Ah, yes, aliens. Can’t live with them. Definitely can live without them. At least that’s the case with the unfriendly swarm of visitors from space that invade the Earth in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Based on the nearly two decade-old UFO Defense, XCOM’s classic inspiration is infamous for serving up both a tactical delight as well as brutal difficulty that would test the patience of even the most dedicated strategy gamer. XCOM definitely pays homage to its roots, although it’s still accessible enough for even newcomers to enjoy thanks to varying levels of difficulty.
The game starts out simply enough, at least if you go through the tutorial. You command a team of elite soldiers investigating a mysterious occurrence at a certain urban area. Several dead commandos later, you find yourself at the frontline of a full-borne alien assault on the planet.
[QUICK GAMING TIP: Speaking of the tutorial, it’s certainly a good idea for newcomers to go through it in order to learn the ropes so to speak. Once you familiarize yourself with the system, however, it might be a good idea to restart the game with the tutorial off in order to prevent the aforementioned automatic deaths and also have better control of your base layout. Trust me, you’ll want to get as much control as early as possible in this game to get your plans rolling.]
At the heart of XCOM is its hardcore resource management. This is essentially what separates it from certain strategy games such as Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention, which is a great game in its own right. For example, you can play strategy games like the Disgaea series, Square Enix’s Tactics series or even Banpresto’s Super Robot Wars series pretty much on a stage-by-stage basis and just redo whatever stage you’re at if things don’t work out. In XCOM, however, you could literally save yourself into an unwinnable situation and have to restart the whole game from the beginning if you mismanage your resources or personnel. Mismanage your finances and you’ll be too broke to make upgrades to your base or equipment. Fail to build up your base and gear to handle UFO dogfights or alien skirmishes and watch that panic meter rise worldwide. Get too many of your veterans killed — deaths are permanent in this game — and you’ll be left with rookies, making later stages a knock-out drag. Micromanaging is essential in XCOM as it places a severe penalty on folks who fail to give enough attention to their setup.
Get everything right, though, and you end up with a virtuous circle that puts you one step ahead of the invading aliens with every monthly cycle. There’s just something so satisfying about turning the tables on aliens and abducting them instead, then using their own tech against them by building better armor, weapons and fighters to beat them with. Want even more of a challenge? Turn on Ironman mode and the game autosaves your progress, making in-game deaths even more permanent. Now the game isn’t without its faults. The most glaring one is a glitch that makes enemies suddenly warp in around you, which can totally mess you up in later stages. Some hardcore fans of the original might also think the game has been “dumbed down” a bit to give it more mainstream appeal. Still, with its great mix of character classes, deep resource management and addicting gameplay, XCOM is easily one of the best PC games to come out this year.
[LAPTOP GAMING NOTE: I was able to reasonably run XCOM on max settings for everything on my gaming laptop, which is a good sign for laptop gaming in general (normally, I’m only able to run more taxing games with a combination of high and medium settings). I’m also able to run it on an Intel i3 work laptop that only has the more generic Intel HD Graphics chip. Note that the game requires a dual-core 2GHz processor for its minimum spec.]
For more about portable games and apps, make sure to check out our Portable Gaming Hub.