Backlog is a series where we visit (or revisit) older games to see how they hold up after release.
To kick off the new year I started playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a tactical strategy game from Firaxis Games, best known for developing the Civilization series. In XCOM, you control a squad of 4-6 military units in turn-based combat as you repel a global alien invasion, while also managing your base to ensure you have efficient resources to deal with the threat.
A remake of the classic 1994 strategy UFO: Enemy Unknown and retaining many of the same features, I was initially drawn to this game from playing through Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle last year on the Nintendo Switch, which uses a similar turn-based approach to its combat. From the beginning, the game eases you into each feature and provides a lot of variety in how you can approach each mission. You’ll be shown around XCOM base (which is short for Extraterrestrial Combat Unit) and introduced to different departments such as the research facility, engineering, and the barracks. Each of these locations are crucial to progressing in XCOM, so you can research new technologies, craft better equipment, and train each soldier to ensure they are better equipped for the missions ahead. Once you’ve finished with that, you are taken to mission control where you will have to scan for global alien activity. Once the scanner picks something up, it’s time to mobilise the soldiers.
You can select a squad of up to four soldiers – with the option of upgrading to six members later on – and each unit belongs to one of four classes. The Assault deals in close-quarters combat. The Heavy uses light machine guns and rocket launchers to inflict damage. The Support operates as a medic while also providing bonuses to other friendly soldiers, and the Sniper deals immense damage from afar and can also act as a reconnaissance unit. Not only do these units have their own strengths and weaknesses, but you must also think carefully when you train them. As each soldier gains experience points, they’ll be able to level up and gain new abilities. However, each tier – with the exception of two – offer a choice between two abilities, making it crucial that you select each one carefully. For example, the Support can either gain healing abilities or provide combat bonuses to the other soldiers, or gain a mixture of the two. This feature meant that I had to ensure I was levelling my soldiers efficiently and carefully.
XCOM also includes a feature known as permadeath. This is not uncommon to strategy games – it’s a shame to lose whole armies in Civilization – but it also finds its roots in roguelikes and dungeon crawlers such as NetHack, Rogue and Angband where characters that are killed are permanently erased from the game. Should a unit get killed on the battlefield – unless a medic can’t revive them in time – they’re gone for good. They’ll just be another casualty of war. Back in XCOM base, you can find a memorial wall that lists all of your fallen allies that you’ve lost over the campaign, accompanied by solemn bagpipes playing in the background. This is the thing that gives XCOM that emotional tug. Despite the soldiers having no unique personalities or character traits of their own, you can get really attached to them. After spending several missions with a particular character, levelling them up, handing them strong gear, and then seeing them brutally murdered by an alien provokes an emotional response in you, almost like losing a friend.
The missions themselves are simple, a combination of pre-built environments and randomly placed enemies. The RNG (random number generator) doesn’t stop there, as many of your attacks against these foes are all down to this system. Your assault may only have a 35% chance to hit the enemy, but if it does, there are additional factors such as how much damage the shot does, if a critical hit applies, and if the enemy will become panicked and act unpredictably as a result of being shot. This is a root of the cause to how many players feel that XCOM is an “unfair” game. Each move you make is a gamble, that can either yield positive results or screw you over even further. To many players, the random number god only wants to see you suffer.
There are even ways to use the turn-based nature of the gameplay to exploit enemy strengths. For example, a berserker enemy has the ability to move when it is hit, even during the player’s turn. A sniper may be able to take advantage of this by shooting the berserker to bring it closer to the team, allowing each soldier a better chance of killing it. But even this comes with a gamble, as every hit that doesn’t have a 100% hit chance will leave you at risk. Altogether, you can prepare as much as you can for a mission in XCOM, but the end result will heavily be influenced by RNG.
When it comes down to it, XCOM: Enemy Unknown proves that preparation and skill is still important in RNG-based gameplay. If a move doesn’t go entirely in your favour, it’s up to you to ensure the next move doesn’t result in further losses. You’re not good at XCOM because you never lose at it, but rather because you’re efficient at dealing with whatever cards you’re dealt.
Tested on PC
Also available on Xbox 360, PS3, Vita, Mobile
Developer Firaxis Games
Publisher 2K Games