Usually it’s FIFA that sees me trot out the well-worn phrase “a game of two halves”, but never has it been more appropriate than with XCOM. Though it has been much vaunted for its turn-based-strategy, pitching a handful of elite soldiers against the best an invading force of aliens has to offer, it also has a deep management simulation attached to it too. Sim Earth Defence Force, or Men in Black Tycoon, if you will.
For every shot that’s fired on the battlefield, there’s a wad of paper being pushed behind the scenes to make sure that your forces are funded and provided for. Engineers and scientists need recruiting alongside your hardened marines, captured aliens require interrogating (and in turn dissecting), plus the skies above earth need defence jets and satellites to monitor the alien’s presence. There’s a lot to juggle.
However, rather than being awash with cash as the world’s nations turn to you for protection, they throw a pittance of a budget at you and expect you to do wonders. That money then needs splitting and how you divide that will affect your mission readiness. Launching a new satellite may reassure the world and bring in little extra cash, but the base is running low on juice and could do with a new power plant being built. Whichever way you turn the money could equally have been as well spent elsewhere. Even at the height of the evasion with Paris under imminent invasion, I built a new fighter plane and I had guilt pangs knowing how many sets of body armour or plasma guns I had just sacrificed for France. Bloody France!
And for me that was captivating; the well balanced trade-offs that meant for every advancement there was a sacrifice paired with it. Completely ignoring a portion of the operation will only spell defeat, and yet overinvest in an area and you may find everyone else struggling to reap its benefits as they bid to catch up. Though it may not be as open or deep as many standalone management games, it’s very easy to spend a great deal of care and attention balancing every department’s and country’s needs.
All the time this frugal simulation takes place with the XCOM building itself the backdrop, as though a very high-tech ant farm. In mission command, the hologram of the world will blaze away, whilst to the left engineers and scientists buzz about their business and to the right your soldiers prepare for insertion.
These soldiers are the life blood of XCOM: the souls that you’ll be commanding directly, and used as your own well-armed chess pieces against the alien invasion. From a high view above the battlefield you’ll move them from cover to cover, sweeping across the ground, taking out any bogeys they encounter. It’s a turn based affair, with each of your men (or women) getting two actions to move, shoot, take over watch or perform a special actions, such as heal or fire a special weapon.
With the enemy getting the same, it turns into a very strategic battle with both sides fighting for cover and to get the drop on the other. Left out in the open and your troops will be lucky if there’s enough left of them to fill a body bag, so most turns are spent ensuring that your advancement is to behind trees, building corners and walls, only then poking your nose out to shoot. It’s a slow but rewarding pace as you stretch your forces out, close in and apply pressure.
Actual shooting comes down to a dice roll, taking into account a soldier’s skill, any perks they have, and the angle they have on their target. It’s not simply a case of lining your cross hairs up. This further plays into the engrossing battlefield tactics as you seek to expose weakness through outflanking, playing to your strengths or just overwhelming force if it comes down to it. With different classes at your disposal from medics to assault troops, they all mesh together to help you form a squad that will play to your preferred style of play. Those who like blunt force could load up on nothing but heavies, saturating the battlefield with heavy machine gun fire, whilst I much prefer an approach that sees two crack snipers lurking at the back, finishing off the targets flushed out by my ever-advancing assault troops.
The enemy is equally varied, if not more so, with giant floating metal discs, insectoid monsters that turn their victims into zombies, and greys that like to mind-control your best men. They’re a highly diverse band of invaders and this alone helps keep you on your toes as you tackle each map. Though they’ll all succumb to withering fire eventually, different approaches are required to tackle each race efficiently, whilst facing multiple types at once always proves testing as you try and prioritise threats.
What comes together is a very simple mechanic that is elevated by the superb way it’s varied. Through forests, cities and crashed UFOs you’ll patiently stalk your prey, only to find yourself on the defensive as their assault troops crash through your lines, or their psychics play merry hell with your minds.
Although a few hours in, once you’re used to the brutal difficulty level and the caution it promotes, you’ll find yourself settling into a routine. Edging forward, setting as many men to over-watch as possible, you become a well drilled military outfit. By the sheer length of time you find yourself going through these motions, preparing for combat, it can occasionally grind. Routine missions will definitely feel as though you’re on auto-pilot, and just as in a FIFA season there are times when I longed for a “simulate” button so I could go on tinkering with XCOM’s financials.
Quite conversely, some of the best experiences are when things have taken a significant turn for the worse. The squad’s been torn asunder and with only a sniper and a medic left I’ve scrapped my way out through a mix of sheer luck and a lot of hiding. Popping that last alien right between the eyes and reaching the extraction zone truly makes you feel like you’ve witnessed a supreme feat of human heroism against more advanced beings. Plus you’re just grateful your ace sniper is still with you.
What XCOM boils down to is an incredible act of balancing. In the management sim, the trade-offs you’re forced to make are all equally worthwhile and therefore equally painful to take; in the field, it’s whether to send in the talented veteran or the expendable but less dependable rookie; do you risk getting close and capturing the alien aggressors to aid your scientists, or pepper them from afar to stay safe. They all come from a game that gives you so much choice, all of it fair.
Firaxis has created a supremely clever strategy game, one that is equally accessible but demanding. It’s scratched that itch that I’ve been looking for ever since the last Full Spectrum Warrior and all I hope is that I don’t have to wait the same length of time again for another.