Above is a screen grab from "XCOM: Enemy Unkown." (2K Games)
Video games have been a house divided. On the bottom floor are the first-person shooter games — long on action but often short on brains. On the top floor are strategy games — sharper but often a bit dry.
“XCOM: Enemy Unknown” knocks down the walls between the genres with an armored battle suit and a laser rifle. It combines 2-D strategy and resource management with the vivid graphics of a shooter game. It also teaches good squad-level tactics. And you get to blow up aliens. It doesn’t get any better than that.
“XCOM: Enemy Unknown” is the descendant of the classic “UFO: Enemy Unknown” (aka “X-COM: UFO Defense”) from the 1990s. Like the original, its premise is that aliens are landing on Earth and terrorizing the inhabitants. The only force that can stop our future extraterrestrial masters is XCOM, an international command funded by the nations of Earth.
The game has several layers. At the top is the strategic layer, which requires the player to build up a base with laboratories, workshops, hangars and barracks, plus containment facilities for captured aliens. But everything costs money to build and maintain, and despite the threat to the human race, the member nations of XCOM tend to be stingy.
Next is the personnel management layer. Players command a force of XCOM troopers, each of whom will acquire various skills and be equipped with various weapons. Some troopers will prove prone to panic in battle and will have to be discharged. Others will distinguish themselves and be promoted through the XCOM ranks.
There is also the space defense layer. As UFOs deliver alien raiding parties, they can be detected by XCOM radar sites and shot down by XCOM interceptors (which remind me of the fighters from the mod 1970 British series “UFO.”) Once an alien spacecraft is shot down or lands, an XCOM team is flown to the site to kill or capture the aliens and their technology.
Finally, there is the sparkling heart of the game: the tactical battles. The original XCOM taught better squad-level tactics than any computer sim I know, and the new version continues the tradition. Each turn, the soldiers are moved one by one, and then the aliens do the same.
That’s obviously not a depiction of reality, but what makes the system work is that everyone behaves pretty sensibly. Humans can be ordered to move, fire or assume overwatch mode to provide covering fire, and they’ll actually shoot at aliens who shoot at the humans. Aliens hide in buildings, use overwatch fire themselves, and like to ambush unwary humans.
There are several types of aliens, each with exotic weapons, from high-powered beam weapons to mind control that enslaves humans. They and their technology can be captured, studied and copied. Thus, the XCOM troopers improve in body armor and armament, but then so do the aliens.
XCOM isn’t a horror game, but the atmospherics are creepy. The aliens like to land at night, and XCOM troopers often find themselves in dark cities stalking creatures with advanced weapons unknown to Terran science. The game is also scary in the classic sense: You’re never sure whether there’s something frightening on the other side of that door.
There are various missions, such as destroying an alien raiding party or rescuing a human VIP caught in an alien raid. But often there will be simultaneous alien raids, and the XCOM troopers have to choose one to respond to. Protect an American city while the aliens raid a Chinese city unhindered, and China will cut its funding. There are times when you wonder if humanity deserves to lose.
There are some lessons here for military simulations. One is that it is possible for a turn-based game to capture some of the simultaneity of man-to-man infantry combat. Not perfectly — I wouldn’t use XCOM as a convoy trainer — but good enough for a thinking man’s urban combat game. Taliban or alien Muton, there’s always something nasty lurking behind the door.
Let me emphasize again that this is turn-based. The player is not racing a clock or risking carpal tunnel syndrome from frantically clicking a mouse. There is time to think about tactics, about what would be a good field of fire, about who should cover whom. This is good news for baby boomers who can’t or won’t master first-person shooter games.
Are you listening, colonel? You don’t need to be a video game whiz like your young soldiers. If they get too smart-assed, play them at XCOM. Speed doesn’t count in this game. Just brains and cunning. Bet you can beat ’em.