x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Strategic thinking in XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Landing amid a flurry of edge-of-the-seat first-person shooters, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a welcome relief.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
2K Games
PS3, Xbox 360, PC
****

Rebooting a cult classic is usually an activity reserved for those pesky, childhood-crushing chaps over in Hollywood in their never-ending quest for more solid gold cars and houses made out of money. Here in video game land, the past has largely - and gratefully - been left alone (probably because it was a bit on the blocky side). We've still got plenty of the same characters enthusiastically jumping about, but the games around them have become a whole lot better as the years have rolled on.

Which is why there might be a few raised eyebrows over the release of this title. Yes, that's right, it does ring a few bells. Yes, it's the same name of that widely-adored strategy game from back in 1994. And yes, that was 18 whole years ago. Feeling old?

But don't be concerned. 2K's XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a reimagined remake of Microprose's classic X-COM: Enemy Unknown (also known as UFO) isn't Tim Burton's attempt at Planet of the Apes, nor is it Gus Van Sant's eye-wincing Psycho. Instead, it's rather brilliant.

Launching amid a hail of fast-paced shooters where pausing for breath is rarely an option, this turn-based point-and-clicker is a welcome respite, especially for those who remember the original and can't really take too much excitement anymore. The tension of the first is still there, but it's in the waiting, the patience and the fear that everything rests of your skills of strategy.

Like the original, the plot is rather straightforward: spindly-limbed aliens have landed on earth with less-than-friendly intentions and you, as commander of the XCOM defence initiative, must shoo them away with guns.

At the crux of it all are the individual missions, which see you control a team of elite troops sent to flush out baddies from various spots around the world. With a top-down perspective, each smoky playing area is slowly revealed as you move individual characters around, using their finite moves to take cover positions or attempt to flank the aliens on each side as they appear. If one's a sniper, perhaps you'll want to keep them back for a headshot. If another is exposed, will you risk a taking the enemy down or instead dive for cover and wait for the next move?

Of course, there's always the temptation to charge forward, guns blazing, and anyone who has just come out of a first-person shooter like Borderlands 2 is going to have show some considerable constraint. But after you've had your first soldier downed by a couple of quick green phasers, you'll appreciate the need to hold back and don your strategic hat.

Back at the main base, you're given the opportunity to upgrade your marines (assuming they've made it back), alongside allocate resources into new technology, weapons and even satellites to help spot further alien activity. There are cartoony individuals in each department to advise you along the way, which does make this element of the gameplay feel less out of your control. It's easier simply to go along with the suggestions and wait for the next mission to land.

Fans of the original game may well have long packed up their joysticks, but the few who still enjoy zapping the odd alien should see XCOM: Enemy Unknown as a worthy successor.

 

aritman@thenational.ae