Most people’s eyes tend to glaze over at the mere thought of turn-based strategy games. Take your turn. Wait for the enemy. Move your guys around. Attack. Wait. Yawn. The very nature of how they’re played doesn’t exactly give an image of high-octane thrills and excitement. Couple that with micromanaging resources, troop directions, and complex system layered on top of complex system, and you have a recipe for a game that only the most ardent of spreadsheet fans will enjoy. So you can imagine my surprise that, after booting up Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I was treated to one of the most white-knuckle, tense, and thrilling games I’ve played this year.
The setup is simple: aliens have invaded Earth, and are wreaking havoc across the entire globe, blowing up buildings, abducting people; you know, typical alien stuff. The nations of Earth have gathered their resources to create the “XCOM Project,” a super-secret underground base tasked with defending humanity from attack, salvaging any technology and resources available, and studying the alien menace. There’s a general story here, which provides some goals and milestones to complete that will further advance the narrative arc, but it never gets much deeper than just doing anything you can to defeat the aliens. Even though the general story beats are the same, the rest of the game is randomized, from what missions pop up, to your beginning squad, to your base layout. Map layouts aren’t completely randomized (level design is not procedurally generated so the design is always the same each time you play on a particular map), but enemy placement is, so you’ll always find yourself on your toes.
In order to send these aliens packing, you’ll spend most of your time in two places: either in the field out on a mission, or back at your base, building facilities to help with general research and development functions, researching technologies to increase your battle readiness, monitoring your status with the rest of the globe, and waiting for alien activity. Everything you do comes with a time delay. Building a satellite? That’ll take twenty days. Ordering more troops? They’ll show up in about five. Each of these actions require you to advance time, and while waiting for building and research to complete, increasingly worse things happen on the globe, forcing you to decide which country you’ll go and save from invasion.
This becomes the overarching theme for the entire game: you cannot save everyone. While three invasions may be occurring across the globe, you can only take one of them, forcing you to decide which country is worth saving. Do you save Japan because they’ll offer you extra scientists for doing so? Do you save Canada because you’re strapped for cash and they’ll send you a few hundred bucks to rescue them? Or do you save Nigeria, not because they have anything you need, but because their Panic rating is getting close to five stars, which will cause them to leave the alliance and withdraw all of their support and funding from the project? You will never have enough time, money, or resources to complete every project, help every country, or build every upgrade, so you must decide whether you want to spend your money and resources on things like Interceptors to defend countries from UFO attacks, or if you want to take that money and invest it into gear for your troops, making them hardier and more effective in battle. XCOM: Enemy Unknown forces you at every turn to make incredibly hard decisions that you have to live with throughout the course of the game.
Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the mechanics, just when you think you’ve got good enough equipment, just when you start to feel complacent, XCOM throws you a curveball, introducing new bad guys and mission objectives to keep you on your toes. These guys are nasty too, and will absolutely ruin your day if you’re not careful. One particular example are the chryssalids. These guys look like they’re straight out of Starship Troopers, have huge movement range, and can kill your guys in one stab of their razor-sharp claws. If you think that’s bad, the troops that they kill come back to life after a few turns as mindless zombies, and begin attacking you. Oh, and if you don’t kill the zombie quick enough, another chryssalid will burst out of his chest, ready to eviscerate another one of your squad members. The game is constantly taunting you, daring you to take down yet another seemingly insurmountable obstacle, which makes scraping out a victory from seeming defeat that much more glorious.
There is a lot to chew on during a campaign of Enemy Unknown, and each run-through will take around 20-30 hours. Because of how random the game is, along with multiple difficulty levels, and the inclusion of an Ironman mode — which limits you to one save file per game, autosaving after every turn, forcing you to live with every single decision you make — there are a ton of reasons to jump into another game after finishing the first run through. There’s even a multiplayer mode that, while interesting, doesn’t do much more than pit two sides in tactical combat against each other, dropping the meta-game altogether. Over all, Enemy Unknown combines Civilization’s board game-like endless replayability mentality with the trappings of a story-based single player game, and it pulls the combination off almost flawlessly.
Firaxis has taken the lessons they’ve learned from Civilization Revolution and have streamlined the entire XCOM experience to make it more accessible and engaging than ever before. While die-hard purists may balk at certain changes, omissions, or a general decrease in overall complexity, they’d be missing the point. By stripping away all of the excessive micro-management and over-reliance of numbers and statistics most turn-based strategy games tend to fall back on, Enemy Unknown focuses more on the moment to moment decisions, giving each choice gravity, and letting you feel the consequences of every single wrong step. This is the Demons’ Souls of 2012: a difficult, unrelenting, unforgiving gamer’s game, one which rewards learning from failure and overcoming impossible odds. Even if you don’t like strategy games, if you love action games and have an open enough mind to try out something a bit slower-paced, you will be rewarded with one of the most thrilling, thought-provoking, and heart-pounding games of the year.