is only serviceable and could’ve been better, but you know what? Enough caveats.
I cannot speak for fans of the original X-COM games, for I was not part of that generation, but as someone experiencing XCOM for the very first time, it is incredible. There is nothing quite like it. There is nothing quite as tense, filled with an emergent drama and personal stories, desperate times and improbable victories. And for Firaxis to execute on it with such an elegance and clarity is nothing short of unbelievable. 1% chance of doing it right. 99% of getting it all wrong.
OH GOD YES CRITICAL HIT!