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Have You Played... XCOM: Enemy Unknown?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Well, 'tis the season and all that. What with XCOM 2 currently overheating a few million graphics cards across the world, it seems a fine time to think back upon Firaxis' original attempt to reboot Julian Gollop's classic strategy+everything game for a new generation. (And for an old generation. Primarily an old generation, maybe).

There is a very real chance I've played XCOM more than any game other than Quake III, World of Warcraft and City Of Heroes. Granted, part of that is chance and timing: previews, reviews and expansion packs, then doing the whole thing over again on iPad during paternity leave (baby in one hand, the lives of a dozen pretend soldiers in the other), but part of that is because I wanted to.

Why? That's a question I've asked myself often - including during a recent spate of long nights with XCOM 2 - and never been entirely sure of the answer. Is it the Skinner box hook of all those random number generators, and of the climb up a tech tree which keeps on throwing rewards at me? I don't think that can be overlooked, and similarly neither can the awareness that XCOM essentially loops the same compulsive experience over and over again. I think that's the most meaningful difference between it and the olden X-COM, really: the original always felt like a frightening foray into the unknown, whereas XCOM is more of a puzzle-box. I have these pieces, where do I put them all and in which order?

It makes me a little uncomfortable, to be honest. I can sense the deliberateness of the design, working hard to keep me in for one-more-mission, racking up those hours, hungering for more toys and powers. I worry, sometimes, that XCOM is the thinking man's Diablo. That it's hollow.

What saves me from those thoughts is the realisation that, while the commencement of almost every mission has me rolling my eyes at the interruption to whatever I was researching or building, once I'm there on the ground fighting the good fight I don't think about anything else. Every mission, every time, feels critical, feels life or death, feels like it's challenging me. (At least up until the very late-game, by which point I'm essentially fielding the Justice League International).

That's why I kept on going back to the XCOM well. No matter what else is does well, no matter the ways in which it doesn't quite honour its heritage, it does tension so, so well. What should I do? What can I do? Is there a way out of this?

There always is, you know.

And I think I'll always feel fonder towards XCOM 1 than I will to 2, because despite the latter's many improvements and/or changes it's still "just" an iteration of what came before. It pulled off something that kept me coming back without ultimately hating myself for it (the reason I eventually bounce away from any MMO I spent serious time with). It's something I always want more of without feeling that it's unhealthy. And hell, I don't even think about it as "X-COM". They are true companions. That hyphen means something.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.