XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based tactics game that gives the player (commander) control of a squad of 1-6 soldiers as you hunt down various types of aliens.
XCOM was at the bottom of my “pick-up” list, so I was a little disappointed that it showed up in the mail over some other more sought after titles. I had never played the earlier X-COM series of games, but I was curious to see what the decent rating was about and what made it warrant a FPS continuation here soon with Bureau: XCOM Declassified.
With some reluctance I booted it up and found myself with some seemingly bland graphics, and a poorly written and super generic opening story (that never developed into more than that). I played the opening tutorial and wasn’t drawn into the game by any means. I set it down for a bit since I started it rather late and didn’t pick it back up for a day or so, the desire just wasn’t there.
Once I gave it a proper chance, the game did draw me in, but not because of a gripping story or even overall phenomenal gameplay. What drew me in was the squad and single unit tactics mechanic that the gameplay itself revolves around. I tried thinking about when I last personally played a game that utilized true squad-based strategy and couldn’t come up with anything since Full Spectrum Warrior in the early 2000’s (though I’m sure there have been plenty). Now, there are some vital differences between the two games, most obvious being that FSW only allows you to control your fireteams (seen right), rather than each individual like with XCOM (seen below), and FSW is more real-time, but the similarities still exist. FSW was one of my favorite strategy games growing up and XCOM really felt like I was utilizing a squad properly for the first time since way back when.
I was able to take control of each member of my team, each with their own special abilities, and place them around the map, or issue orders, to best suit the environment and enemy presence. Enviroments were destructible, so a car or wall you were hiding behind could be gone next turn, and there were multiple layers to which you could set up your squad.
The game took into account visibility and viewpoints in relation to accuracy, such as setting up your sniper onto a rooftop will give him an almost perfect chance of hitting the enemy below within his range and visibility, as well as determining how well you, or the enemy, can mobilize around the battlefield in order to flank the enemy or provide over-watch to your own team as they infiltrate. I can honestly say I was immensely satisfied with how well the squad-tactics mechanic worked in each levels environment, and how well it meshed with the squad-leveling aspect of the game.
As the commander loses men, or opens up a new spot within the squad to fill, he can recruit new soldiers to boost his ranks. Typically, these new recruits start off as rookies with no designation. As they rank up, they will be randomly assigned a squad ability. You then can outfit your squad as you see fit in order to fit your play style. Do you want to have heavy over-watch and covering fire as you advance up to your objective? Throw two snipers into your squad with a heavy gunner for suppressive fire, and have your assault bound forward with relative safety. Each mission objective and environment will decide how to best outfit your squad, each member can be equipped with their own special armor, weapons, and equipment best suited to them, and who should go on what mission.
The most interesting aspect I found of all this as I played through the campaign was how ready you have to be to quickly adapt to not just the missions (often sporadic occurrences), but to loss of your men. I found myself having a favorite sniper who went on every mission and was leveled to the max. He had all the best gear by this point, and was often the deciding factor on most missions if we were to win or lose. Then, without any warning, I found myself flanked, he missed his reaction shot, and my sniper was killed. Just like that he was out of the game forever. I had no other sniper really prepared, and I had to compensate greatly with more heavy elements until another sniper was higher trained. It showed me how quickly your entire gameplay or personal tactics will have to change in order to push through the game (Rest in Peace, Col. Nick Thompson, you brave sonuvabitch).
The game allowed you to somewhat compensate for potential loss with better equipment or revival techniques, but even if a teammate wasn’t killed, there was a long wait time depending on wounds sustained to each member. If every member of your squad took a hit at some point, they may be out of play for 3, 6, or 14 some-odd days. During that time you may have to respond to abduction sites or UFO attacks, and you don’t have any of your go-to squad in play.
All these elements created a surprising amount of fun to an otherwise bland story and meshed with the tactics mechanic in such a way that made the combat continuously challenging, and the game intriguing, that I did not expect. Though there were some frustrations within some other mechanics (like getting critically shot through 3 walls across the map and losing an important member of your team within the first few damn turns), I think it meant the overall goal that the developers at 2k wanted. I’m a little hesitant how Bureau will hold up, considering how cliche and under-written the story here was, but 2k earned my appreciation for XCOM: EU and I look forward to seeing what else they may surprise me with.