XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a modern retelling

I’d only briefly played a few of the XCOM games, many years after they were released, and dismissed them pretty quickly as not my type of game. I picked up the new one after hearing so many good things about it and enjoying the demo, and it immediately hooked me. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an old fashioned game that feels very modern, and I love how successful it’s being for doing so.

How odd is it that one of 2012’s best games - on consoles, even - is a turn based strategy? Aside from standouts like Civilization Revolution, this is an area seemingly trod almost exclusively by Eastern-European WW2 combat simulators on PC. With a fresh setting and an eye for refinement over complexity Firaxis has made a game that even someone as averse to the genre as myself can enjoy.

One interesting aspect, rarely seen anymore except in roguelikes, is that the game is perfectly willing to let players lose. If you make poor decisions on the overworld, defending the wrong countries against alien invasions or investing your money poorly, you’re going to have a hard time later. If you make a couple wrong moves during a battle you’ll find your entire squad wiped, leaving you to frantically hire rookie soldiers while countries one-by-one pull funding from the program - you might just be screwed so bad that you just have to start the game over again. This amount of risk brings a lot of tension and weight to decisions, something many would expect would be lacking in a turn based game.

Enemy Unknown has a subtle but strong aesthetic design, with soldiers having a miniature model-like quality to them, and enemy aliens clearly inspired by 50s-era designs but without seeming retro. I especially liked the conversations with advisors in the base - the lead engineer examines amoral half-cyborg aliens and ponders our own relationship to technology as we scavenge what we can from our enemies to turn upon them.

The game itself feels almost like a board game, and it’s simple enough that I could almost see it being played as one I suspect. There are some odd visual issues with squad members or enemies getting hit through geometry, but by accepting the visuals as a representation of the underlying game I shrugged these rare occasions off. Carefully planning a route through an alien-filled series of warehouses and escaping unscathed is almost as satisfying as when the aliens get the drop on you and you have to react to them.

Overall, I can’t emphasise how glad I am to see a pretty old style of game modernised and (I hope) seeing a lot of success. Here’s hoping others look to Firaxis for inspiration.