XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game about not just thinking, but feeling, and it carried the power to make you care about each and every soldier sent onto the battlefield.
The story of Gertud Weber is not particularly important. She was simply a soldier who did what she had to do. When her hometown of Hamburg was attacked by an enemy unlike any she had ever seen, she fought back.
She joined the XCOM initiative – a program that was as bold as it was desperate, joining together all the nations of the earth to fight against the alien invaders. She was nervous of course, on that first mission, but when she met those first sectoids face to face her nerves held. She did her part and helped her squad to victory. She proved to be a sharp shot, and upon her return to the organisation headquarters, she was given the role of sniper.
More missions followed, dozens of them, and Weber showed her value again and again. With her penchant for yellow, her teammates were soon calling her Bumblebee, and with each successful mission her reputation grew. She became a regular in the main squad, and though she was not lucky enough to be given the gift of Psionics, she was still part of the squad that took the trip to the last bastion of the invasion.
The end of her story isn’t important. Hell, it’s not even alone. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is littered with dozens of stories, each of them as unique as Gertud’s. Of all the games I have played this year, only one has told stories that gripped me and refused to let me go. For a game that is, on the surface at least, about shooting aliens, that’s not a bad effort.
Every soldier counts
I am not an XCOM veteran. I’m not one of the many people who have faithfully played the original X-COM games all these years. So I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this game. I knew that it was a turn-based strategy game, and I knew that there was a permadeath mechanic. I expected tension, I expected difficulty, and I expected to throw my controller from one end of the room to the other.
I wasn’t expecting stories that engrossed me completely. Yet XCOM did just that. The overarching story was solid enough to engage me, but from there it was the smaller narratives that stole the show.
Each and every one of the men and women under my command had their own story to tell, from the moment they first faced the alien menace right up until they died or succeeded. Each country had their own story too, of panic and fear, of brief moments of hope and of total panic when it seemed they had been forsaken.
And while these stories played out in front of my eyes, I had to balance countries, finances and my base itself. I got the opportunity to watch my decisions play out , and saw the consequences of every mistake. Each of my errors were displayed in horrifying detail, and time and time again I watched one of my soldiers fall to the alien forces.
Take for example the story of Kofi Dambuza. It’s not a long one, because in his very first mission I recklessly ordered him too far forward. Suddenly he was being flanked, with sectoids on either side of him and a floater staring down the barrel of his rifle. And, just like that, he was dead – lying there all too lonely as his squadmates were suddenly fighting to repair the deficit that he had left.
I completed that mission. Not a single other squad member died, but it still felt like a failure. I had failed that one man – a failure that was entirely of my own making – and that knowledge struck home. The investment that you create with these men and women, these little figures that you control, is wholly remarkable, and is perhaps XCOM’s greatest achievement.
Over the years I have played games like XCOM, but never have I agonised over the fate of the soldiers that I controlled. Never have I sat and thought about a move for not just seconds, but minutes, plotting out consequences and reactions in my head, agonising about how far I should move, what cover I should take, whether to take this shot or that shot or to simply wait in overwatch mode.
Only one game this year has made me worry about every move that I make. Only one game this year has engrossed me with the stories that it has to tell. Only one game this year has kept me coming back for more, over and over and over again. For me, there can be only one game of 2012: XCOM: Enemy Unknown.