Developers: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Genre: Strategy, Turn Based
“We will be watching…”
Most modern games have been made accessible to the point that a badly coordinated elderly chimp could eventually fumble its way through. Only a few niche games remain which offer a true challenge of the brain box kind but it is these games which inevitably develop a hard core following – and for good reason. The latest in the classic XCOM series takes this to new levels by offering a challenge which can only be described soul crushingly brutal. An Alien invasion has begun (there really is as little preamble as that) and the nations of Earth put their hopes of survival into a multilateral defense plan known as XCOM. As commander of this secretive organisation it is your job to monitor Earth’s airspace, gain victories to convince the world powers to continue backing the project, and ultimately build up a military capable of resisting the invasion.
The game mechanics are simple in an almost ancient kind of way. The games progress revolves around a hologram of the globe which when activated moves time forward. While paused there is freedom to visit the intersected ant-farm like base to dictate the strategy of Earth’s defense, essentially acting as a convoluted HUD for the various menus which will advance your cause. Order the construction of facilities to open up new areas of the HUD; assign research projects to develop tech and equipment; hire and train troops; and keep an eye on the stability of the XCOM alliance. Resources are very limited, especially early on, and sinking everything into one aspect will spell certain failure, as will spreading everything too thinly. Sacrifices have to be made and the margin for error is horrendously thin. Even the few times things seem to be going well XCOM will quickly disintegrate your delusions of grandeur into a steaming pile of cooling hubris. Once satisfied that every iota of advantage has been optimised for the time being it is time to return to the globe and see what fresh disaster will unfold.
During this active phase, randomly generated and scripted campaign missions will appear offering the opportunity to see the fruits of all your hard work unceremoniously shot to pieces in a grueling and nerve shredding 30 minute turn based battle. With a max squad of 6 class based soldiers, each fully custamisable and upgradable to your desires, missions play out on a quaint tile based isometric board shrouded in a fog of war. Each turn requires you to hunt down and fight unseen packs of similarly class based aliens. The true battle here is not against the enemy but your pitifully brittle patience. Advance too quickly at the wrong time and the ranks of freshly revealed enemy will have an entire turn to humble your exposed squad. But time it just right and pick off your enemies without taking a hit. Actions are determined through many variables but ultimately by chance as indicated by a percentage of success helpfully displayed above the head of your enemies – just don’t feel hard done by if a 90% chance from your veteran commander turns into a disastrous scuffed shot. Gaining access to the best weaponry and harnessing the various abilities of high level troops is essential to tip these odds in your favor, at least until they die or a new type of enemy appears to tip them back again.
Winning battles is not required but each failure can understandably undermine confidence in your mission and keeping the support of nation states is essential. Then again picking the wrong missions can also upset those country’s left out. Loose too many backers and it is game over – with an opportunity to reload an earlier save file (though not on hard difficulties) but probably a bad sign its time to start back from the beginning, again.
What sets XCOM apart from the current climate of gaming is this necessity to accept failure as part of the path to victory – something quite hard for the molly coddled console gamer to endure. Games often allow the player to win every challenge and unlock every reward without ever facing defeat. XCOM is impossible to play through without regularly seeing your most hardened soldiers fall in some uneventful part of a battle, or having some god forsaken country pull their funding just when things start to fall into place. If this sounds like a cruel and punishing prospect that is because it shitting well is. Expect teeth grinding, white knuckle rage, violent tantrums of unimaginably creative cursing. Kicking the games console power off switch will only see it quickly turned back on again after an hour of contemplation and a mistaken stroke of inspiration. Expect turn based dreams – XCOM haunts your every moment, conscious or not.
Like Dark Souls before it XCOM is a reminder that the old school ethos of challenge and the punishment of failure can now be successfully combined with the refined modern user interface to create a devastatingly addictive formula. As long as the challenge is fair and teaches the player a lesson from their defeats. Ultimately though XCOM is a puzzle to be unlocked and once its secret formula has been revealed going back through it will never offer the same challenge. There is only really one strategy which will bring victory but finding what that is will take several attempts, each requiring hours of cautious planning and desperately tight battles.
There is little XCOM does wrong – the story is pretty superficial and only vaguely communicated to the player, the final mission in particular being a disappointingly confusing climax. The cut scenes are clearly the result of a limited budget and the comically simplistic spaceship mini game is like something from the 80s.
All that is left is the usual kind of wish fulfillment which accompanies the completion of those games which utterly transfix the player. Better graphics, bigger game… more, more, more. Bring on the next gen sequel…