XCOM: Enemy Unknown

In Video Games on January 25, 2013 at 8:50 pm


It’s not often you hear about a true modern success story where the invigoration of old franchises are concerned. Caught between competing pressures to widen the appeal, to say true to the original, to fix what needs fixing but also to leave broken the sacred cows, most games are pushed too far in one direction. The resultant product may bear little resemblance to its namesake, or it may be missing features true fans considered essential. Worse yet, it may be a true and faithful update that is marred by all the problems of the original, with no progress or improvements, doomed to please “fans of the original” and little else.

That said, I’m the kind of bastard that never seems to have played the original and care little for legacies or sacred cows. I want a good game. I enjoyed Syndicate and only wish it wasn’t part of that franchise so it could have gotten a fair shake. Deus Ex: Invisible War was as good an implementation of Deus Ex on consoles as could be done at the time and is still a very good game.

So while XCOM: Enemy Unknown is by leaps and bounds a faithful reproduction of the original with a number of necessary improvements to the overall formula, to me it’s much more important that it is simply a good, addictive game.

And I say that as someone who, up until recently, had to fight to bear anything turn-based outside of the battles in a jRPG. Really, that’s my fault and a personal preference, but I just could not get into a game that didn’t let me take control to run, jump and shoot in real time.

I fully admit to struggling to complete the original Fallout (played years after its release no less), and what largely made me give up Fallout 2 (sorry Jack). Troika’s magnum opus Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura remains similarly unplayed. Despite my zealous dedication to space games, I avoided the generally well-regarded series of turn-based 4x space sims like Galactic Civilization.

I could go on, but it’s actually kind of embarrassing.

It wasn’t until this past summer or so when I read someone’s account of their longstanding game of the turn-based Civilization II, one that they had been maintaining, on and off, for ten years. Rather than just talking gameplay or the mechanics of a prolonged endgame scenario, his account was written narratively and focused on the imagined plight of a world besieged by thousands of years of unending nuclear warfare, one where precious resources were expended to build roads that would be bombed out of existence the next turn. Tanks were produced over food to feed a populace that was long starving. Alliances are fleeting and always ended in betrayal, thus preventing any single side from gaining the upper hand.

Other Civ players joined in the discussion, offering additional narrative accounts and strategic advice, most interestingly one that advocated the player sacrifice themselves in a (doomed) alliance to ensure victory for one of the three final warring nations. This, they said, would at least produce an end to the war.

The Eternal War, as it would become known, captured the imagination of the internet for the next few days and even featured a number of news and gaming sites interviewing the game’s original player. Those with a literary bent noted the unplanned similarities to 1984. Sid Meier himself commented on the phenomena.

So this opened my eyes to the turn-based genre and its potential for variety and good gameplay. It’s potential to be fun. Something I’d for some reason never paused to consider.

I have had discussions with people about how games are difficult to get into without a narrative bent. Between small-scale tactics featuring faceless soldiers, to empire-spanning strategy with no narrative-based motivation or explanation, these games can be difficult to get into while under the pretense that they “have no story.” But that’s only partially true.

Often lacking a specific story-based campaign mode, they rely upon randomization and multitudinous paths and options to allow a gameplay-based narrative to develop. These are games where the journey is much more important than the end result. You will see players congratulating someone for completing a game with poor scoring, noting that it must have been a trying experience to carry on after severe setbacks. The player notes how difficult it was to lose, in XCOM‘s case, a squad of veterans, soldiers they’d personally seen through dozens of battles.

In playing the game myself, I can say you begin relying on certain soldiers and trust them with taking rookies out in the field, knowing that this soldier, who you have seen through countless battles and seen ascend through the ranks, will get them home with some much needed combat experience. You begin building a persona around certain soldiers. I view my medics differently than I view my heavies, for example. And in those moments where I might lose one of them, my heart is pounding as I take minutes or more to consider the next step with their life in the balance.

What’s also nice is that there’s always something to do in XCOM. As you are not only some manner of on-the-ground commander to your troops, you are also tasked with managing the larger operation of what the game refers to as “the XCOM project,” a vague pan-national organization tasked with the novel purpose of defending against an alien invasion, which there happens to be going on at the moment.

With that, you’re choosing between various research projects, given various side objectives in capturing a specific kind of alien or fulfilling certain requests of the Council, along with certain missions that tie into the larger progression of the game like assaulting landed UFOs and alien bases and footholds on the planet.

So there is some direction along with a game that’s casually escalating. You will never quite define the moment you stopped fighting the easier to deal with aliens and were left with nothing but heavy hitters, but it will have happened and you’ll be surprised at your sudden awareness of your progression.

At the same time, I feel myself getting very drawn in to what is a surprisingly addictive formula. Missions aren’t quick but aren’t drawn out either. There’s always something to work towards. Mistakes made today are cataloged away to be considered in the inevitable second and third playthroughs. Second and third playthroughs! I rarely think on such things anymore, but XCOM has me waiting with baited breath.


  1. As a quick aside, I never beat Arcanum either. As wonderful a world as it was they really should have gone for full action or simple turn based. The game play was muddled while trying to pull off both. That said, making the chosen one a moron was hilarious.

    I’ve been exceedingly happy to hear about your new love of X-com, to the point that I think i’m actually jealous. I even feel a bit guilty when we are both online and trying to talk to you while your deploying a squad. “He has his men to think about” I say.
    I actually saw it for forty bucks the other day, but it was Elizabeth’s birthday so a purchase wasn’t prudent. Though in hindsight I wish i’d bought it instead of seeing “The Hobbit.”

    Eh, i’m rambling. I’m happy you love X-com, and glad you’re having fun. Keep up the good fight my friend.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: