I think I long ago abandoned all pretence of being a horror-focused blog. Horror is my favorite genre, but it’s not really breaking a lot of fresh ground. Or even old ground. Hell, you’d think with all the undead lying around that someone would have turned some fresh soil. Oh, I know, I’m just whinging as a set-up for this entry. Gaming has come a long way, and will go even farther, so it’s always nice to see something like XCOM: Enemy Unknown float across my screen, and then roost there like a fat spider picking away at both my time and waning sanity in the wee hours of the morning. It’s a refreshing re-imagining, and a well thought-out game. Titles like this, The Walking Dead, and Spec Ops are proof of the growing awareness of various developers of the value and flexibility of the medium they’re utilizing, as well as the creation of the sort of business models that would allow for this kind of experimentation. Not only that, but it also points to a growing community that cares about quality, with the infrastructure to make itself aware of the real creme of the crop. These weren’t cheap to produce, and they took some pretty crazy chances. So, for all the risk, effort and time that was taken in the creation of XCOM, let’s spend some time picking it apart. However, as a result, I’m going to be spoiling large swathes of the game. I posted an un-spoiled review earlier today, so feel free to skip this one and go to that one if you don’t want to be playing XCOM: Enemy Inconvenient.


In my previous review, I remarked that, when you’re playing XCOM, time is of the essence. That’s true in more than just a cliche way. A large portion of the game comes down to making the right decisions, and sacrifices, in order to have the right gun in the right place at the right time. On the whole, it’s sort of a time-management game for the tactically-oriented xenophobic in all of us. This is part what makes the game more addicting than crack cocaine. There’s always something to do, and you’re always being rewarded for your efforts on a delayed schedule. That means that, at any moment of game-play, there’s either something to do, or something coming off the assembly line. There are always decisions to make, and a steady stream of improvement and revelation. Basically, you’re being drip-fed behavioural reinforcers (to borrow some old psych jargon) on a semi-random schedule. Designing a system in this way is the absolute best method for reinforcing a response (encouraging a behavior). That being said, the value of the reinforcer depends on your investment in the game. Getting the kick-ass interceptor, building, equipping and launching it, is only reinforcing if you value the outcome of the game. This is, in part, reciprocally aided by the reinforcement, but is also aided by your level of immersion and commitment.

XCOM has a really well unified aesthetic. Even though the tactical and base development sections of the game are radically different, they are connected through cut-scene sequences that ensure a steady narrative. You never just cut away to the base. You take off, you fly, and you land. Then, you’re back at the base. Very little time passes in the intermediary, but XCOM goes through this song and dance every time to ensure that your experience is consistent. As a result, you’re never jarred out of the narrative, and you’re always following the fire instead of the smoke (Community plug: six seasons and a movie). The game moves forward based on events that take place during game-play, so there’s no real sense of level progression, unless you’re looking for it. Changes come gradually, and aren’t too jarrying (even the best suits of armor are a bit toned down), so you see the results of your work slowly come to fruition. The beginnings of most levels have a quietly-creeping-forward section during which you explore the map. XCOM could throw you right into the fray, but it knows that by making you take the time and make the effort, you’ll appreciate it that much more. It shows a real commitment to pacing. These things, as well as the sound-effects, cut-scenes, technology-levels, and plot-devices, all work together to deliver a fairly consistent experience across all modalities.

Of course, pacing and schedules of reinforcement (SoR) aren’t the only temporal toddlers in the XCOM sandbox. There’s an adage I once heard that says that all aspects of a game should feel similar to create a unified experience. Doing this requires that all the aspects of the game fit a similar arousal curve. XCOM is all about delay, tension, delay, then resolution (payday!). Sure, your soldiers only need a few days to recover, but a lot can happen in six days. Yeah, satellites only take twenty days to build, but you can lose more than one nation in a month. Okay, you’ve already built your psi-school and done your relevant research, but will you be able to find and train enough psychically-gifted youngsters before your professor gets paralysed and has to wait until his floaty-chair gets built to start teaching again. That, or the doom clock runs out. The absolute worst culprit, and easiest to demonstrate, is the dynamic camera-angle shots. First, the camera zooms in, then there’s a pause as your character takes aim, another over-long pause, and then the shot. Even with all the build-up, there’s no guarantee of a hit. Aliens do the same things, and it’s never gratifying to have to watch a slow-motion cut-scene crit your characters to death. There’s a palpable tension, though, as you watch and wait, especially if the odds of a hit aren’t in your favor. That eustress, combined with the risks of taking any action, keeps you coming back for more.


Risks you say? Oh yes. You see, as I mentioned earlier, this is basically a time-management game. You’re always racing against some sort of clock, and betting one variable against another. This takes a back-seat in the tactical game-play (aside from the terror missions), but it’s arguably present in all aspects of risk-assessment. What I mean, when I talk about risks, is present primarily in the base management portion of the game. In order to progress, you’ve got to spend time researching the latest alien jijaw, or technological doowhatzit. This takes the attention of your research team, however. As a result, you may not be researching the latest weapons. However, because you researched the plot-sensitive item, the plot will move forward, so the aliens will get stronger. You can’t just spend your time researching weapons, because you’ll need resources to research and build them. You need to go on missions to acquire alien resources, and specific missions to acquire money. That, or wait for your monthly-stipend from the not-the-UN. To increase this, and your chance of getting missions (which happen semi-randomly), you’ll need satellites, interceptors, weapons, and healthy troops. Again, though, you’ll need money and resources for these things. You’ll need to spend time to gather the resources necessary to produce them, and still more time to put it all together. However, the more missions you go on, the more troops will be injured. The more often you get missions, the fewer troops you’ll have unharmed for each mission. So, you’ll need more troops, more missions to train them on, more interceptors, more satellites, and anon. That’s not even mentioning facility development. You see how I said there’s always something to do?

All of these considerations are being weighed against the overall clock. If you lose eight nations, or the doom clock counts down, then you’re boned. Every mission you embark on (except the terror missions) increases the panic level of two countries while lowering that of the one you did the mission for. As a result, every time you hit the field, ready to combat the alien menace, you’re moving closer to destruction. Every mission is a chance to lose a soldier. Every nation you want to cover is one more satellite (etc). Every nation lost is one less source of income. Many missions will give you new things to research, which require more time. Time, though, is one luxury you don’t have in abundance. One nice thing is that they won’t ramp things up too far until you’ve performed the requisite objectives to make things move forward. Assaulting the base, after you’ve captured a living crystal, is an example of this. You don’t start seeing the really hairy troops until after this. Then again, this is another dagger in disguise. It makes you want to ease into the transition, and bulk up as much as you can, but if you faff around too much at that point, then you’ll have even less time in the later missions. It’s not difficult to lose a nation if you do too many missions. As I said, you’ll always be receiving a panic increase on some nations, and it’s difficult (read: impossible) to protect everything, even with the satellites. Sometimes, you won’t be in a position to do anything. Sometimes, you’ll back yourself into a corner. Sometimes life (read: XCOM) is unfair.

So, aside from pacing, SoR, and a unified aesthetic, there are a lot of variables to juggle, with a very Sophie’s Choice decision-making game design. These temporal tots weren’t raised around teratogens, though. Besides creating a very addicting game, they also serve up the narrative experience on a silver platter. By your third hour, you’re in the thick of it. You’re invested in this all-or-nothing struggle against a terrible enemy, and with that commitment comes the true effect of all of these temporal shenanigans: stress and immersion. You really start to value the victories and dread the failures. So much planning and busy-work has gone into the game that you not only want to win, but you don’t want to lose. That, more than anything else, mirrors the plight of the XCOM commander better than anything else, except for one slight difference: it’s not “want,” it’s “can’t.”

Two more things before we round things off. I mentioned in my previous review of the game that I had trouble figuring out the depth of the game. There were cues worked into it: the limited number of psychic abilities, the strength of the enemies, the bewildering research speed, and the wording on my armor sets (“est” is by far the most over-used suffix in gaming history). I guess I just wanted there to be more. After all the build-up, the end is kind of lame. I’m not even getting into the physics that don’t make sense, or the obvious sequel set-up that is obvious. There’s only one additional type of interceptor. There are only three tiers of weapons, armor sets, and enemies. There’s only one type of robot, with a couple variations. There aren’t very many huge maps, and the last encounter is disappointing to say the least. I only lost two soldiers on that mission, and they fell to the sniper fire of my own mind-controlled unit. The random encounters, multi-player, and different modes give it definite replay value, but it’ll lose part of the mystique. It’ll all be a bit “been there.” Still, it’s an experience that every gamer should have, if they can. Hell, non-gamers, too, if we can swing it. I recommend travel agents and short-order cooks for their time-management skills and long-term planning abilities.

Lastly, I’d like to list off all the things in this game that require time (as a resource) as a sort of supplement to the overall article.

Research. Elaborate engineering projects. Healing after a battle. Rebuilding an interceptor. Repairing a robot. Launching a satellite. Transferring an interceptor. Customizing the load-out of an interceptor. Excavating. Forge research. Building new facilities. Hiring new soldiers. Psionic testing. Scanning the globe. Battlefield skirmishes.

If I’m missing anything, please let me know. Basically, this just serves to illustrate exactly how much of the game relies on time as a resource. Until next space! (six seasons and a movie!)

2 Responses to “XCOM: XCOM”

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