[obligatory ‘wow i haven’t written in a long time hopefully that gets better’]
Tactical strategy games are a genre that have always been near and dear to my heart. Most notably, of course, is the Fire Emblem series (Awakening is still near the top of my favorite games of all time), though other games among the likes of Valkyria Chronicles and Cardhunter come to mind. While the main conceit of XCOM is indeed its gripping segments of tactical cover-based strategy, the overall picture it paints is much more than that, and while the moment-to-moment gameplay presents us with several important tactical decisions to make, the overall run of your game will depend drastically on the impacts of those decisions, and others that you make along the way.
XCOM’s plot is fairly rudimentary, tasking us as the leader of a paramilitary operation in charge of stopping an oncoming alien threat and ultimately figuring out what it is they want. Along the way, we’re also given command of a team of soldiers, all of whom are fully customizable in appearance and name, allowing us to have some more attachment to them beyond their use. One of the few things XCOM doesn’t do is give us any story-based reason to care about these soldiers beyond their tactical place on our battlefield. Forgive the comparison, but I can’t help be reminded of how much I grew to care about my forces in Fire Emblem Awakening, and how much of an impact that made on where I put them in the battlefield. That said, it’s not as if one doesn’t become attached to their forces in XCOM; indeed many a level were restarted because of a lost sniper or key assault unit I couldn’t do without. XCOM utilizes a perma-death mechanic common for strategy games like this, so once a soldier’s gone, he’s gone. Because of this, the level-based tactical strategy is very much defensively based– running and gunning without regard for where your enemies could be lurking will often get you killed, and brutally.
While XCOM’s base gameplay can be brutal and frustratingly difficult, it’s never unfair. Never did I feel like my defeat was undeserved, and when one of my soldiers bit the dust I knew it was because of recklessness on my part. That said, there’s always an element of randomness to the enemy’s tactics on the battlefield. If your move uncovers a previously unseen enemy, they’ll interrupt your turn to scatter and get to safety. That said, these same enemies don’t move until you see them, for whatever reason, so the system can sort of be gamed by fighting the aliens in chunks and healing/reloading in between. This isn’t really too much of a problem though, because XCOM’s playing fields are gorgeous, high in variety, and fully destructible. They will all look seriously different by the time you’re done with them. Did you miss your shot? That’s okay, because you destroyed half of that alien’s cover. Got a big cluster of ETs to contend with? Fire a rocket at that gas station and decimate that entire half of the map. The list goes on, but suffice it to say that if you don’t keep moving, especially early on, you’re dead.
That isn’t to say that your strategy won’t change, because it will. As you use your soldiers more and more, they gain rankings and get assigned various classes, among the usual likes of Sniper, Support, Assault, etc. Every time they rank up you’ll get to choose what ability they gain, and the customization doesn’t stop there. As you kill more and more aliens and clear more and more levels, the threat constantly escalates, and at an alarming degree, creating an ever-present sense of urgency in the decisions you make. As such, you’ll have to decide what you want to put your scientists to work on in order to progress in the proper manner. Do you want to build a containment chamber and interrogate one of the aliens to figure out where they’re getting their orders from? Or maybe you want to pick apart some of their weapons and armor to better outfit your soldiers with new equipment from your engineers? Or perhaps you’d better outfit your interceptors with better tech to better track and take down UFOs? Or do you want to invest in satellite coverage to decrease panic across various countries?
Each of these decisions has huge impacts down the line, which means that the first time you play XCOM, you’re pretty much going to fail. I focused too much on making my soldiers kickass, so when push came to shove I had no satellite coverage or worthwhile interceptor capabilities, and countries dropped out of the program en masse, dooming me to failure. You have to walk a fine line, and there’s never enough time to explore every option. That’s part of what makes XCOM feel so great, as though there’s an actual, real alien threat and you’re using limited resources and funds to push them back. You’ll need to make a lot of sacrifices and touch choices, and by the end you’ll never be totally invested in any one aspect of improving your organization, but rather a jack-of-all-trades, of sorts. And it takes a long time before you’ll learn what to spend your money and time on, what to put off ’til later, and what to pass on entirely.
XCOM is definitely one of the most difficult, nerve-wracking, anxiety-inducing games I’ve ever played. But at its core is one of the best and most complex tactical strategy games I’ve seen, and its metagame of resource allocation and crisis management never fails to be gripping and nail-biting. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to be Jeff Goldblum (and honestly, who hasn’t?) from Independence Day, XCOM is the ticket. There’ll be hours and hours for you to … take ’em … take ’em out, take ’em down … do your … do your stuff.