By Thomas Visco
Pros: Accessible, engaging turn-based action. Open-ended gameplay allows for limitless play time.
Cons: This game is extremely difficult — newcomers to strategy games, be warned. Camera angles can be unwieldy at times.
A good video game makes your heart race. Graphics, sound and atmosphere all play a role in the excitement. But truly great games don’t excite you in a superficial way. Instead, they worry you, making you fret every decision in the game.
And no contemporary game makes you reconsider every decision like “XCOM: Enemy Unknown,” a new release developed by Firaxis Games.
Firaxis’ new game builds off the success of its spiritual predecessor, “UFO: Enemy Unknown,” which was developed by MicroProse and released in 1994. “UFO” is a classic in the turn-based strategy genre — a game that relies on a turn system for players to make their moves around the game world.
Today, “UFO” is universally regarded as one of the top 10 games of all time. One of the founding games of its genre, “UFO” succeeded as a turn-based tactics game because of its keen sense of risk and reward. This equation of risk and reward revolves around time units, a limited resource players use to move their squad around the game. Once a player runs out of time units, no more actions can be taken in the turn, and the squad is at the mercy of the opponent until the end of the turn. How many time units to save or spend — how much risk to take — is the central point of this game.
Like its predecessor, “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” capitalizes on this basic equation. “XCOM” centers its plot on a fictional alien invasion in the not-so-distant future. The player is cast as a nameless, faceless commander of a special operations group intent on defending Earth from extraterrestrial invaders. This group receives its funding from a council of 16 countries.
The game is separated into two parts — base management and missions. At the start of the game, the council of countries gives the player a basic base to manage. It is the player’s job to deal with alien encounters in such a way that the panic level in each of these countries does not pass a certain threshold. Failure to do so triggers panicking countries to withdraw funding. Panic level is just one of a host of issues to micromanage at the base.
While this backdrop isn’t especially compelling, players have never flocked to the turn-based tactics genre for the stories. What matters is the gameplay. Base management is not the selling point of this game, but the pleasant user interface and straightforward objectives it provides ensures that players’ main focus can be their missions.
Accordingly, the fun of “XCOM” takes place out on missions, not at the base. These missions operate on the turn system, the core game mechanic in “XCOM.” Each turn, you have the opportunity to move your squad around the map, fire their weapons at opponents, or use items to aid your squad.
What follows is a series of difficult decisions about which of these actions to take. Placing your team around the map foolishly will lead to a quick and deadly finale for your “XCOM” experience. But taking risks with your squad — say, exposing them to an opponent’s line of sight — may lead to a greater reward, such as luring the enemy into a trap. No matter what, after your turn is complete the computer opponent’s turn unfolds without any opportunity for you to rectify mistakes, so the game forces you to think deliberately about every decision.
And think you will. “XCOM” is nothing short of excruciatingly difficult, and the challenge forces players to learn constantly from past mistakes. While frustrating at times — particularly when your whole squad is wiped out due to a single error — the game is fair. Although you may lose often, it is always evident where your mistake was and how to fix it in later missions.
The turn-based tactical goodness of “XCOM” is a delightful reimagining of the classic “UFO.” The graphics and sound are stellar for a game in this genre, capturing the sci-fi setting of the game while not being too unbelievable. While it might be frustrating at times, the game keeps you coming back for its addictive risk-reward system. Overall, “XCOM” is an action-heavy jaunt through turn-based tactics and a definitive classic of the genre.