What. Just. Happened. Everything was going great. I split the team into three: the first squad stormed the UFO, the second squad covered the rear and I left two rookies guarding the shuttle. Things were going smoothly as the first team calmly dispatched all aliens in their path and moved to the control room. But then the psychic attacks began… One of the rookies guarding the shuttle was suddenly flooded with alien brainwaves and went berserk. He proceeded to shoot the other trooper in the face and run out into alien crossfire. He didn’t last long. When the first team finally made it to the control room they found an alien grenade waiting for them, they all died. Too many people had been lost; I needed to get the rear team back to the shuttle. The Sergeant started to get attacked by alien brainwaves: he panicked, dropped all his weapons, and ran away. The second in command is now getting attacked; he begins to fire a rocket into the rest of the team… What did I do wrong?
This is a common question you will be asking yourself in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. To put it simply, this game is bloody hard. Made in 1994 by legendary turn-based game designer Julian Gollop, XCOM: Enemy Unknown (or XCOM: UFO Defence in the States and Japan) puts you in the near and scary future of…1998. Players must build secret bases all across the world, scanning for UFO activity and shooting the blighters down. If a UFO crashes on land, you must send your elite teams of XCOM operatives to investigate the site and mop up any resistance.
…There is a staggering amount of detail that has been put into this game…
While it all sounds simple enough, the reality couldn’t be so different. There is a staggering amount of detail that has been put into this game. The player can capture aliens, getting different information out of each race and whether they were brought back dead or alive. If the player salvages alien technology and weapons, they can get their super boffins to research them and eventually re-engineer them to work for the XCOM operatives. Every soldier that you recruit has different levels of skill and ability in areas such as bravery and the ability to fight off alien psionics (which my rookies at the shuttle sorely lacked).
I don’t think I have ever seen a game with so many choices and such deep consequences. One wrong move, whether it be the positioning of your base, researching the wrong technology or even a bad manoeuvre on the battlefield, can cost you the game weeks or months down the line. It puts you constantly on edge, having to think carefully about each and every decision. It is a little too easy to fail in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, however, and the thrill of the odds being stacked against you can quickly turn to frustration. It was my third attempt at the game before I managed to get into the third month, something that a simple in-game tutorial could have easily avoided.
…The game is the best alien simulation out there because the aliens actually feel alien…
Make no mistake; this game is not for those who have been pampered with checkpoints and easy difficulty levels over the years. You have to figure everything out for yourself, nearly always the hard way. But for XCOM: Enemy Unknown in particular, it is one of the main reasons why it is so fun. Your battling aliens, your not supposed to know how they behave or what they look like. The first time I killed a zombie and it morphed into another alien I shit my pants. When weird flashes appear around my squad I panic because I don’t know what the hell is going on. The game is the best alien simulation out there because the aliens actually feel alien. You learn at the same pace as your scientists, with every morsel of knowledge they discover being useful to you. Games that make you feel like you’re a part of a team, instead of the lone super rogue, are few and far between these days. XCOM: Enemy Unknown managed to achieve it and then some: making you feel like you’re a small pawn in a bigger picture.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown feels refreshing even now, 18 years after it was first released. The industry and its player base have changed considerably since then, which may cause new players to have teething problems. However, if they stick with it and slog through the astonishingly punishing first attempts, they will find one of the most satisfying tactical games ever created.
Images courtesy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Check out the 2012 remake here: