Genre: Tactical RPG
Year: 2012
Developed by: Firaxis Games
Published by: 2K Games
Feeling Like: Homies known

I’m unnecessarily tentative when it comes to Tactical role playing games. The 500 is littered with them, and some even end up being Game of the Year. The attention to detail is beyond impressive and there aren’t any loose mechanics. When the entire experience hinges on whether this specific unit’s weapon choice against this specific enemy’s defense while in this specific position, you better make sure your foundation is ironclad.

Very few are as strong as XCOM: Enemy Unknown in this regard. It’s a fantastic game and I’m already questioning if I truly think 231 games I’ve beaten are better.

Maybe it’s my hesitation with Tactical RPGs. I don’t love the idea that a combat encounter could last thirty minutes or more, and I could lose. I can’t just play them passively or casually; I need to throw myself into them. Read all the tutorials, do every side mission possible. Being patient and calculated doesn’t come naturally to me, so I will often play on the easiest mode possible…and STILL manage to die often! I’m very well aware of the identity of my enemy and it’s my brain.

The first few minutes will reveal how great the style is. Everything looks sharp, every enemy feels dangerous. Humanity is under attack all over the globe and many countries have banded together to repel it. This isn’t a minor skirmish isolated to a single town or country, it’s totally global. The narrative never lets up; if you fail, the entire planet is doomed. Rote video game stuff, but it feels more dire here thanks to the game’s superb atmosphere.

I remember everything being dark; the prognosis of Earth’s chances, the grim mission briefings, the battlefields. There’s little to no humor here, that’s not what the game is going for. Hardy anything amusing about an alien invasion…unless it’s Earth Girls are Easy.

Base building is great, I never got tired of just looking at it. It’s so weird, it’s just a grid with different kinds of rooms but it still scratched an itch. How many tactical RPGs do you get to build a base in?

Enemy types are great, I loved the Thin Men – equal parts creepy and cool. I will say the stages are a bit lifeless and start to blend together. Even though skirmishes are all over the planet, they feel the same. Not much interaction available either, aside from attacking and defending. Room for improvement.

What really got me is the squad customization. What are we doing if we can’t name individual characters? This and Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber are the only two I can think of. Games get a near automatic thumbs up from me if they include this option. XCOM goes one step further and you can choose their appearance as well. You’re goddamn right I made all my warriors look like my university buddies. Kyla too, though I often put her in the back lines since the thought of a digital representation of her getting killed by aliens was distressing. Sorry, Greg!

Beyond that, you get to suit them up with their own armor and weapons AND decide what kind of class they’re going to be. I suppose many games have this, but in XCOM it feels really noteworthy. Resources are so limited that you really come to depend on your heavy hitters and I couldn’t help but form an attachment.

True to all excellent examples of this genre, the star of the show is when you’re praying a Hail Mary will hit in combat. Moments that require perfect alignment of your tactics in order to succeed. Combining grenade throws, rocket launchers, heals and snipers in one beautiful sequence makes any bullshit high percentage miss or Game Over screen all worth it.

It was brutally difficult at times, even on Easy and I found the final areas a chore. Repetition started to kick in and I never found the increasing challenge to be warranted. There’s only so much milk you can squeeze out of this idea and this would’ve been at least a dozen spots higher on the 500 if they’d cut out about five hours. Also without some pre-researched tips, I absolutely would have painted myself into a corner with spending currency on unnecessary or uncool upgrades. XCOM does not mess around, you can’t have it all.

The final level saw only Kyla and Carlo make it out alive. I was breathless by the end of it, I felt like I’d gotten to the end of a very antagonistic marathon. A reminder, I’m not good at these types of games, but like Golf or you know what, I still love them. It was the cherry on top of a cake that was nearly exquisite.

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