Despite having lived through the seemingly horrific injustice or the failure in life that is associated with those who can say the phrase ‘I’ve never played Advance Wars’, I can honestly say XCOM: Enemy Unknown and I are getting along just fine, despite a few of XCOM‘s personal problems. While I’ve never been particularly interested in turn-based strategy games that didn’t involve stupidly expensive plastic miniatures, XCOM took me by surprise. Taking turns hasn’t made the game feel any slower, playing out as quickly and fluidly as an RTS; the action feel just as explosive no matter how long you take to made a decision, and the characters are so bereft of any redeeming humanistic qualities that you can easily pour your own backstory into them.
XCOM has a plot of sorts, and it goes a little something like this: There are aliens! Let’s shoot them! Let’s test them! Let’s interrogate them! And so on and so forth, playing out like Independence Day only without the strength of Will Smith’s bad-arse attitude to pull you along. The story isn’t it place to give the player any real sense of narrative, rather aiming to give players a series of goals that they’ll need to accomplish so as to properly advance through the campaign.
In-between obeying the simple edicts given by American General TM (parts sold separately) and Generic and Easily Identifiable Eastern European Scientists on what they’d like done next to the alien menace, the player has a lot to do. Like an incredibly squashed Total War, players in XCOM will have to decide what research they want to undertake, what defences and facilities they want to build, as well as choose what missions to take in order to protect what part of the world. Each part of the world has a bar to let you know how panicked they are about the invasion, and how pissed off at you they are every time you ignore their plight. Mission rewards depend on the mission you undertake, and can range between getting engineers, money, soldiers, scientists or equipment.
Without the visualisation of a world map or any kind of interaction with representatives from different places in the world, you feel both disconnected and connected to the events happening. During my campaigns, I found myself constantly slipping in and out of the role of playing an actual commander looking to help those I could, to a gamer that just wanted to get the best god damn weapons I could get my hands on. Needless to say, both roles were fun, but without the option of some kind of interaction, there’s no real feeling like there’s anything at stake.
This changes during the missions, where your small team of soldiers, as hollow and customisable as they are, become like family to you. XCOM doesn’t care how much time and effort you put into these guys, and you’ll find yourself losing personnel, and hours of training, mission after mission. In some ways, that’s a harsh realisation of war, in others, it’s just freaking annoying game design. Each of your troops gets a turn in which they can move, and then do an action, or perform a dash move. Sometimes, you’ll double-click somewhere accidentally, and the soldier will move into a completely random place, and you’ll sit there like a dumbarse trying to figure out what the hell just happened. Or, maybe you’ll double-click the ‘fire’ icon to fire, and it won’t register, so you go to double-click ‘1’ as a shortcut, and you accidentally graze ‘2’, and it will reload or shit itself completely instead.
I have no idea if this problem is just with me, but even if it is, holy hell it’s annoying. Considering how fast and smooth the game is when that kind of stuff isn’t happening, being unable to properly control your troops feels jarring, and frustrating, because there is no room to make mistakes in this game. Speaking of mistakes, I still can’t wrap my head around some of the shooting statistics. When going to fire on enemies or being fired on by enemies, a percentage indicator will come up showing you the chances of you hitting. Sometimes it seems perfectly reasonable, and other times you’d think that Stephen Hawking had come by and decided he would alter the physics of the universe so you’d miss a point-blank shot. On the other hand, I managed to hit an enemy that was on a different side of a wall because, hey, with a 80% chance to brain them, I wasn’t going to pass that up.
The things about XCOM is that it has about 1000 layers of complexity and choice that a player like me, still very new to this kind of game, hasn’t been able to grasp properly. Even on easy mode, the game didn’t have any kind of opportunity for me to simply brainlessly charge through, which is both good and bad. Good, because encouraging people to think is never bad, and bad because sometimes it’s good to let people win in order to learn.
When the game works smoothly and you understand why things went down as they went down, XCOM is an amazingly rewarding game. XCOM wants you to challenge yourself, make your own story and your own decisions, to fail and succeed or to put as much investment and emotion into the game as you want.
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