“XCOM Enemy Unknown:” Lady Luck Knows no Mercy

The leaves of a thousand year old oak tree rustle in the wind, causing him to press his back more firmly against the small boulder he has taken refuge behind. It’s common knowledge that the forest is a dangerous place to be during certain times of the day. Turns out that a UFO landing is indeed one of those times.

The smell of ash and smoldering wood forces its way through his nostrils as he once again regained control of his panicked senses. Somewhere off to his right sat the unresponsive bodies of two of his squadmates, resting against the trunk of the downed oak tree after having been caught off guard by a patrolling group of alien jetpackers.

He was scared, alone, and grossly out of position. Somewhere behind him the last two members of his squad were taking cover behind a small ridge in the face of hallowing suppressing fire from the alien’s eagle-eye of a ship captain. Unless the captain died in the next two minutes, reinforcements weren’t going to be coming… Well, at least not on time, anyway.

He aimed his laser rifle with as much confidence as he could muster, bracing against the side of his rock to reduce the shaking. He was a rookie, but in that moment his eyes certainly didn’t show it. In that single, fleeting moment, he was a veteran in all but class. The air stands still as his finger tightens on the trigger.

Three flashes later and the captain now has a new hole in its kneecap. Not the kill you were looking for, but the captain has now lowered his gun and the suppressive fire has halted. The soldier slides back behind his rock and looks to the sky in thanks.

Good job, commander, let’s just hope his squadmates don’t miss.

Harkening back to the small scale, turn based, alien-hunting glory of its notoriously difficult previous installments, “XCOM Enemy Unknown” challenges you to take the reigns of the Earth’s first and last defense against the invading alien menace. Granted the esteemed position of “Commander” by the powers that be, the player is tasked with the daunting task of managing the facilities within the XCOM HQ, utilizing small-scale unit tactics to defeat alien strike forces, and catering to the requests of the nations across the globe so as to not lose funding.

As overwhelming as these various facets of gameplay may seem when first introduced, “XCOM Enemy Unknown” does a fine job of balancing each portion by having the each complement each other to encourage a well rounded approach when fighting against the encroaching alien menace. This spreads out gameplay sections helping to minimize monotony and set a deliberate, methodical pace to the overall game.

Like with most worthwhile strategy games, setting up the infrastructure of your organization is crucial to succeeding on both the tactical and strategic level. “XCOM” provides the player with a grid-like underground structure in which to build a handful of valuable facilities, each having their own set of benefits to help improve the technological and mechanical capabilities of your organization. But, these structures are also relatively costly and their benefits only come in bits and pieces over the long haul, making them easy to overlook in favor of players[a] chewing on the bone of their thumbs if they’re not careful. Missions in XCOM are where the real drama happens, where the consequences are immediate and the dice seems loaded in the enemy’s favor. Each mission can range from securing a crashed UFO site in the middle of nowhere, to terror missions that will have players scrambling to save a number of helpless citizens before a wave of aliens guns them both down. With every offensive action taken based on a percent chance to either hit or miss, every interaction on the battlefield becomes that much more intense. When that 95% shot on the angry alien beef-cake running behind the player’s cover misses, the entire flow of the battle changes and plan A is the first thing to get thrown out the window in the ensuing panic.

Unlike the instant repercussions that come from missing a crucial shot during a mission, failing to please countries during the course of each month is more of a slow acting disease than a sharp pain, not as worrisome at the time, but significantly more serious in the long run. At the end of each month, the countries funding your organization will give you a grade on your performance during that month and an appropriate amount of funding. However, as the months pass and the countries get more concerned about the continued presence of the alien invaders they will begin to start dropping out of the project one by one. If a player fails to keep each one happy enough by the end of that month, he will suddenly find his bank accounts running uncomfortably dry and his labs notably understaffed. Both are crippling disadvantages if they persist long enough.

In terms of its story or plot aspects, “XCOM” is considerably lacking. No major moments of character development or variations in the story progression are readily present within the few scripted cutscenes that are sprinkled throughout the storyline. Most of the interactions are intended to set the tense atmosphere and rushed reactions of the situation at hand rather than tell a clever or groundbreaking tale.

Occasionally, however, one of the few named characters will make some passing quip about some thought-provoking theme or another that are interesting to ruminate over as you go about your base managing business. These quips are also optional as well, playing on the side so as not to disrupt gameplay, leaving them subtly increase immersion rather than hinder it as a separate cutscene may have.

While “XCOM Enemy Unknow”n does not have a well scripted plot that will drive players to the edge of their seats, the gameplay itself will have the same effect if players feel like exercising their imaginations a bit. Emergent storytelling is the name of the game in this case and, with a strong multi-leveled gameplay experience to back it up, “XCOM” is definitely a game worth looking into.

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