Oi you, get back here. Yes, you. I realise your disdain for turn-based shooters means you’re probably more interested in reading what the Big Brother household had for breakfast than this review of XCOM Enemy Unknown, but you’d be a fool to do so. Like you, I find the plodding pace and fiddly controls normally associated with the genre about as much fun as an alien anal probe, which is why the fact I can’t put XCOM down is so perplexing. So trust me, read the review to the end before you dismiss it based on its mechanics, and then you'll see why many are saying it’s the most surprising hit of 2012.
It is indeed true that half the time you play XCOM will be spent shuffling a squad of six gung-ho elite space warriors against the most evil scum the universe could throw at our lonely little planet. Normally that would be enough to put me into a sleep deep enough that some might mistake it as a state of cryostasis. However, to my surprise I’m absolutely enamoured by the combat here. It plays a bit like chess, but it has giant guns and isn't excruciatingly boring. Moving a troop far means they can’t shoot (unless they've unlocked the ability to do both in a single turn), so you always need to consider each step carefully. The cover system means you also need to figure out exactly where to place your troops. Hint – standing out in the open is a fantastic way to end up in a closed casket.
But these factors are also present in other turn-based strategies, and I’d rather make out with a squid-based lifeform than play them, so what’s different here? A big part of it is the bond I've built with my squad mates. It’s not just that each of my alien-vaporising heroes can be renamed after real life friends, or that I can customise their face, voice and armour. No, these guys feel like real people rather than animated GI Joes because they arrive as pitiful, cowering weaklings who can barely kill a mosquito, let alone a genetically altered organic killing machine from the depths of the infinite. Nurse these weaklings through battle after battle, and as they scratch more kills into the barrel of their laser rifles they'll grow into highly-specialised, effective death dealers. Choosing which skills to unlock as they age is an agonising choice, usually involving a trade-off between offence or defence. Do I unlock the aggressive sniping ability that gives an aiming boon if the target is under 50% health? Or will I use the ability to counter-fire between turns to ensure my sniper can fend off incoming targets?
It’s all very stressful making these decisions, a theme that is repeated through every facet of the game. A single experienced unit can turn the tide of battle, so it’s incredibly painful to watch a trooper you've been nurturing for days get turned into a pile of bleeding meat. With each troop capable of multiple battlefield abilities, controlling all of your troops can get a little stressful as well, but the streamlined interface helps tame what could have been an overwhelmingly complex battlefield simulation. Surprisingly it works better with a controller than a mouse, but things can get quite messy in built up urban areas regardless of which scheme you use. Building walls become invisible when you venture inside, and it can make it very confusing to figure out which floor you should be going to or whether you’re standing next to a door. The combat is also a little buggy at launch; I’ve had squad mates fall off the map entirely, and the forums are filled with other weird insta-deaths.
Luckily there’s a quick save that can bring them back to life, but once I'm familiar with the game I'll be activating the Iron Man mode, which disables quick saving entirely. This could be the first game to make me gush tears of sadness, as I know the medic based on my real life girlfriend will one day meet her demise. That’s another thing – this is the HBO of video games. Your troops will die, and die often.
Adding to the overall stressfulness of everything is the fear of an unseen enemy. Fog of war is pretty standard for the genre, but between turns your troops will sometimes hear strange sounds in the distance, giving you a rough indication of where the bad bugs are hanging out. Start marching your formation towards them and those sneaky aliens will often retreat back into the fog, reappearing on your vulnerable flanks where your troops get no cover bonus. As a result the safest way to play is to use real military techniques – keep your troops close together to support each other with weapon fire, but no so close that a single grenade can ruin their party. Keep half the squad tucked into cover, set to overwatch mode, while the rest leapfrog ahead. Do that and you should be ok, at least until the game throws one of its many curveballs at you.
It could be the Cyberdisk, a robot that lobs cover-destroying objects. Or maybe a Chrysalid will charge your front line, turning your squad’s FNG into a powerful zombie. Whenever something cool like this happens the camera swings down into an action view to watch the events unfold, making the game look more like a third person shooter. It’s a clever way to obliterate the detachment armchair generals often feel when stuck with a top-down view, as they watch the blood and bone from a successful enemy shot. Well, provided the camera doesn't glitch out and present you a close up of a brick instead.
Every mission is random, played out on a massive collection of maps, so you'll never play the exact same scenario twice. They mostly cover urban or forest environments, but there’s plenty of variety in terms of cover placement, day/night time and weather effects. It rarely gets boring as there’s always a new enemy type to kill, weapon to use or ability to master.
Adding a little more variety to the combat is the multiplayer mode, but it’s more of a side dish to the single-player’s feast. With just a handful of maps and very basic modes, we can’t see it being massively popular without a healthy injection of more content. However, it’s a great way to really learn all of the toys of the single-player game.
Those new weapons and skills come from the other half of the game, where you must manage a secret underground military installation, and it’s even more stressful than the combat. You need to continually build new facilities to increase the number of scientist and engineers you have, which in turn allows you to research and build new ways of vaporising non-humans. Fail to build enough high-tech weaponry and your squad will be wiped out in short order. However, unlike other management sims, resources are incredibly hard to come by, and many of them can only be collected by successful combat missions. Just to make you really stressed, you also need to keep the entire world happy. Well, most of it. If you don’t pay enough attention to other countries, be it via completing successful missions (where you can lose valuable squadmates) or setting up satellite surveillance networks (which cost big bucks) or establishing air cover with interceptors (even more big bucks), they'll freak out. If they reach ultimate freak out levels of panic, they'll quit the XCOM council, taking their monthly revenue contributions with them. If eight nations leave the council, it’s game over.
The result is one giant plate spinning competition. You've always got new missions to achieve or research to do, but never enough time or resources to do them all. Instead you’re forced to make the tough decisions, and it’s this element of responsibility that is at the twin green beating hearts of XCOM. As commander of the Earth you simply can’t save all of the people, all of the time. Whether it’s letting China succumb to public panic as you divert resources to cover the American continent, or sending in a rookie to soak up damage on a suicide run so that your veterans don't die, XCOM will give you a scary appreciation of the harsh realities of being a leader in a time of crisis.