THE BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO VIDEO GAMES PART 6: XCOM: ENEMY UNKNOWN

X-COM: ENEMY UNKNOWN

Well, we can’t give this one points for originality, I suppose. Killing aliens in video games is about as innovative an idea as “Zombie apocalypse” or “Press X to start.” But sometimes the old ideas can surprise you, and I am very glad that this one did.

The history of this series is a slightly confusing one. In 1994 a game came out that was called UFO: Enemy Unknown. Except for when it was in the USA, where it was named X-COM: UFO Defense. Jesus, there’s only been one game and they’re already trying to bewilder us. Out of both of these titles, X-COM was the one that stuck, and a whole litter of turn-based strategy sequels were spawned, up until 2001 with the less than popular shooter title: X-COM: Alliance.

Everybody thought that was it for the veteran series. It faded into history, until, suddenly, another entry was announced in 2010! Another XCOM game! Oh, wait. It’s not the highly celebrated turn-based mechanics that everybody loves, it’s another bloody shooter. You know, just like the terrible X-COM game that everybody would rather just pretend didn’t happen, like the Star Wars prequels or paedophile priests.

The overall response from the public to this news was a considered and surprisingly tame: “Fuck off.” Considering that the worst game of the series so far had been a poorly-made shooter, nobody was feeling too excited about what seemed to be a terrible attempt to jump on an already-overstuffed bandwagon. Perhaps it was this that caused Firaxis Games to bristle and create X-COM: Enemy Unknown, albeit two years later. It was a loyal recreation of the original game, but with a much more intuitive design, a fascinating combination of base and resource management mixed with tactical turn-based combat, and a constant motivation to keep playing, in order to learn more about a mysterious antagonistic force. An enemy that is unknown, if you will.

You still not sure? OK, think about this. The very first thing that happens in the game is a quotation from Arthur C. Clarke. I mean, this thing couldn’t be any more smart science-fiction unless downloading it would cause my laptop to get up and walk down the hallway.

The premise of the game is this – you are the head of an international (but pointedly not interplanetary) organisation known as X-COM, put together when bobble-headed aliens start to show up and liquidise anyone who wanders past them. Funded by the countries of the world and tasked to repel the little plasma-wielding sods, you must oversee technological breakthroughs, consider smart investments, and advise the useless squad of girl scout recruits you were given with on how best to deflect laser beams with their faces.

Yes, there is one obvious critique of X-COM, and we’re brushing against it now – the game is bloody unforgiving. Newly hired soldiers have stats equivalent to that of battery hens, and training them, whilst effective, still takes a while and can only be done through successful missions. You will growl like a lion seeing his girlfriend getting chatted up by a gazelle, after watching a useless newbie turn into a hard-bitten killer of xenomorphs, only to let him make a wrong turn in a flying saucer, get hit by a E.T.’s super missile and turned into raspberry jam.

And because the game ramps up the difficulty with no thought for how well you’re doing, a bit of unlucky gameplay means you could have all your good marines squashed in a single firefight, and then you’ll have to send in the useless, untrained rookies to deal with the psychic hyper-aliens and triple-armoured beserkers. And good luck squire, because you’ve about as much chance of winning then as you do of winning Eurovision with a ball gag.

To be fair on X-COM, this isn’t always the case. Most of the campaign is randomly generated, producing different maps, enemies and challenges at different times. This makes it enormously replayable, because every person’s experience is different. No person ever goes through the same thing when playing it through, and I like that a lot. Also, there are a ton of tactics and ways to go about playing, but they’re all deceptively intuitive and come across very organically. As you direct your squad around the city streets or alien bases, you’ll notice that you’re making decisions that you weren’t even aware you were considering, such as sending in your assault troops first whenever you go into unknown territory, or working to protect the medic in the group.

And the tactics apply even out of missions. OK, you’ve just finished a bit of research on a Jawa’s propulsion technology and now you have a jetpack. Awesome. But building them is expensive, so who gets the only one you can afford? Your sniper, allowing him to pick off enemies from the skies and render their cover useless? Your heavy, giving him good angles to drop grenades and rockets, like he’s a man pretending to be a Dambuster? Or the psychic guy, because, um… He thinks more clearly when he’s got fresh air? Alright, not the psychic then.

And what are you going to research now that you’ve got the lab free? New weapons? Armour? Aircraft? The weaknesses and biological traits of our foes? Wait! No time for that now, that satellite you started building last week is done! What country are you going to position it over? China’s offering the most money for it, but you haven’t got any over South America, and Brazil is considering withdrawing from the project and needs placating. Well, whilst you’re umming and erring, a spaceship the size of Andre The Giant’s big brother has started heading for Berlin, so pick a couple of customised fighter jets and let’s try to stop it, preferably before it turns Germany into a crater and starts putting probes in peoples frankfurters.

This might sound like an intimidating amount of information to be crammed into one game, but I assure you it’s not. It builds on the basic rules slowly and gradually over time, developing before our eyes and evolving into a glorious network of supporting mechanics and ideas that fit together like nothing you’ve seen.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the Sectopod robot just got reinforcements in, and the mutons are approaching from the east. I may be gone for some time.

Of course sir, turn-based strategy is gameplay for the distinguished gentlemen. Perhaps now you’re done with your starter, you might enjoy the complex flavours of Shadowrun: Dragonfall, the assorted platter of Civilisation V, or the rather spicy dish that is FTL: Faster Than Light. And for dessert, the venerable Pokemon series and some of the older Final Fantasy games. Bon appetit.

TOMORROW: AT THE END, WE COME FULL CIRCLE.

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