Still Playing: XCOM Enemy Unknown
Not to brag, but I’m hardly new to this whole saving the world thing: I’ve stopped countless mystical apocalypses, prevented innumerable extraterrestrial invasions. I doubt you are either. Epic life-or-death scenarios provide the motive force for many of our hobby’s tales. But of all the many times Earth has been imperilled, few have made me truly feel its plight like XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
I should be clear: I don’t simply mean that I grew to love my squad of misfits (although I did), nor was I captivated by the storytelling (which was efficient but hardly essential). I cared about the fate of the world.
At points, I gnawed anxiously at my fingernails, in the throes of indecision over which abduction sites to attend, aware of the delicate balance between immediate reward and longterm loss of faith. I questioned every decision on the ground, riding an agonising yet satisfying rollercoaster of calculated risk to bring maximum rewards back from the field. Should I wait an extra turn to capture this Ethereal at the risk of losing someone to my mind-controlled sniper? Do I dare? In short, I put my heart into it like few other games in the past two years.
I discovered this, much to my own surprise, when I howled at my TV set after Argentina pulled out of the XCOM project. I was enraged: what were they going to do without me? They had but three laser rifles between them. Did they really think they could make it alone? It was an unusual response for an unusually immersive game. This is Enemy Unknown’s genius: its tightly honed mechanics are tied not to twitch responses, but to building up atmosphere and your emotional state. How telling that in a period of gaming characterised by cinematic tales, it’s a set of mute design decisions, not some grand auteur, that makes for an engaging metanarrative.
How did Firaxis manage this? First – the final mission aside – Enemy Unknown knows how to get out of its own way. It has few characters to speak of, and those it does have provide only the barest hints of human interaction – just enough to move the game along. Its deployment of enemy types is staggered, but the rules that govern them remain logically consistent even as a torrent of new abilities come into play. It simplifies movement with clearly delineated zones, and offers a two-tier cover system that’s easy to parse but vital to master. It’s a game that doesn’t reject your involvement to force its story upon you, is complex but not confusing, and never gives you a reason to disengage from it.