XCOM : Enemy Unknown – PC/PS3/360
While hearing people talking about this game during a lot of GOTY conversations, it sounded like I was the only person who had played the original games, despite being younger than most of the other people out there. I spent an inhumane amount of time with the second XCOM game, XCOM : Terror From The Deep, which is essentially the first game but underwater with new equipment and enemies. Despite pouring hours and hours into the original game, I was pretty terrible at it. There was no story, no tutorial, you were just thrown into the commanding position and told to go save the world. I never succeeded. I don’t even think I saved a country. I don’t even know if that game had an ending.
I’m sure there were a lot of surprised people out there when a turn based strategy game appeared near the top of a lot of outlets Game of the Year lists, but I feel that is just a testament to what this game has managed to do. Strategy games have languished in a corner of the games market reserved for a select few who dared attempt to learn tech trees and manage resources. Turn based squad tactics games share an even smaller market share, relegated to WWII sims and it’s ilk.
So it was with a healthy mix of frothing anticipation and sheer terror I jumped head first into Firaxis’ revitalization of the franchise. Coming from the same developers as the legendary “just one more turn” Civilization series, I should not have worried. They have managed to take an exceptionally deep and complicated game and trim off just enough of the fat, and leaving behind a much more manageable experience, while keeping all of the core mechanics that kept me coming back after getting pounded by aliens over and over again. And not in a “Mass Effect blue alien sexy time” way. I mean obliterated in a ball of alien hell fire.
Firaxis have managed to keep the base management part of the game intact too, albeit not as needlessly complicated as it used to be. Handling the scientist’s research, the manufacturing lines production priorities, and keeping your team in fighting shape are all here. On top of this, they have reworked the “council” aspect of the game. Flying all over the world to take down alien invaders costs money, and that comes from the collection of countries that are funding the XCOM project. You have to keep them sweet though, or that funding will dry up. The game is a constant juggling act, ignoring one countries pleas for assistance while helping another, just because they have more to offer. You never feel like you are on top of everything, and if you do get ready for the rug to be pulled out from under your feet.
One of the challenges to making the series more mainstream was to produce a console version, which up until now has been kryptonite for the strategy genre. The roads are littered with the forgotten bodies of titles that have attempted to cram a keyboards worth of commands onto a controller, and failed miserably. Even the lack of a mouse is usually enough to push these experiences out of the living room and back to the PC. It is with great joy I can say that XCOM has managed to pull it off. While most of the game I have played so far has been with a mouse and keyboard, I have played a few multiplayer matches with the controller and it is perfectly playable. Not enough to convert me, but if forced it would not have me wishing for more buttons.
Thankfully the difficulty has been fine tuned to perfection, as opposed to the punishing original where the lifespan of your average soldier was measured in turns rather than missions. While one wrong move can jeopardise an entire mission, it still feels fair, and that the death of one of your tirelessly trained units was the fault of your own rash actions. For those who want to reminisce over the old days are taken care of by a combination of “Classic” difficulty and “Ironman” mode, where you have a solitary continually updated save game. No chance to re-take a shot that eliminates your most treasured team member.
Out of all of the games on this list, the only two I will still be playing in 2013 are SSX and XCOM. I think that is possibly the best recommendation I can give.