Let’s just get this out of the way: XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a good game. Nay, a great game. It has a very fluid but high-contrast sort of rhythm to the way it unfolds in front of you. The way you move from the battlefield to your base and back again with time spent rebuilding and augmenting your team and diplomatic proceedings would be hypnotic if it wasn’t so panic-inducing. Perhaps it’s something about knowing that change within this framework is inevitable, and it’s a constant process of opening doors to surprise parties and ambushes.
The irresistible cadence of the game even manages to permeate the combat. There is nothing particularly pressing that happens in regards to time (rounds go only as fast as you choose) and yet the stress levels XCOM is capable of reaching is nothing short of incredible. Every bit of information revealed to you is vital and yet every bit is something you wish you didn’t know. After all, ignorance is bliss.
So how does XCOM accomplish that? How do you create that tension without treading over the same old ground? And not just within the turn-based strategy genre but within video games as a whole. It would have been easy to create an oppressive enemy that is all-powerful and through luck and science, you are inexplicably capable of matching arms with this new alien race, but that’s not the XCOM way. No, Firaxis has forged its own path.
It’s not necessarily an innovation, but it is a paradigm so rarely utilized that it might as well be new again. XCOM forces constant mental strife in the player by creating an enemy that is, for lack of a better term, “superior equals.” At no point is any single part of your squad (hell, even your entire squad) more powerful than anything you’ll face. Even those otherwise simplistic drones can heal far more efficiently than your medkits ever can. Humans, by all counts, are an inferior fighting force.
The “equals” part comes into play in that these aliens, for the most part, are just as susceptible to death as you are. Any plasma blast that will scrap one of your teammates will probably just as easily kill an alien. If XCOM battles were settled in colonial-style columns, it is entirely possible that every fight would end up a draw.
Your advantage (and likely your only advantage) is your brain and its ability to analyze all the data the game is spitting back at you. The percentages, the cover symbols, squad notifications, etc. all feed into your own thinking capabilities. It’s not that your squad is smarter than the aliens; it’s that you are smarter than the game. It is a Turing machine, perhaps deterministic, perhaps not. But you are not a machine and you do not operate on a rail of pre-determined scenarios. You can see where the game has been and where it is headed.
And this is your advantage. You are bumping the pinball table. You are loading the die. You are, in effect, cheating, and what is more exhilarating than breaking the rules? This is where XCOM mines its drama. A big ol’ ball is rolling along a cliff, and you’re trying to keep it from tumbling off.
It’s a bit Splinter Cell in that way. You see a sandbox of toy soldiers milling about and you are sticking your hands in there, moving rocks and sifting sand, coercing elements into your favor so that when the time comes, you can beat the agents in their own framework.
But it’s not as if you can get caught. Instead, your investments in this world, your only agents of change within this otherwise intangible narrative, are punished. By losing your grip on the situation, you lose control. That cliff slowly turns into a knife’s edge, becoming thinner and thinner until it might as well not exist. Each decision you make is a nudge in either direction and every decision you don’t make it another slimming of the cliff.
That edge is cold and calculated but you are not. Just as your squad faces down a singularly minded foe, you are attempting to best a cruel machination that is trying to do the same to you: break you down and watch you crumble. There’s an innate fear there in that conflict. Staring down chaotic destruction is a lot scarier than overt malice. Evil is understandable. Hate can be justified and reasoned with, but an unordered will to see everything burn cannot.
And that’s where XCOM gets its drama. Not from the story of the game but from the hard-boiled clash of a human battling a machine.
What a bloodbath.