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As a teen, I watched both American Beauty and Super Troopers in the same night. I loved Super Troopers and I hated American Beauty. Everyone in the room hated it. Years later, several of my friends that were around that night have rewatched it and claim it to be fantastic – a result of matured taste I suppose.
Similarly, my first experience with turn-based strategy games, not including a slew of Pokemon titles, was back on the Gamecube with “Future Tactics: The Uprising”. It doesn’t help that this was already a pretty subpar game, but it certainly turned me off of the genre. But years later, here comes XCOM and its universal acclaim, begging me to sit down and have a taste.
And it tastes good.
Platform: PS3*/Xbox 360/PC
Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Players: 1 (Online: 1-2)
ESRB: Mature (Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence)
XCOM: Enemy Unknown casts the player as commander of XCOM, a military project spearheaded by a council of the world’s most powerful nations fighting off alien invaders.
The player’s primary job is to direct troops in combat. Each mission begins under a fog of war, and the player must lead their troops across the field, find the enemy and eliminate them.
Troops come in a variety of classes with many weapons in tow. Kills on the field result in promotions in the barracks as troops earn perks depending on their class. Devastating perks at higher ranks are paramount to keeping any individual soldier alive on the field and make it hard to level up young squaddies without late-game armor and weapons at their disposal.
This is countered by varying stages of alien opposition. Early on, rookies stand a chance against mere Sectoids and Thin Men, but later on the game, should the player lose high-ranking officers in a disastrous mission (permadeath, anyone?), the challenge can be insurmountable. Unfair at first glance, punishing a poorly-rounded team is vital to the tooth-and-nail style of the game.
The enemy forces are one of the shining points of this game. Beyond individual enemy abilities, weapons and traits, each enemy species has behaviors not spelled out in a menu somewhere, but available only by observation and vital to success. While the first encounter with some strains of opponents can leave a player decimated, a little retooling to the strategy and some heavier weapons and armor will always solve the problem. Every kill feels like a massive accomplishment.
Between battles, the commander is in charge of resource management – facilities, research, engineering and UFO response. How well this is conducted dictates monthly funding. High panic will cause countries to leave the council, and with it, their funding and full-continent benefits.
This portion of the game is just as large if not larger than the combat aspect, and just as fun. The first playthrough can be brutal, as money is tight and the player has to figure out how to effectively allocate it early on to keep every country around from month to month.
In fact, everything about this game can be punishing in a wonderfully satisfying way, even on normal difficulty. Fortunately, the player can save at essentially any time. The brave will tackle Ironman mode, which forces saves at every turn, leaving the player to deal with losses permanently.
All of this is so engrossing, it’s easy to forget the overarching story, dictated only by a few scripted missions. Random encounters fill in the holes as you complete the story at your own pace. That narrative, of course, is trying to overcome the alien invaders and uncover their motives, but the more compelling narrative results from the permadeath and turn-based play allowing you to soak in every move. Memories are made on the battlefield with individual soldiers. “Colonel Zimchenko is a damn hero” might sum up my game, but even other XCOM players may not know what I’m talking about. Stories of that time you were cornered by Ethereals when your veteran assault made a critical shot at 10% odds make XCOM special to each player.
Graphics aren’t really a point of contention for this game. Characters are detailed enough, but the player will spend most of the time looking at a larger portion of the map and not focused on individual troops or opponents. There’s one battle audio running on loop when enemies are in view, and otherwise simmers down to ambient background noises from the playing field. Rarely will the player notice either, as there’s a huge amount of focus being dedicated to the battle itself and the accompanying strategy.
Occasionally, indicators will signal a troop has view of an opponent when none are actually in view. Additionally, shots will sometimes fire through objects in the environment and hit the opponent. The maps that crop up are varied enough in size and environment, but aren’t necessarily representative of the locale in which the mission is supposed to take place. English storefronts can be found in Beijing, and forest-surrounded streams aren’t uncommon in Egypt.
These, of course, are merely aesthetic gripes. On a more substantial level, troops are subject to panic when mind-controlled enemies are killed, since they are “allies” at the time of death. This seems silly. Panic will also sometimes result in troops literally doing an about face and shooting an ally behind them, which also seems outrageous. There’s also tell of a teleport bug spawning enemies behind your line of troops – a bug that will decimate any Ironman run.
It would also be nice to have an idea of what the field of view will look like in a new position before actually moving a troop. Often a position seems to offer a better vantage point, when it actually prevents view of the enemy entirely.
These mild issues aside, XCOM is a beast of a game perfect for anyone who enjoys a challenge. Even for people who object to a slower-paced game, XCOM is high-tension enough to keep you on your toes anyway. This is a must buy for anyone and everyone, and it can’t be stressed enough.
Guess I should go back and rewatch American Beauty…