Here’s a revelation for you: I actually bought XCOM: Enemy Unknown on the day it came out. I can’t remember the last time I paid full whack for a game on its actual release date, but I suspect it was sometime back in the dim and distant days of the Dreamcast, so this should indicate just how eager I was to get my hands on the XCOM reboot. I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint.
It feels a bit weird to be reviewing a game that’s only just come out – it seems to go against the whole ethos of A Most Agreeable Pastime, which has stoically remained somewhat off the gaming pulse since its inception. The last thing I want people to think is that we’re on trend, or some other such ghastly neologism. At least I can take solace from the fact that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a remake of a game from 1994, so in that sense we’re still happily behind-the-times.
I never actually played the original game (UFO: Enemy Unknown, or X-COM: UFO Defense as it was monikered in the States), but I remember my old games blogger chum Ian spent hours playing it at university, so I was intrigued to play the reboot and see what all the fuss is about. More importantly though, I completely adored Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (still my favourite 3DS game), which came from the mind of XCOM‘s original creator, Julian Gollop. Shadow Wars‘ only failing was in its relative simplicity, and although this perfectly suited a game designed to be played on the go, I was raring to get my teeth into the splendid complexity of the XCOM reboot.
The game does a wonderful job of easing you into its world: I never felt confused or unsure what to do next, which is an impressive feat when you consider how complicated the game can get. The controls are spot on too, and at no point did I find myself wishing for a mouse and keyboard instead of a gamepad (in fact, one journalist found he preferred to play the PC version with an Xbox pad). However, perhaps the game’s finest achievement is in its pacing – the tension gradually builds as more and more UFOs start attacking, and your resources become more and more stretched as you do your best to fight off the alien invasion. You’re constantly under pressure to make game-changing decisions, such as whether to invest money in research or in buying new equipment, or whether to gamble your men’s lives on supressing a particularly difficult but politically sensitive terror attack. The enormous level of control you have provides a sense of responsibility that’s rarely seen in video games, and it leads to some exhilariting moments as your risky decisions pay off – or lead to disaster.
Intriguingly, the points where it all goes horribly wrong are often some of the most memorable moments of the game. I remember at one point I led an assault on a Battleship-class UFO only to find myself running out of health packs halfway through and quickly being overwhelmed after underestimating the strength of the enemy forces. I attempted to struggle on to the end, but my men began dropping like flies, so my only option was to reload a previous save and hot-foot it back to the Skyranger in a Dunkirk-style all-out retreat. The aliens were surprisingly canny though, and at one point a Sectopod attempted to cut off my retreat path, leading to some heart-in-mouth moments as it targeted my beleagured troops. First shot: my ace sniper ‘Shadow’ Navarro is cut down to just two health points. Hang in there Shadow! Second shot: it’s lining up on my plucky rookie – a direct hit and she’s done for… But it’s a miss, phew! Now what’s my next move? Do I dash both of them towards the ship and hope that they’re out of range on the next turn? Or do I move them to a strategic firing position and try to take out the Sectopod? Or perhaps I should send in my Support troop with a smoke grenade to cover their retreat?
It’s the way the game creates little stories like this that makes it so compelling, and the stories are all the more rewarding because of the attachment you build up with your troops. Each soldier is fully customizable, and as they gain experience they move up the promotion ladder, unlocking various perks and stat improvements as they go. More importantly though, after they’ve served in a few missions they receive a nickname, and it’s these names that really stick in your mind: you can’t help but giving these little cartoon cut-outs personalities of their own, which makes it all the more upsetting when they ultimately perish. I was utterly distraught when ‘Boom Boom’ Martinez was cut down in the final mission after serving with me from the very beginning – in the end though, the squad had to press on without him for the sake of the mission. It was a hard decision, but it’s what he would have wanted.
These stories are helped by the fact that the aliens show a surprising degree of intelligence, and will try to flank you at every opportunity. At one point I threw my men forwards to attack a group of Mutons during a UFO assault, then watched in horror as a Chrysalid sneaked around the back to pop up out of nowhere before eviscerating one of my best soldiers. “Clever girl,” I thought. Then there was another occasion when I’d eliminated all but two aliens on a UFO, a Berserker and a Muton. Outnumbered 6 to 2, they fled into the innards of the ship and disappeared. I pursued them, only to discover they’d laid an ambush in cover, resulting in the deaths of two men before I had a chance to do anything. This all makes for a thrilling game, despite the seemingly dull emphasis on tactics and resource management. The outcome of the alien invasion is constantly on a knife-edge – one wrong decision and it could be curtains for the human race.
As I mention in the title of this post, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is easily my game of the year so far – it really deserves to sell a gazillion copies, and I was pleased to see that it’s been a firm fixture in the top ten for the past couple of weeks, as it could all too easily have slipped into obscurity in the face of the usual rush of triple A pre-Christmas releases. Buy this game now, it really is ruddy brilliant.
Perhaps the only other game that could be my contender for Game of the Year is Dishonored [sic], which also looks very good indeed. However, in the time-honoured tradition of A Most Agreeable Pastime, I expect I will just wait for a few months until it comes down in price, buy it for a tenner and then plonk it on The Mantelpiece for a couple of years before I get round to playing it. After all, we don’t want to get too contemporary.
[Penned in admiration by the doggedly anachronous Lucius Merriweather.]