2012 was a great year for gaming. Diablo III, May Payne 3, Dishonored, Journey, Borderlands 2, Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed III and Mass Effect 3, and that’s just naming the better-known ones. And yet, if you asked me, my pick for my favourite game of that year would be XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Why? Maybe because I played the game for almost 10 hours straight after I installed it, without even a hint of the passage of time. Maybe it’s down to the fact that, in a time when we’re increasingly looking to the past for inspiration, XCOM: Enemy Unknown treats its source material with a reverence that’s rarely seen. Either way, XCOM was something special and I’m going to try to describe why.
XCOM has a simple and straightforward plotline — aliens are invading the Earth, and it’s your job to stop them. There are three things that make XCOM great — spoiler, the story’s not one of them — and the first is how it plays in between missions. This portion of XCOM is basically a full-on strategy game — you have to build your base as best as you can, while juggling your various research options and trying to meet the ever-increasing demands for satellite coverage from desperate nations. And it’s really good! There’s enough here to keep you diverted for a very long time. However, that’s time you don’t have because, sooner or
later, the aliens are going to attack and it’s boots-on-the-ground time.
That’s where XCOM’s second strength comes in — its pulse-pounding tactical turn-based gameplay. Whether you’re assaulting a crashed UFO or desperately trying to prevent the extermination of the local populace, XCOM just keeps throwing fresh challenges your way. Just as you start getting comfortable dealing with sectoids and Thin Men, say hello to some Mutons, why don’t you? And oh, how you’ll grow to loathe the Cyberdiscs and Chryssalids after the shock of their first appearance. XCOM never pulls its punches — every mission is fraught with risks and danger, and the stakes are never less than high.
Which brings us neatly to the last reason why XCOM is great, and arguably the most important — your soldiers aren’t nameless cannon fodder. The longer they survive, the more experience they gain, so you’ll see rookies grow into seasoned veterans if you can just keep them alive long enough. And, most of the time, you won’t be able to do that — the team that returns from each mission may not be the team that headed out, but a sadly depleted shadow. And that matters, because of how attached you get to these soldiers. You’ll reminisce about the time your sniper made a Hail Mary critical hit on a low-percentage shot, and of how a well-placed smoke grenade saved your entire squad’s bacon. That is at the very heart of what made the older X-COM games so popular, and it’s alive and well in this modern successor.
This is XCOM, hyphenated or not. This is the legendary franchise that generations of gamers cut their teeth on, and it’s modernised, updated, and better in almost every way. Not only is it worthy to stand with its hallowed predecessors, but generations of gamers to come will learn the ropes the hard way with XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
(Arjun is a gamer, book lover and an all-round renaissance man)
Arjun Sukumaran http://goo.gl/uNBWN3