April 16, 2015
Location: Sapporo, Japan
Operation: Extraterrestrial Terrorism Response
Codename: Lost Spark
Mission Parameters: Failure will result in the immediate loss of resources and support from Japan. This would deal a devastating blow to the XCOM project.
Project Goal: Save the Earth, and all who call it home.
This mission, which comes from a template of regular assignments, delivered my most profound gaming experience of 2012, one I'll remember for the rest of my days. Games that take hold on your mind well after you power down the console or put the PC to sleep deserve to be called Game of the Year. Kotaku has nominated eight so far. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the ninth and last.
Here's what happened. It was my first terror response, and my ill-considered, but understandable push to save every civilian left my unit spread out and unable to help teammates. We had three veterans, a scared rookie, and an apple-cheeked assault specialist from Washington state, fresh off his promotion to squaddie. I'd named him for a friend, as most players of XCOM do.
Our top sniper, who had just made lieutenant, was charged and wounded by the last chryssalid and failed to stop it at close range. My friend, the squaddie, had a shotgun and the run-and-gun perk, allowing him to fire after two movements. The medikit I'd assigned him was used to save the rookie. I directed him to charge the chryssalid and blast it point blank. He inflicted a critical hit and, having presented himself as an unprotected target, was killed in the next turn. The lieutenant then dispatched the enemy with one shot from her sidearm.
I saved the game, went upstairs, and wrote out a casualty notice to my friend. Then I wrote the orders for a posthumous medal, legitimately choking up as I typed out words like "indomitable courage" and "extraordinary heroism." Then I wrote the remarks the president delivered at his funeral, attended by the heads of state of all the XCOM nations. The prime minister of Japan was there.
That award and that funeral didn't happen in XCOM of course. Still, these perfectly hallucinated scenes—and if you have played the game you have at least one—are a direct result of the game's brilliant design, honoring a tradition going back nearly two decades. Considering what XCOM: Enemy Unknown was up against, this is the best execution, in the face of the highest expectations, of any game development team in 2012. This is XCOM we're talking about, a titan of PC gaming being remade—and on consoles, too.
Remember when XCOM: Enemy Unknown was formally announced? It was a year ago tomorrow. The XCOM reboot that everyone loved to hate, announced in 2010 and showed at E3 in 2011, had been delayed. Conventional wisdom had it that 2K Games hustled Enemy Unknown into service as a stopgap, a tide-me-over, possibly even a downloadable party favor, to appease the diehards and deflect their disappointment from the other XCOM, which departed significantly from the original.
If that's really so, then Firaxis did a hell of a job on a rushed schedule (even if the game's development history dates to 2008.) As the sports writer here, I deal with games built on a one-year lifespan on a daily basis. I can't name the last time a major publisher put out a multiplatform, retail release game this good nine months after it was announced.
It's not that the game's underlying concepts of strategic neglect, inevitable defeat and advancement from it, are novel introductions, either in this game or in the strategy genre overall. It's how perfectly XCOM: Enemy Unknown forces these conditions, and how the tenor of the game changes once you suck it up and push ahead, despite the fiasco of that last UFO crash investigation.
All of that said, even after accepting defeat as a fact of life, XCOM remains a tough, demanding game, even on "Normal" difficulty. Not with a gun to my head would I ever attempt its "Impossible" difficulty, though its inclusion is a shrewd nod to the idea that if we ever face an invasion led by beings with this kind of power, we're unavoidably doomed. Still, there is a chorelike quality not only to XCOM's interstitial missions—which necessarily grind you along toward weapon and technology upgrades—as well as in its liturgy of effective combat. Preventing flanking, moving slowly, covering teammates, all of these chesslike steps must be followed, no matter how skilled your fighters are. If you are new to the series, you will have to learn a lot by trial and error, and sometimes the mistakes you make in your broader strategy of research, engineering and training will send you down a path that makes ultimate success much harder, if not impossible. A lot of XCOM: Enemy Unknown assumes knowledge of the series or the genre, and without it, the game has discouraging jolts.
To XCOM's credit, though, the game is as honest in consistently applying consequences to your long term strategy as it is to your choices in short-term conflicts. Units that are highly trained but poorly equipped will get crushed in the field. A project with unstoppable soldiers will be in serious trouble if it doesn't have enough satellites in the air, or hasn't built advanced aircraft. There's an orthodoxy in the tactics, too, in the way shooting from elevation, flanking (or avoiding it) and using cover and suppression are utterly critical, especially as your largest force will be only six members, perpetually tasked with repelling superior numbers.
XCOM has its own story. It features cutscenes, pivotal missions and events, story-based set pieces and a cinematic finale. Deep down, though, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is what defines the best of video gaming: it's a great game, first and foremost. And still it provides a greater tablet for players to write their own stories; to write a friend at midnight, regretfully informing him of his heroic death in action.
The writers of Kotaku are nominating nine games for 2012 Game of the Year. The nominations will be posted throughout the first week of January. The winner of our staff vote will be announced on the following Monday and that game will be our 2012 GOTY, shifting 2011 GOTY Portal 2 a little further down our imaginary trophy shelf. Read all of our 2012 nominations, as they're posted.