This is the sort of story that you tell when you are playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown. This game puts you in command of an elite group of scientists, engineers, and soldiers as you try to repel an alien invasion. You are responsible for every aspect of the battle, from basic geopolitics to boots on the ground; if there is a choice to be made, you make it. In fact, the characters in the game turn to face you through the TV to talk. You are not playing a character, you personally are in charge.
The tactical combat, which is the portion of the game that will occupy most of your time, is turn-based strategy. You must carefully move your troops, so they can do the most harm, without giving the aliens an opening. The combat is difficult at times and the stakes are high. More than once I lost incredibly powerful soldiers due to my stupid mistakes or just plain bad luck. And, here’s the thing that XCOM does that modern games seem so afraid to do: they made death mean something. I have died in video games more times than I have had hot meals, and they never mean anything more than going back five minutes and trying again. When a soldier dies in XCOM, that soldier that you have guided from being a wet-behind-the-ears rookie to an all-powerful dealer of xeno-death, the soldier that you renamed and customized to look like a bad-mother-shut-your-mouth version of your best friend or your wife, when that soldier dies, they are dead. The game goes on without them. And, yes, I totally got my best friend and my wife killed. Sorry, honey.
The fact that your choices matter and your troops are fragile contributes to something that surprised me. This game can be genuinely frightening. Alien frightening, not Halloween. You know something bad is out there. Many of the missions start with a few rounds of “I know they are up there, but I don’t know who or where.” If you set your guys up just wrong and the aliens get just the right kind of lucky, you get to sit back and watch as your plans fall apart and your soldiers get killed.
The strategy part of the game is not quite as sexy, but it is just as engaging. You have to balance about thirty variables to make sure that your soldiers have the best gear possible and you have the support of the nations of the world. This involves researching new technology based on the alien designs and building new toys. Every move in this part of the game costs money, other resources, and, most importantly, time. Should you spend your last funds to buy some awesome armor for your sniper right now or to launch a new satellite in twenty days? The armor will help to keep one of the most powerful units you have alive and let him fly because it is also a jetpack, but the satellite will make Germany more confident, ensuring much more funding in the future.
While it is more apparent in the global strategy portion of the game than in the tactical combat sections, the entire game here can be boiled down to a decision between short-term and long-term benefits, and balancing risk versus reward. I absolutely love this game. It is as exciting and engrossing as any action game I have played, but it also encourages you to slow down and take your time.
I understand that turn-based strategy is not a wildly popular genre, but I strongly recommend that you give this game a try. It does some things that I haven’t seen before and is a ton of fun. As a nice bonus, there is a demo available, so you can give an early level or two a shot, whether you have an Xbox, PS3, or game on PC, XCOM is absolutely worth your time.
Five Little Grey Men out of Five.
Seriously, this game is amazing.