XCOM is an old and storied franchise in PC gaming that I had never experienced until the recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which is a very good game that might, with a little elbowing and shoving, rank as one of the best ever for the PC. I finished it recently on Normal difficulty – yes, I know, I am a wimp – and I have little but good things to say.
XCOM is a tactical turn-based game with a slightly less important strategic overlay. You command squads of 4-6 soldiers armed with the latest military/alien hybrid weaponry and armor, and fight against a variety of aliens bent on conquering the Earth. The aliens have UFOs that need shooting down so they can then be assaulted by boots on the ground; they also make terror attacks on cities and go on abduction runs. Eventually you have to hit the aliens where it hurts, in their bases and larger ships, and that takes research in the form of autopsies, interrogations, and reverse-engineering technologies. Eventually, with some pluck, luck, and judicious use of plasma-based weaponry, you can kick them off Earth for good.
Gameplay consists of the strategic overlay, where you decide what to research next, how to equip your soldiers, and where to respond next to the alien threat. Then it gets tactical and turn-based – you direct soldiers as they assault a crashed UFO, for example, making careful decisions about when to take cover and when to shoot. The enemies are tough and diverse, hard to take alive for interrogation, and appear out of the fog of war at unexpected locations and times. Even Normal difficulty was challenging.
The fun of the game comes in the tension that it creates between your delicate hairless monkey soldiers, who are (at least initially) outgunned, outclassed, and outnumbered, and the pesky aliens, who while not exactly scary, are formidable in combat. My personal favorite is the Chryssalid, a six-limbed running monster that turns its victims into zombies and eventually into new versions of itself. Death in the game is serious – losing a veteran of many missions when you have so few soldiers total is disastrous – and reloading after it happens ruins the spirit of the game. The fight against the aliens is meant to be desperate and bleak, with each victory hard-fought.
I would have to place this game among my all-time favorites, though it was intense enough that I don’t think I’ll replay it for awhile. It took about thirty hours to finish, but I was deliberately slow in a game that largely allows you to set your own pace in responding to the invasion.