The turn based strategy RPG is a defiant genre; while classic turn based JRPGs such as the single digit Final Fantasy games and the Dragon Quests have all but been bred out of existence, evolving into more action oriented experiences to appeal more to today’s immediate satisfaction kind of gamer the SRPG (Strategy-Role-Playing-Game) has always stayed very much the same and enjoyed relative success.

With the likes of Advance Wars, Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea being successful on handheld systems for what is very much a niche genre, can a new entry in the well-remembered classic X-COM series bring that back to PCs and consoles?

To be honest, making a new X-COM game after 11 years as a full price title was a risk. These days the brand name is all but forgotten, with those who do remember it in the minority, and with most of its recognition coming from the series oft being sold dirt cheap on Steam. To cut to the chase though it’s a risk that has in every which way paid off. Chances are you’ve already looked at the score heading this page, and I can tell you that it deserves every last point. It’s a shame then that it is still just a very niche title, and one that, despite my wishes to contrary, will probably not have as much success as is deserved.

The Push-Start podcast – essentially the special forces of both the site and XCOM

But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s start back at the basics. XCOM Enemy Unknown (the hyphen has been dropped from this latest instalment causing a somewhat annoying gap in my Steam library between the series) is a turn based strategy RPG, this is to say that your command your squad of soldiers on a grid based battlefield, moving them into position and selecting who, and how, to attack. Depending on the speciality of the soldiers, as well as their special moves, how far they can move, and whether or not they can attack that turn all must be taken into account, as does the battlefield itself.

Rather than just moving character A to grid B to attack character X, the environment must be observed. Is the target behind cover, can I move to a spot on their flank that negates this cover, will that spot then leave one of my flanks vulnerable for a counter attack, can I move someone else to cover this flank, can I take the high ground and wait it out, or do I use my rocket launcher to quickly decimate the wall they’re all hiding behind. Every single move taken in a battle is an exercise in tactics and strategy, and unlike other games I the genre, XCOM succeeds in making it an infinitely cerebral and satisfying military-lite simulation. Granted in the end it all boils down to numbers behind the scenes, but on the surface it’s a near-perfect representation of the art of war. Every choice you make can and will have consequences and you will never feel like they were unfair in any way; everything that happens will always be easily identifiable as a direct consequence of your own personal choice, never as a bad roll of the metaphorical dice.

That’s not to say you won’t reload a save to change the outcome, however, for these consequences are on the severe side of things. If one of your soldiers dies, that’s it. Permadeath. All their skills and stats and levels will be lost, their name forever immortalised as one of those lost in the alien invasion. Should you have named them after people you know (it makes it easier to remember who does what if you project your friends onto the characters I find) losing them in battle can often become an unacceptable outcome, leading to many save files being kept and reloaded until you get a better outcome or simply accept the fact that you’ve lost some of your best men. Unless you’re playing on Ironman mode of course, which has is limited to one save file that restricts you from reloading at the loss of anyone, making every consequence final and permanent.

Cause and effect permeates the game outside of combat as well. In what has been dubbed the “Geoscape”, you have an ant farm like cut away side on view of your base of operations. From here you manage every part of the operation, from ensuring the base has enough power, to excavating new sections of the underground for more facilities, to research and development, to satellites, and so forth. What is researched in the labs is wholly dependent on the items you recover from combat, with corpses being easy to come across but weapon fragments and more valuable items being easily destroyed by the overzealous. After being researched it then falls to the engineers to actually build the new technology, which costs money (all too often in short supply). Essentially, what you end up with is careful consideration and almost micro-management levels of organisation. Not only do you have to manage your own supplies, however, but you also often get requests from other countries, though fortunately this ends in mutual back-scratching and as such often well worth investing in.

The main draw for old fans here, other than it being a new XCOM title, are the updated graphics. The original game, being around the same age as myself, has not aged well. Not only were the graphics often cluttered and confusing, but the UI was nearly indecipherable if you’d forgotten (or never known) what everything was, and the complete lack of any sort of tutorial left new players scaling a nigh-impossible difficulty curve. Every single one of these has been remedied in Enemy Unknown. The tutorial teaches you the basics as well as both some advanced tactics and management without ever feeling like a forced tutorial, the UI is slick and conveys all the information you need clearly , and the graphics, while not going to really push any hardware, are crisp and clean. While the graphics may not make the game, being able to survey the environment for the tactical advantage, as well as quickly and easily see what weapons your soldiers have (even secondary weapons are carried on the person in plain view) it really does add to the overall experience here, but once the fog of war descends, you’ll still find yourself staring at a lot of blacked out areas, rather than just muting the colours and hiding any enemies like various other games in the genre have done. While this is more realistic, it can feel like a slight obstacle in deciding how to proceed in a mission, though that may very well be the point.

Missions aren’t always as simple as killing everything on screen either. Often you’ll be tasked with optional objectives to further your understanding of the enemy, whether this is as difficult simple as capturing live specimens, or rescuing the world populace from shock and awe attacks on major cities. Oftentimes you’ll even be contacted by “The Council” to assit with recovery of high value targets, or research will lead to the discovery of alien bases that need to be assaulted. When these missions appear all depend on how you play the game, adding yet another level of customisation to the proceedings. XCOM, despite being the same game, will be a different experience for everyone who plays it. Already the stories between friends are drastically different, despite essentially being the same.

The general ease of use when it comes to control is fantastic as well. Integrated into the UI are reminders of which button does what, and if you feel so inclined to plug a controller in (or are playing on a console anyway) you’ll be pleased to hear that it translates perfectly, with small changes taking place to make the sticks and limited buttons do everything you need to do with just as much ease as a mouse and keyboard. Personally XCOM sold me on Steam’s big picture mode as a rival to console couch gaming. Plugging your computer into your TV, throwing a gamepad into the mix and enabling Big Picture (and subsequently loading and having a great experience with XCOM from my couch) has pushed me a little more towards believing in an all-digital future.

There are a couple of niggles however. While the tutorial is expansive and fantastic at getting you started, it doesn’t tell you everything important, leaving you to learn by doing. While creating a greater freedom to experiment at first and let you play your own game, it can also lead to your first game being an exercise in futility as funds quickly dry up and countries start leaving the council. When you inevitably start again though you start again with you knowledge from last time, leading to a more effective defence against the alien invasion, and with prior knowledge to upcoming objectives you can prepare for them early on with the proper research and development.

Another minor downside is a pseudo-graphical one. While the graphics themselves are brilliant for the game, showing you everything you need to as long as its in your line of sight, when you enter multi-tiered buildings it can often get confused, leaving you trying to move your squad on the wrong floor or having to switch levels to see through the ceiling before switching back and hoping your selecting the right grid using nothing but silhouettes. Thankfully this only occurs in the tighter grouped spaces, which are few and far between, and with some practice can become little more than an annoyance.

Those are the downsides – nit-picking really. Overall XCOM Enemy Unknown is a glorious return for the franchise, and is quite possibly the current must have SRPG on any system. If only there was a handheld version, because quite frankly if I could play this on the PlayStation Vita I don’t think I would ever stop riding the bus. Addictive gameplay with enough personal customisation of both the characters and story path to make you keep coming back, XCOM is honestly a must have game for armchair tacticians and fans of the series. By the end you’ll come out with stories of terror, of heroism and of insurmountable odds being overcome by your own brilliant manoeuvring, stories that will be unique to everyone else who has played the game. Instantly recognisable but infinitely personal, you’ll gladly become a veteran of this war, no matter whose names may end up on the memorial, lest we forget…



Author

Shaun Greenhaff
Shaun Greenhaff

When he's not at university Shaun can probably be found gaming, its what he grew up doing and that doesn't look to change any time soon. Currently on track for a first class degree in Crime Scene Science its a miracle he even has free time to play games, let alone write about them. Although maybe that's why he has no sleep pattern...