If you’ve been listening to the Pixel Apocalypse Podcast (and you should be, you cheeky monkey), you’ll know that both Nathan and I have been spending a chunk of our gaming time on XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Released in October of 2012, XCOM is a tactical, squad-based real-time-strategy (RTS) experience. At its core, you are the commander of an elite group of special forces tasked with defending the planet from alien invaders. You hire, equip, and train soldiers using a breadth of techniques and implements found through intense research and engineering. Then you put them in the field and send them up against a wide variety of extraterrestrial foes.
Combat is set on an invisible grid, with line of fire designated as a “hit percentage.” Your XCOM units will have a turn of their own, followed up by a turn of alien activity (which you may or not be able to see, depending on it there are enemies in your field of vision.) Then you get to shoot the hell out of aliens. Yes. It’s supa-fun. (Aliens, of course, are in the top three of video game enemy types, alongside zombies and Nazis.)
If you don’t know it, this game is DEEP, yo. It’s a micro-manager’s wet dream. You can build these troopers from the ground up, changing their randomly generated name and giving them a look all their own from a relatively diverse pool of visual options. And if you add the Elite Solider Pack DLC, you can choose different armor skins and go crazy selecting everyone’s ARMOR COLOR. Do you want to color-code all your different unit classes? How about slapping your snipers in jet-powered Archangel armor so they can fly high above the battlefield? Should your support trooper be more focused on suppression and smoke grenades in their skill tree or do they need to be a better field medic? And that’s just some of the options for the soldiers.
Everything is manageable in XCOM. You build a base, adding new facilities and structures as they become available/are necessary. Countries across the globe are protected by installing satellite coverage and launching air attacks against alien craft with your manufactured jet fighters. Valuable resources are procured and utilized in research and construction. This ranges from corpses for alien autopsies to weapon fragments used in producing a new laser rifle. It just doesn’t end. And you don’t want it to.
You’ll become unbelievably attached to your troops as they each rise up the ranks from rookie to Colonel, so when they die (and they will), it’s like a kick to the Commanding Officer Junk. So as a suggestion: save often. You can do it almost anywhere, including in the middle of combat itself. Trust me; it’ll be worth it to be able to avoid heavy losses early in the game, when your soldiers are weak and susceptible to one-shot kills.
The interface is well-designed and doesn’t go overly crazy in its appearance. You’ll always know what a priority is or what your next objective will be, in addition to a handy calendar detailing upcoming events/completions. If you get lost along the way, you clearly didn’t undergo the tutorial missions. It might be lengthy, but you’ll come out of it feeling capable, even versus the sheer scope of the game in front of you.
Unfortunately, the game is not without its flaws, especially on the PS3 version (which I spent my time on). It can be sluggish during combat, sometimes stalling out for anywhere between a few seconds to (rarely) over a minute while the aliens take their turn. And then it occasionally will just freeze altogether. Or it might not freeze at all, instead choosing to render your controller completely useless. (That one is particularly aggravating, but thankfully it only happened to me once.) Texture pop-in can be found in almost any cut-scene. Perhaps your sniper will mis-aim and fire their rifle directly to their right, only to strike the sectoid found directly to the front? Sure, why not. As long as I still hit them, I don’t care. None of the glitches have been game-breaking in the slightest, only minor annoyances.
In terms of the gameplay, I have only a few gripes. Why do the aliens get a reaction move immediately after I spot them? The game does little to encourage stealthy strategy for your troops, instead opting for “fairness” on the side of the aliens. But that doesn’t stop them from running away and hiding while you search the entire map for them. (I did this once. Took me twenty minutes to find the jerk.) Also, lesser enemies practically disappear as the game progresses, meaning items that require their corpses are left by the wayside. Meh.
Regardless of the few faults I found along the way, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic addition to the ranks of RTS titles on the market. Its seemingly-intense war resource system is approachable and begs to be mastered. Despite the lack of a true plot, it doesn’t fail to keep the player invested. So go on, lose yourself in the planetary war-game that is XCOM. The human race needs you.