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Hands-on with the PC version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown (spoiler: the enemies are aliens)

Hands-on with the PC version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown (spoiler: the enemies are aliens)

You can play XCOM: Enemy Unknown without enabling Ironman mode, but I wouldn’t recommend it. “Play with a single save that is updated automatically as you progress through the game,” the menu explains. “In an Ironman game your choices, and their consequences, are permanent.” There it is. No quick saves, no safety zone, no mulligans. Your soldiers are important in XCOM, as each one gains levels and abilities as they survive from mission to mission. You can name them and customize how they look. They gain nicknames as they survive the turn-based battles against the aliens. You begin to like them, and recognize them on the field. They are your brothers and sisters. I made the mistake of naming a squad after my family, only to see the error of my ways after I made a few wrong moves and watched them get cut down by alien weaponry. After that I decided to go with the names of fictional characters from movies and comic books.

XCOM is friendlier than the original

In a previous interview I was told that the original XCOM titles would seem impenetrable to modern gamers, and this updated version of the game offers a satisfying tutorial to get you up to speed on the controls and how you'll wage war. The game may look complex in screen shots, and during combat you will have many tactical decisions to make, but the first missions do a good job of easing you into the game so you feel comfortable. You’ll learn how to move your soldiers into position, the importance of elevation, staying under cover, and why avoiding explosives is a good move if you want to bring bodies and equipment back to fuel your research into upgraded weapons and equipment. You must deal with base building and an intricate economy that you’ll use to keep the world safe from the aliens, but that’s a big topic that I may save for a later post. Right now let’s focus on the moment-to-moment combat, and why it’s so tense. You have a limited view of the battlefield when you send a team to an abduction sight, and you have to move slowly and deliberately while staying behind cover in order to explore each mission and discover what you’re up against. The more you research new technologies the larger your choices of weapons, including a stun gun that requires you to get way too close to your target to bring a living specimen back to your base. When you decide to attack you’re given a selection of targets within range, and the game provides the odds of hitting each one from your current position. It's a simple numbers game: The better your position, the greater your chances of hitting your target. Each attack is a dice roll, so learning how to place your men and women to maximize their chances of hitting while limiting their exposure is critical. You can also throw grenades, use medkits to regain health, or set your soldiers to overwatch mode, where they attack anything that comes within range automatically. Your soldiers can carry sniper rifles, shotguns, assault rifles, and other forms of nasty ordnance into battle. Each decision in terms of squad loadout, movement, and attack is easy to understand and implement, but you’ll feel the pressure as these decisions pile on and you have to execute your strategy. There is nothing worse than realizing one of your soldiers moved into an enemy’s line of fire and is hurt or, in the worst case scenario, killed. A soldier killed in action has a memorial back at base, there is a record kept of their stats and their time of death, and you lose access to all the time and energy you put into developing that character. The level of responsibility you feel for your crew on the battle field is intense, and in Ironman mode you can’t just reload your game and make another move. Each decision has the possibility of sending a man or woman to their death. You'll spend a significant amount of time watching attacks take place while holding your breath, praying the odds fall in your favor. The PC interface and controls work well, although I would rather have direct control of the camera to look around the battlefield instead of placing the cursor on the edges of the screen to move the view. You can use the mouse wheel to zoom out and get a better view of what's going on, and you can see the grid laid over the screen along with a visual indicator of how far you can move in a single turn. You can either click on each attack or use the number pad. It's always fun to play this sort of game where you get the sense of having many options and much information available, and the system allows you to access that intel with a few clicks. It makes you feel powerful, and competent. That is, until you watch someone take a few rounds to the head and lose your star soldier. That will humble you very quickly.

So how does it feel?

It's hard to describe how this sort of game plays without dropping into mechanical language about the controls or how each turn plays out, but the reality is that all these systems work together to knock you off balance. There is a real sense of threat to each encounter, even if the game allows you to feel powerful and in charge during the strategic stretches of game play that take place inside your base. You're not Mulder or Scully here, you're the one in charge of the shadowy government organization trying to keep order, and you have many resources at your disposal. Once it comes to down the ground skirmishes, however, it's a matter of relying on decisions made with incomplete information. All that power from the base means nothing when you have lives resting on your shoulders. That's the success of XCOM, based on the time I spent with the game, it gives you a sense of the weight of leadership. Losing men and women hurts, especially when you know you can't bring them back. Making a decision in a tactical game becomes much harder when you have a character you named, and you designed, and who has been with you across ten missions and is one of the most powerful soldiers on your squad. Losing that person is going to mean something, and you're going to act accordingly. All this is possible without Ironman mode, but with it enabled you feel like things are at risk through the whole game. I'm not even sure I would describe it as fun, in the same way that the Walking Dead games don't leave you in the best mood. The game is effective, and it successfully evokes the emotions it's trying for. You care about the people who follow your orders, and it's hard to lose them. And you're going to lose them.