McMillan’s Codex 22 By C.T. McMillan
XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012)
Growing up in gaming of the early 00s, I was accustomed to the freedom allotted by technological innovation. 3D controls, better graphics, voice acting, and cut-scenes made for some of the most influential games of my life. It is a cyclical catharsis that everyone goes through in their time. In 1981, Galaga was probably as impactful as Kingdom Hearts 2 was to me. But when I try to play the hallowed works that inspired their contemporaries, it is a jarring experience. I have become so used to the openness of modern gaming that I found it difficult to adapt. Such was my experience when I played XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
I first heard about XCOM in a joke while watching one of BroTeamPill’s many videos. I soon got curious and found out it was a remake of a game that came out in 1994. It is a series of many genres, using the basis of turn-based strategy with elements of role-playing and squad tactics. It is similar to the gameplay of real-time strategy, but without the “real-time” part. Everything from battles to building is dependent on timers, probability, and when you end your turn.
Missions play out on maps divided into a grid of tiles that hold up to one character each. You have two chances to move or attack before you are locked out. Maps are like small arenas with many areas of cover that vary in rating. Some cover will protect your characters completely while others have a 50/50 chance of protection. The same probability determines your chances of hitting an enemy. As your characters completes missions, they become more proficient in the field. When they die, however, they are gone for good along with all the effort you put into making them perfect soldiers.
That was the part of XCOM that threw me. I was so used to the freedom of real time gameplay that I did not know what I was doing. It was embarrassing and after loosing scores of characters and restarting a fresh game maybe half a dozen times, I learned how to play for success. I understood the strategy for dealing with situations and different enemy types. I could exploit the game’s robust tactical systems of hunker down, over watch, and suppression to keep my characters alive and take out enemies before they counter. Taking a challenge head-on and learning through failure is the essence of difficult games and I was certainly taught a lesson.
The building side of gameplay has as much depth as the battles. Your base is shown in ant farm set-up where you see it from a 2D perspective. Each section is arranged in a grid with a limited capacity of rooms you can build. The rooms help you upgrade equipment, further the capabilities of your characters, and research various discoveries that open new opportunities. What you can build, however, is dependent on the available sections you acquire, personnel, and the funds to obtain from sponsors, an element of gameplay that works in tandem with the battles and narrative.
The story revolves around a hostile alien invasion of earth. In order to fight back, nations of the world put together the XCOM Program, an initiative responsible for defending Earth. But not all of the countries are willing to chip in and your ability to respond to threats is less than limited. When an alert goes out for an alien incursion, there are three trouble spots spread across the world with varying degrees of difficulty. You can only choose one and which ever you complete increases the trust of a the nation in the Program, giving you more funds. The threats you do not respond to decreases trust and if they go too long without your help, countries will break off contact and funding.
The art style of XCOM really stands out to me. It could have been another brown shooter with a realistic aesthetic and goes for something not unlike, well, a videogame. The color pallet is diverse with many greys, whites, and purples for alien elements, and greens, blues, and browns for humans. The people look like people, but the armor, weapons, and props have a super deformed design that would not make sense in reality. As you upgrade your technology, you get access to some of the more exotic items like laser weapons that emanate red light, and power armor of shiny chrome with a musculature design.
If you like a good challenge and happen to be a fan of the real-time strategy genre, XCOM: Enemy Unknown could not be a better choice. Learning how to play is a part of the fun and once you understand it, the game becomes a welcome trial. Definitely give it a look.