I knew the moment the tide had turned. It was 15 hours into my first XCOM: Enemy Unknown campaign, and I’d just outfitted my squad’s psychic soldier with psi armour. I’d only discovered Major Tom’s latent mindbending abilities a few missions before, but he’d already proved himself a devastating anti-alien defence in the field. Kitted out in this gear, he was near unstoppable.
Earlier in the game, I’d hung back. I’d waited it out, luring aliens into laser crossfire, overlapping vision cones and overwatch orders, patiently, eventually clearing out XCOM’s alien infestations. Now, I could sprint psychic Tom out into the open, call out those unknown enemies in droves, and melt their puny brains. I revelled in it. I started talking at the screen. “You think you can run, you horrible bug? I’ll make you eat your friends. I’ll make you stand in the open, rip your disgusting body open with hot plasma. I’ll make you die. I’ll make all of you die.” Then I’d start cackling.
I’d invented a fiction. My soldiers were my action figures, I’d made them run and hide and shoot and watch their friends die, and I imbued them with the heroism and pathos of those events. Graham Smith had been impetuous and aggressive. He died when he strayed too close to a burning – later exploding – car. Owen Hill, once carefree and cheerful, was calcified by his death. He became a dead-eye sniper, silent and stoic, and able to lance a Muton through the eyes with a snapshot from half a map away.
Marsh Davies was relentlessly helpful. My team medic never missed a mission, and reinvigorated everyone else when their resolve slipped or their blood drained out. He never once panicked. Richard Cobbett was insane: a close-range monster, he’d hurtle into combat, heavy alloy cannon acting as far-future shotgun and drawing enemies out for easy shooting. He somehow survived the entire campaign.
Until the turning point, I imagined my women and men daunted by the task of saving humanity. After, with the psychic in their midst, I imagined them standing in XCOM’s home base, grinning. They had it in the bag. They were too powerful, too well-equipped, knew too much about their enemy. Enemy known, now.
I’d led them all the way, but I didn’t feel like it was my victory. It was theirs as much as mine. These action figures were alive. XCOM: Enemy Unknown seduces players with attachment, making you know and care for your soldiers. When they die, a tiny part of me dies. Sometimes they live. I love it when they live.
Without that attachment, XCOM is merely a mechanically superb turn-based strategy game that I’d suggest everyone plays. With it, XCOM elevates itself even further, forging player memories that’ll live as long as you play and care about games.
Read More: XCOM review.
Runners Up: FTL, Sins of a Solar Empire.