Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #13: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown, 2K Games/Firaxis Games (2012)

Here's why I don't like strategy games:

  • They don't end.
  • They don't have stories.
  • They make me feel stupid.
  • I find their reward loops too compelling.

In other words, I lack the patience and willpower to enjoy them, and prefer to stick to games where I can pretend to be a wizard/explorer/starship commander, wandering freely around a fantasy world not worrying about the long-term consequences of my actions.

And yet XCOM: Enemy Unknown drew me in. This was partly due to the near-future alien invasion aesthetic and the way I could customise each member of my squad and give them names like "Karl Bloodfountain" (Assault) and "Caesar Sparklefart" (Medic), but mostly it was because the game was simply so good that even someone as unenamoured with the genre as myself could enjoy it.

Since I'm not a connoisseur of strategy games, there's nothing to touch the two months I spent saving Earth from an extraterrestrial onslaught. Not once in the last eight years have I felt the kind of tension that enveloped me when a precariously-placed sniper took aim at the Chryssalid about to impregnate my last medic.

I'm not looking to convert anyone to Strategology. Although I'm well aware that if I was willing to put the time in I'd find similar games to enjoy, right now I'm perfectly happy with my normal roster of action, adventure and role-playing games.

But if you have an aversion to the genre for the same reasons I do but are still wondering whether you'd like a job as Commander of the XCOM project, here's why I think you just might:

  • It ends! Either you defeat the aliens or they take over the Earth.
  • Though the narrative's pretty thin, you can't help but get attached to your squad. Not only can you name them and choose their hair, but when they die their names are etched upon a Memorial Wall that exists for the sole purpose of making you feel guilty for that time you left them at the mercy of a Muton.
  • It's more about risk management than playing chancellor. It's definitely not easy, but it won't make you feel stupid for forgetting to invest in the cotton trade or not knowing what a square formation is (looking at you, Total War).
  • Ok, the reward loop is mightily compelling. Half the game takes place in your underground base and the other half on the battlefield, so all the goodies you work to unlock in one half can be deployed in the other, giving you an almost never-ending dopamine drip. If you have an addictive personality, this game is not safe.

But if you really wanted to be healthy, you'd go outside. Don't do that. It's Christmas! Play XCOM.

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