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XCOM: Enemy Unknown offers just as many choices in your base as it does on the battlefield

XCOM: Enemy Unknown offers just as many choices in your base as it does on the battlefield

The world needs more turn-based strategy games, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown may be the genre’s best chance at breaking back into the mainstream. This is a game with an impressive history in the world of gaming, created by Firaxis, with a control scheme that works well on both consoles and the PC. The last story we ran about the game focused on the turn-based game play itself, and now it’s time to explore the XCOM base and discuss the higher level strategy.

The men in black

It’s your job to protect the world from the aliens, and this is your base of operations. The default view looks like the cross-section of an ant colony, and you can look around the base and click on different rooms to explore them, or use the list of room on the upper right hand corner of the screen. It takes a few minutes to learn where everything is, but the game does a good job of walking you through how to use your base. The first few hours of the game certainly funnel you down a few paths. You’ll be told when to use your recovered bodies and alien weapons to research certain things in order to progress the story, but outside of those story-based requirements you’re free to choose what weapons and upgrades to research, you’ll be able to customize your soldiers and their loadouts, and even expand your base with extra rooms and options. You’ll be scanning the globe looking for alien activity, and those missions will give you money, engineers, and scientists to use in your base. There is also strategy to which missions you decide to take. You decrease the panic level in the location of each mission you successfully execute, but that means the panic level rises in the countries you ignore. You can also launch satellites to keep track of different parts of the world, and allocate interceptors to different countries to keep their skies safe. It’s a delicate game of choosing your battles while trying to keep order in as many places as possible. If the panic level gets too high, countries may drop out of the XCOM initiative. If you lose too many, you lose the game. The more countries you keep safe, the higher your funding, and the easier your path to dominance.

You have to juggle

You are in control of an agency that has been spread way too thin. You never have enough money to do all the things you’d like to do, there are always more alien attacks than you can handle, and you never know what you’ll see in each mission. You’ll spend much time in your base agonizing over what projects deserve the most research, which weapons or armor you should focus on to keep your troops safe, and you’ll look at your soldiers in order to balance sending in powerful, high-level soldiers with the challenge of training new recruits to replace those you’ve lost in battle. Your base isn’t static. You can look at a simple cross-section of your underground layer and excavate new sections to beef up your power supply, or add expansions that allow you to keep more satellites in the sky. You can add bonuses to your production by linking multiple rooms of the same type; keeping a row of power plants together will allow you to produce more power than the same amount that are spread around your base, for example. Every 30 days the shadowy council gives you an update on your progress and rewards you with your monthly budget, but you’ll need to take missions with monetary rewards and keep as much of the globe as calm as possible so they don’t leave and take their funding with them. The longer I dug in, the more I realized there was an honest to goodness economy at play here, and keeping your funds and projects managed. Money and personnel are only two aspects of your juggling act however, as time also plays a part. A soldier is removed from active duty if he takes damage that isn't healed before the end of each mission, and different research projects take different amounts of time. Do you want to finish something sooner in order to take a new weapon into the next battle, or do you tie up your labs for two weeks in order to play with something a little more powerful? Scanning the world for missions passes the majority of your time, but the passage of time pauses whenever a soldier is returned to active duty or a research project finishes, allowing you to adjust where your resources are going. The council will also pop in every now and again to ask for your help, and you're free to turn down those missions… but you'll miss out on the rewards as well. XCOM: Enemy Unknown allows you to make meaningful decisions throughout the game, even if the experience does feel much more directed in the opening hours. The game gives you many options when it comes to trying to contain the alien threat, but then it makes sure that threat is always a little more than you can handle. This creates a delightful sense of creeping tension through the game, especially as conflicts begin to escalate. You're not going to be able to survive unless you learn to effectively use your base, and all the gadgets and weapons in the world won't save you unless you have a good mind for tactics on the ground. The two types of game play work well together, and the game wouldn't be nearly as gripping without one or the other. There is nothing like limping home with soldiers that barely survived an ambush, only to have your lead scientist chide you for using explosives and destroying specimens. You can really feel the care and worry over the well-being of the soldiers in those moments. There is a Steam demo of XCOM available now, go give it a shot!