XCOM: Enemy Unknown
The power that games have to tell stories goes well beyond any kind of traditional media. This is down to the wonderful way that players can create stories all of their own as they play through a game.
Every mission, every sidequest, every little distraction provides players with a means to tell create their own narrative as they experience the one that the developers have put in themselves.
In no game is this more apparent than XCOM: Enemy Unknown. But this isn't a sandbox or even an RPG, it's a turn-based strategy game; for consoles.
In XCOM you begin with a group of randomly generated rookie soldiers and some of the worlds best technology (most of which is useless against the aliens) and are tasked with combating an unknown extra-terrestrial threat.
You set up a base somewhere in the world and watch the skies, listen to news reports and generally wait for the invaders to show themselves. Then you pile into the back of a jet VTOL and head around the world to fight a procedurally generated mission against the invaders, saving human lives and recovering what technology and corpses that you can for study.
Every soldier that you recruit can be customised even down to the colour of his or her uniforms if you have the Elite Soldier DLC that comes with the launch version of the game. This can become a crucial part of the game when combined with the fact that when they die, they are gone, for good.
Whether you choose to customise your squad members or go with their randomly-generated identities you soon grow to know these men and women who have become humanity's last line of defence against the alien threat.
Every battle, they gain experience. Some may get injured and require to sit out the action for a while but all the time you grow attached to them so that when one of them dies you feel a real sense of loss as if it was one of your friends that had died.
Now the over-arching storyline is fairly loose. You combat the aliens, learning and adopting some of their tech to help you fight them better. As well as the procedurally generated missions that vary from rescue an ambushed dignitary to fight off an alien terror attack to investigate a landed or crashed alien craft there are milestone missions that trigger the next phase of the story. You can wait as long as you want in between the these phases slowly building up your arsenal of technology to put you on a more even footing with the aliens or head off, gung-ho into these crucial missions aware that they could result in the slaughter of your entire team.
There's a very savage variety of aliens from the Tyranid-like Chrysalids that plant their eggs in their victims to the ED-209-inspired Sectopoid robots that require a mad scramble of concentrated firepower to defeat, pushing your tactical abilities to the limit.
And, this isn't a battle for the faint hearted. The darkness of the mission-maps, the ability to see only what is in your line of sight and the very careful pacing of enemy turns really put you on edge, waiting to see what next alien horror will emerge from the shadows. And there will be horrors. The Chrysalids' attack animations alone are as graphically brutal as anything Alien or Predator could throw at you.
It all captures nicely, the tension that the original XCOM games created when they emerged in the mid-nineties.
The Chrysalids aren't the only bugs in XCOM sadly. Your troopers and the aliens can apparently see and shoot through walls during overwatch (that's firing on enemy movement during their turn) and after long sessions of play the game has a tendency to crash during loading sequences before and after missions (usually a particularly arduous one).
These crashes can be pretty catastrophic because the game has no autosave function. The lack of autosave isn't a problem in and of itself (it even adds to the tension) but losing a couple of hours worth of progress because of a crash is infuriating.
Odd camera angles plague overwatch and enemy turn animations as well and the view can be quite limiting if you are working on the edge of a map.
To describe XCOM as rough around the edges would be a touch of and understatement and it is a bit disappointing given that the game was developed by the experienced Civilization developer Firaxis.
The really remarkable thing about XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that, despite its rough edges, it is a fantastic and compelling game and by far the best strategy game that has ever appeared on consoles (even outstripping the superb Greed Corp).
Why? The answer is simple - the game's magnificent potential for emergent storytelling. The emotional investment that XCOM creates between you and your soldiers is a powerful one that allows you to weave your own story out of the bare bones that Firaxis has created for you.
Buggy this may be, but you'll be hard pushed to find a game that is better at letting you create your own experiences this year and with games like Dishonored snd Skyrim around that's really saying something.
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