Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ten Best of 2012: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Despite my roots as a PC gamer, I never played the original X-COM. In fact, I never have been heavy into strategy games at all. Sure, I played them in the past, but never with any focus, or skill. I played Dune 2 and Outpost during the 1990s, with a hint of Warcraft 2. I bought Star Wars: Rebellion, mostly because it was a Star Wars, having never winning. Even on the easiest difficulty, I never beat that game. About a year after I started playing World of Warcaft, I jumped into Warcraft 3, through it was mostly for narrative as this was right before the Wrath of the Lich King expansion and the Culling of Stratholme dungeon. I tried again later with Star Wars: Empire at War, but even on the easiest difficulty, I couldn’t beat the second mission.

The reason I just recount my history with strategy games is I believe I had a good reason to feel apprehensive about XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Developed by Firaxis, I feared XCOM would have the same difficulty curve as most of the other strategy games I played in the past, along with the deep, hard to understand mechanics that kept me away from the Civilization series.

The thing is, and this is something I’ve heard echoed from others, XCOM feels like it was made for someone who doesn’t play strategy games. Sure, the turn-based aspect of it helps to not feel pressured when making decisions like real-time strategy games, but the long, in-depth tutorial that eases you into the meat of XCOM takes its time to introduce each element. It explains enough for you to think you know what you’re doing, but 45 days later into the campaign, you already feel regret for not building satellites sooner, or using a rocket when you could have captured that sectoid commander.

As if XCOM didn’t already expertly handle mechanics, it also left its narrative open to the player. Being able to customize soldiers led to naming them after friends and family. This is where, for the first time, I felt the impact permadeath could have in a game. Even after carefully moving and placing the support soldier named after a best friend, he dies to an alien grenade lobbed in front of him, blowing his cover. That sense of despair and loss was so great, I often rushed to Facebook, retelling the tales of courage and heroism to my soldier’s real-life counterparts. But with such heavy lows, the highest highs are just as moving. No greater satisfaction comes from your last two solders making it out alive on terror mission after setting up a clutch pick and roll with overwatch and reaction shots to take down five Chryssalids, saving the remaining citizens.

XCOM finds a way to balance decisions made without knowing the full extent of their results, yielding moments of excitement or fear of impending doom. Moving those EMP cannons from the Raven to the Firestorm takes 24 hours, in which a UFO could fly over that country’s airspace, leaving it vulnerable. That sniper might have a 70% chance to hit, but she also has a 30% chance to miss, which could lead to more soldiers dying. It’s a game that truly makes every decision matter. It’s also one of the few games this year that you could easily sink in 30 hours and still fail.

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