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‘XCOM: Enemy Unknown’ a high-tension challenge

Column by Ethan Clevenger

Clevenger is a junior computer science major and can be reached at ethan.clevenger@drake.edu

CMYK Clevenger-w800-h800Since 2001, the XCOM franchise has been quiet, with two cancelled games never making it out of the gate. In 2010, to the delight of long-time fans, 2K Games announced a reboot: XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Inexperienced in turn-based strategy games, I was skeptical, but picking up this title was a great decision.

‘XCOM: Enemy Unknown’ casts the player as commander of XCOM, a military project spearheaded by a council of the world’s most powerful nations fighting off alien invaders.

The player’s primary job is to direct troops in combat. Each mission begins under a fog of war and the player must lead their troops across the field, find the enemy and eliminate them.

Each soldier develops class-specific perks through their performance of the battlefield. Devastating perks at higher ranks are paramount to keeping any individual soldier alive. This is countered by tiered alien opposition. Early on, rookies stand a chance against mere Sectoids and Thin Men, but later on in the game, should the player lose experienced soldiers in a disastrous mission (permadeath, anyone?), the challenge can be insurmountable. Unfair at first glance, punishing a poorly-rounded team is vital to the tooth-and-nail style of the game.

The enemy forces are a major highlight of this game. Beyond individual enemy abilities, weapons and traits, each enemy species has behaviors not spelled out in a menu somewhere, but available only by observation and vital to success. While the first encounter with some strains of opponents can leave a player decimated, a little retooling to the strategy and some heavier weapons and armor will always solve the problem. Every kill feels like a massive accomplishment.

Between battles, the commander is in charge of resource management — facilities, research, engineering and UFO response. How well this is conducted dictates monthly funding. High panic will cause countries to leave the council, and with it, their funding and full-continent benefits.

This portion of the game is just as large if not larger than the combat aspect, and just as fun. The first play-through can be brutal, as money is tight and the player has to figure out how to effectively allocate it early on to keep every country around.

In fact, everything about this game can be punishing in a wonderfully satisfying way, even on normal difficulty. Fortunately, the player can save at essentially any time. The brave will tackle Ironman mode, which forces saves at every turn, leaving the player to deal with losses permanently.

All of this is so engrossing, so it’s easy to forget the overarching story, dictated only by a few scripted missions. Random encounters fill in the holes as you complete the story at your own pace. That narrative, of course, is trying to overcome the alien invaders and uncover their motives, but the more compelling narrative results from the permadeath and turn-based play allowing you to soak in every move. Memories are made on the battlefield with individual soldiers. “Colonel Zimchenko is a damn hero” might sum up my game, but even other XCOM players may not know what I’m talking about.

In addition to a few aesthetic gripes, more substantive bugs and questionable decisions include troops subject to panic when mind-controlled enemies (somehow read: “allies”) are killed. That panic will sometimes result in troops turning around and shooting allies behind them, which all seems outrageous. There’s also tell of a teleport bug spawning enemies behind your line of troops – a bug that will decimate any Ironman run.

These mild issues aside, XCOM is a fantastic game perfect for anyone who enjoys a challenge. Even for people who object to a slower-paced game, XCOM is high-tension enough to keep you on your toes anyway. This is a must buy for anyone and everyone, and it can’t be stressed enough.

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