I’ve lost video game troops before. I’ve sent virtual men bravely to their digital deaths. In StarCraft, in Company of Heroes; in Warcraft and Civilization, I’ve sent heroic men and women to the front lines, never to return. Sometimes I feel a pang at an unnecessary loss, but most video game troops are just numbers to me.
I spent this past weekend playing an early press build of Friaxis’ upcoming XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and let me tell you: XCOM is back, and it is brilliant. You will send your soldiers into battle. You will direct them as best you can. But they’re much more than numbers, and they will die, and you will feel it.
Kate already spent a good long while playing the Xbox 360 version of the game, so for a detailed look at what it’s all about, head over and read that article. There’s also a demo of the game on Steam, so you can check out the first few levels. Though the thing that really makes XCOM hum is the longer game, as I’ll explain here.
I have many memories of the original X-Com. (You can tell they’re different because of the hyphen, see.) Getting home from school, grabbing a blue-foil-wrapped Rice Krispie treat and bounding down the stairs, firing up the game and getting lost in a hopeless battle against an alien invasion. What memories I have, however, have been diluted over time — I played Terror From The Deep quite a bit, but lost interest — it was just so difficult! I missed the later games, but was sad to see their generally dismal reception, and to acquiesce to the notion that the franchise had run out of gas.
I’ve been shocked at just how thoroughly the new game captures the vibe and flow of the original XCOM, and how easily it undoes the missteps of the later games. The isometric viewpoint, the tense turn-based encounters, the despair at realising how outgunned and often outflanked you are, the dread of losing one of your favourite troops — it’s all there. The story is told straight, but with good writing, great music, and a good sense of desperation that makes every moment spent in the world of XCOM tense and engaging. And base-management, with its anthill-display navigation, is a triumph — I love to see the Unreal engine used for things other than first-person shooters, because it can make stuff like the home base look so cool.
XCOM controls very well on PC, exactly as promised. The PC version does not feel like a console port — in fact, it feels like a PC-exclusive title, and while I can imagine it playing just fine on a console, the PC will absolutely be the way to go, and not just because of the (unconfirmed and hinted at by lead designer Jake Solomon but likely) support of mods.
Two things set XCOM apart from just everything I’ve played in recent memory. The personalised, killable troops, and the genuinely unsettling, hidden enemy.
On that first one: much has already been made about the fact that your troops, each of which has a unique identity and rank, can be killed permanently in battle. But experiencing it in the heart of the game is something entirely different.
I grew attached to characters in the original XCOM, and was always sad to see them go down, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown takes this to a new level. I’ve lost a couple of soldiers to whom I’d become attached, and it never gets easier. If you play in “Ironman” mode, you can’t undo a death by loading a save — for my part, I didn’t want to undo one anyway, because it would have undercut the excitement. As you learn the hard way at the very start of the game, anyone can die — it’s your duty to get the job done and get as many out alive as you can.
It is amazing how high this stakes feel because of this simple design decision. On a recent mission, a fast-moving enemy popped around behind my troops, out-flanking my Chinese sniper Jia Li Hu (seen above as a low-ranking rookie) and placing her right in the line of fire. Dread flushed through the pit of my stomach — she was hosed, and it was going to take some real guts and luck to save her.
I’m playing the game on normal difficulty, but this kind of occurrence makes the game feel much harder than it really is. Sure, I may lose a soldier or two, but the enemies will lose seven or 10, and I’ll still win the day. Acceptable losses, no? I’ve never minded losing troops in StarCraft… but then, the troops in StarCraft didn’t have names, faces, and in the case of Vasily “Chops” Vinogradov, a nickname. If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, you can even rename your squad after your friends. Sorry Jason! Stephen was supposed to be covering you but dropped the ball.
That permanence carries over from the battlefield into the command centre — managing the invasion is a constant feat of resource balancing. Countries will call to you for help, and you will never have enough resources to help everyone. If too many countries panic and withdraw from the alliance, it’s game over, man.
All of this makes the stakes feel higher than in any game I’ve played in recent memory save perhaps Dark Souls. It feels almost exactly how I remember the original X-Com feeling, even though I have a feeling that game might not hold up so well all these years later. And with all this great framework in place, the developers capitalise on that tension and on your fear by really embracing the title of their game: Enemy Unknown.
The unknown enemy drive much of the tension and excitement of XCOM. Who are these beings, and what do they want with us? You meet with stressed (but well voice-acted, interesting) engineers and scientists, who are trying to find you answers. And every time you go into the field, you’re going into the dark of the unknown. Every mission I’ve played in XCOM begins with my squad deploying into a disaster scene. A crashed UFO, the scene of an abduction, some other disturbance. Debris burns and smoke pours out of buildings, but not a living being is in sight. It’s quiet… too quiet.
So many alien invasion movies have that famous scene, where the troops silently move through the wreckage of an alien attack… they’re in perfect squad formation, moving up, trying to see what they see. Something chitters from the darkness, but they can’t see what. “There’s something out there,” one of them says… and them BAM! The aliens attack.
At the start of every mission in XCOM, you can cut the tension with a knife. You stack your team up and move through cover, hoping that you don’t stumble upon a group of enemies unprepared. And when the fighting does break out, you better think on your toes — you’ll need to flank, suppress, and flush out enemies, and it’ll take bold and sometimes risky moves to do it.
On a recent mission, an alien was suppressing my sniper with a constant barrage of fire. “Chops,” who had been injured in an earlier firefight, had made his way through a downed ship and was behind cover, close enough to make a charge but far enough away that he couldn’t take the shot without moving. Without hesitation, I sent him straight in to the fray, setting him up just below the firing enemy. With a single shot, he laid the E.T. out — victory! But it easily could have gone another way.
What if an unseen enemy had been covering on overwatch? What if he had missed? He would have been wide open, and my longstanding squad leader and hero would have died. But still you make these choices, and while you feel a twinge of fear and duty, you don’t feel hesitation — this is what must be done. That alien isn’t going to shoot itself, and heroes aren’t born out of inaction.
So yes, this is all just based on preview code. I haven’t finished the game, and I can’t finish it on this preview code. Luke will be providing a full review in a couple of weeks. There are still some rough edges, some animations that don’t quite work, and a bit of jank to the way it looks overall. But still: This game is very, very strong.
By all means, give the demo a go. It just gets better from there. This past weekend, like a flying saucer crashing through the atmosphere, XCOM: Enemy Unknown became one of my most anticipated games of the year.