Game Of The Year: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Adam Barnes


XCOM brought strategy to consoles without losing anything in the process, and that’s something that should be commended.

Published on Dec 21, 2012

Whether you remember the original XCOM is irrelevant. That might sound like blasphemy, but it’s true. XCOM: Enemy Unknown has defied any kind of current logic. Strategy games, for whatever reason, just aren’t as popular as they used to be.

Publishers seem to turn their nose up at anything that requires considered thought: ‘If you’re thinking about it you’re not having fun,’ they’d no doubt say.  And considering the millions and millions Call Of Duty sells, there’s probably some truth to that.

But 2K Games doesn’t care about all of that. 2K Games cares about good games first and foremost.

“I have a hard time believing XCOM could’ve got made anywhere else,” says Jake Solomon, designer at Firaxis and the head honcho on XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

“But that being said, it’s kind of a rare situation. We have all this internal knowledge – like working for Sid – about what it takes to make a popular big strategy game.”

So it probably seems like the choice of XCOM: Enemy Unknown for Game Of The Year is out of desperation; a winner by default, if you will. It’s easy to feel a little jaded by all the me-too shooters that are released each week, so if Firaxis and 2K are willing to risk a little for something different then that should be praised. That should be rewarded.

But if you’ve played XCOM: Enemy Unknown – and if you haven’t, you really, bloody should – then you’ll already know that it’s not just a strategy game: it’s a really, very good one.

But then this is Firaxis: masters of strategy and purveyors of the illusive ‘just-one-more-turn’ compulsion that other lesser developers just can’t seem to recreate.

Of course XCOM: Enemy Unknown was going to be fantastic.

“I gotta be honest I never intended XCOM to be a game like that,” says Solomon. “I intended for XCOM to be a game that people would replay, of course, and I don’t think it’s quite at the Civ level maybe where people just play Civ for years and years and years.”

But people did play XCOM: Enemy Unknown like Civ. Several restarts, replays on harder difficulties and the inevitable reloading of old saves when it clicks that, all of a sudden, one wrong decision has put you on course for abject failure.

“Maybe that’s how XCOM will be – I hope it will – but I was actually very surprised when the average user hours were just climbing and climbing and climbing – over 100 hours, over 200 hours – and I was surprised by that.”

Somehow, without intending, Firaxis has once again cultivated a game that can be replayed time and again.

This replayability isn’t because of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, however. It’s in spite of it. XCOM hates you, there’s no two ways about it. With every soldier’s manoeuvre, every new abduction mission or UFO crash site the game throws the Gates Of Hell at you, expecting your feeble mind to save the day with just four squad members.

Who have no decent armour.

Or weapons.

And will likely shoot each other to bits in panic before they finally manage to hit even the weakest of aliens.

Yet despite all this somehow XCOM: Enemy Unknown grabs hold of you and won’t let you go. Why? How? That’s not something that can be quite so easily explained.

In all likelihood it is probably the game’s notorious difficulty that actually has so many hooked. Each veteran soldier is a huge boon, and if they are lucky enough to survive a handful of missions then an emotional bond is created.

You know their names: they are your brothers, your sisters, your friends and work colleagues. They are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, Barack Obama and King Richard III, Homer Simpson and Sheldon Cooper.

And when they die, it matters. Not just because you had grown to love them, but because without them your odds of survival are severely diminished.

“It’s really hard because we were really hoping to make a game that anyone can play,” Solomon tells us, “not just strategy fans. I think we’ve certainly had that.

“You worry about strategy fans being ‘oh this is too easy’ and people who don’t know strategy being ‘oh this is impossible’. Even after the fact I’m not sure I could say that I know what the right recipe is, except to offer the players just enough knobs to find the difficulty that works for them.”

That’s the real success of XCOM, however. There’s no ignoring that – by platform – XCOM sold more on Xbox 360 worldwide, and there’s a reason for that.

So ably Firaxis has brought a tactical, strategic game to consoles that the lack of a mouse of keyboard is unnoticeable. It’s an experience that anyone – regardless of tastes – can become absorbed in.

Solomon claims that is because of the difference between XCOM and Civilization “There’s very little abstraction,” he says, “so when you go into combat you see your actual soldiers, and you go back to base and you building rooms in an actual base. And when you go to build a gun, you’re building one gun.

It’s easier for people to quantify, after all. There’s no weighing of numbers or stats or benefits: players, regardless of skill, base decisions on instincts. If you want armour first, build the armour.

Sure, a wrong decision might result in complete failure, but by that point you’re in too deep. Even the noob-est of noobs will start again and – somehow – they’ve devised a strategy without even realising.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown eats into your very being, and it’s fantastic. If you haven’t yet played it, make sure you rectify that immediately.



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