The best stories about XCOM always end in failure. The wipeout of a veteran squad member, the panic, destruction and downward spiral towards failure. In an age of broadened gaming audiences, lowered difficulty barriers and constant hand holding XCOM manages to stand out by being one of the few mainstream games that allows you to fail permanently. It's a game that you can play for twenty hours only to have your squad obliterated, nations withdraw their support and the enemy destroy your homeworld. In this way Firaxis' modern interpretation of the franchise definitely lives up to its predecessors. But does it manage to live up to the standards of gameplay set before it?
When first announced, XCOM filled fans of the series with trepidation. After years of spin-offs, a host of not quite right "spiritual successors" and the announcement of the XCOM shooter accompanied by comments by publisher 2K that "strategy isn't modern" fans were expecting something very different from the tense strategy game they grew to love. Combined with the new art style and further announcements of changes to the series' core mechanics, fans were skeptical that the newest entry in the series could live up to the highs set by the original X-COM. Thankfully, Firaxis has managed to maintain the spirit of the series while creating a game that is undoubtedly modern.
The game flows between two layers. On the ground level, you control a squad of up to six soldiers as they move through alien attack and landing sites. Here you will clear the enemies from the area, save the terrorized citizens of the Earth and deal blows to the oncoming enemies. After the battle the remaining scraps of technology left behind will be taken back to base. During this large scale strategic layer you'll build up the XCOM headquarters, digging further underground, building new facilities and researching both the enemies and their technology to gain a critical edge for survival. From here you'll also scan for enemy activity, intercepting enemy crafts and responding to attacks on various countries, bringing your squad back down to the fray once again.
Each layer feeds back into the other, creating a loop that continually moves you one step closer to the next objective. Firaxis' work on the Civilization series makes itself known here, with the "one more turn" signature design of the series making its way into the game. In simple terms, this means that there is always some event occurring in the near future to look forward to, some advancement, another battle, or a new upgrade being built. Firaxis has also done well streamlining and trimming the downtime from the genre. While many strategy games can at times feel dependent entirely on the next upgrade or a slow uptick of harvested resources XCOM's headquarters always feel abuzz with activity. In the few moments of downtime between events you can zoom into the multitude of quarters you've built in your base and take a closer look at your people at work. It's not simulation, but it speaks to the amount of detail that Firaxis has worked into the game, without getting caught up in the micromanagement that plagues so many others.
This broad view approach also makes its way into the artwork. While the art style ditches the camp of it's predecessors it manages to provide a strong visual design that provides strong, recognizable silhouettes that can identified at a glance while giving the characters an action-figure-like presence. It lends itself well to the turn-by-turn drama of the game. Each alien reveal becomes a terrifying event, their otherworldly visages combined with the lack of knowledge of their abilities set you constantly on edge. While fairly average in terms of technology, the art direction, character design and lighting combined with the excellent score by Michael McCann, convey a mood of tension, threat and alien otherness perfectly. The sound design also complements the atmosphere well. Everything from the ambient sounds of the menus and headquarters to the alien cries for help create an atmosphere of intimidation and unease.
When you get to the heart of the game, XCOM is a strategy game designed for a new generation. It's streamlined, it's flashy, and it cuts down the decisions to what the team felt was important. Instead of counting time units you'll be making the decision of whether you should make a dash to a new position or advance slowly and keep an eye out for enemies. Alien attacks occur simultaneously on multiple cities, forcing you to choose between them and consider the rewards and state of the nation being attacked. Refuse requests from a nation too many times and they'll be sent into a state of panic, withdrawing their support from XCOM and leaving you with even less precious resources to create the technology you need. While at times it can seem a bit contrived, and basically means that countries are guaranteed to withdraw it does add to the feeling of constant unease that defines the game.
Layer on the host of other mechanics, destructible environments, panicking soldiers, the finite time you have to accomplish so many tasks, and XCOM is a game that basically sets you up to fail. Especially when played on the optional Ironman mode in which the death of your squad members is permanent and saves cannot be overwritten, the game can feel entirely overwhelming. Its fantastic, and a great change of pace. However, at points it can feel unfair. Sometimes you'll miss a near given shot, have your squad member die and then have a panicked teammate freak and get themselves killed. It's a testament to the game then that despite this, it only feels right to play XCOM on Ironman mode. With the constant failure breathing down your neck the game almost takes on the personality of a rogue-like. Failure is inevitable, but you learn a little bit more of the game each time.
XCOM also features multiplayer to help round out the package. The multiplayer is narratively disconnected from the campaign, instead focusing on the ground level tactics that make up the meat of the game and pitting you against even more ruthless human players. Here you'll be given points you can use to add and equip squad members from either the human or alien side. There's a lot of room for experimentation here, allowing you to mix and match sides and try out all kinds of combinations. Do you go light and numerous, or pick a few heavily armored units? All units are available however, so it's probably best to complete the single player game before jumping in if you are averse to having the tech and aliens of the game spoiled. While it's a well designed mode and definitely enjoyable most players won't be buying the game for the multiplayer component, so it might be hard to find a community down the line.
XCOM is a brutal, tense, and harrowing experience. It's a strategy game that manages to bring a modern face to the genre, removing the tedium and insignificant micromanaging of the genre. It instead focuses on the big decisions while still managing to get the small details right. Even for those not usually into strategy games (myself included) XCOM provides a solid and engaging core that lives up to the spirit and legacy of the series, and can act as a gateway into the genre. More than that, XCOM is simply a brilliant game made by a team that obviously loves the genre. In a word: essential.
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