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The Enemy And The Game Unknown

I’ve traded in my copy of Tomb Raider. It hadn’t held its value much due to the fact stores have recently had the game on sale, a further sign that stock isn’t shifting as well as the developers, publishers and retail outlets would like. This is a sad indictment of the modern game market as Tomb Raider was a very accomplished game, of distinct quality but despite selling 3.6 million copies it is viewed as a disappointment.

It’s these economics that consigns us to a future of big, budget FPS games and then every thing else trying to pick up the ‘scraps’. Still, it has allowed me to experience X-Com: Enemy Unknown for £5.

X-Com is an interesting game. While I realise the franchise has a long history I’ve not played any of the previous games. What X-Com reminds me off is a computer game version of a board game, well, two board games merged together. The game is split into a turn-based tactical skirmish game, similar something like Space Hulk, and a global game of resources, research and building similar to Civilization et al.

X-Com has a unique structure. You are running an organisation fighting the alien threat. This organisation, a bit like SHIELD, has a shadowy council that you report to. You know they’re shadowy because they seem to have a problem with their video conferencing technology and you never see their faces. Every month they give you a report on how you’re doing and how much faith your stakeholders have in you (these are countries). You see, you can’t be everywhere at once so you can’t please all stakeholders at once. You often find yourself helping countries purely out of who is going to provide the resources you need at that particular time.

Within this monthly structure time passes. During this time you research stuff. You build stuff. You extend your underground base deeper below the ground. There is a lot going on in this part of the game and the presentation belies a lot of depth, economics and interacting variables that you have to factor in. You need enough energy, scientists and engineers to support your base. You need enough money. You have a monthly income based on how well you’re working with your stakeholder countries. Your base costs more the deeper you dig and you only have so much space. That’s it off the top of my head. You accelerate time by scanning for UFO activity, but you scan using satellites which also have to be built and deployed and the number of satellites dictate which parts of the world you’re ‘covering’.

As I say…involved. I fully suspect it will be this part of the game that will be my undoing and will be why I’ll lose on my first attempt. At the moment, I’m developing technology base not entirely randomly but neither is it part of some grand design.

As the time unfolds events occur, either because of the aforementioned scanning, or just because big events happen. The story unfolds. It’s then the turn-based, tactical game springs into action as you send your team of troops in to kick alien ass. This part of the game is very slick, managing to make a turn-based, tactical exercise into a very cinematic and absorbing experience. Tense and exciting. Like the rest of the game it spins an essentially simplicity into a game of tactical depth. This depth as you develop more technology and the skill of your troops grows. Your troops are persistent.

The last part is important. They develop skills which increases the richness and depth of the tactics that can be deployed. If they die all this is lost. They’re also like a team, in that they get injured and, as a result, are out of action for days. This alone forces an element of team rotation. You’re also researching as part of the global stakeholders and base building game which gives your troops better equipment to use in the field.

I am really enjoying it. I may have to break my rule of never replaying a game as, by its very nature, it would be surprising if you beat it on your first attempt. In this way it continues with its board game vibe, as this is what you’d expect to happen with a board game. You never beat them first time and you play them multiple times mastering its mechanics and the interaction of resources with each attempt.

It’s very early days, but it all seems to work very well on an easy to play hard to master sort of dynamic.

About Ian O'Rourke

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