XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game about an alien invasion in the same way that Mario Teaches Typing is a game about Mario; or, in other words, it’s not. Just as Mario Teaches Typing tries to teach you typing (surprise!), XCOM is a lesson in probability. Like math should be, XCOM is hard. Your enemies look like aliens, and sound like aliens, but as far as I’m concerned these aliens have landed on Earth with the sole mission of making me very mad at video games. Because as a human, I don’t like math. I make bad decisions all the time. Sometimes I take a shot that only has a 30% chance to hit because, gosh, that seems big enough, and then it misses, because it had a 70% chance to miss, and I’m an idiot. Then I reload and try again.
XCOM is edutainment, and like all edutainment, it’s sometimes fun and sometimes educational and sometimes even both.
Fortunately, XCOM is mostly just fun. The math is not complicated, but there are lots of variables to shuffle around. You’ll enjoy that feeling of tactical cleverness as you move your soldiers across the battlefield, ensuring maximum defensive bonuses and prime flanking opportunities. Your soldiers advance into different classes, which are further defined by customizable skill trees, letting you assemble your little alien defense force in all sorts of interesting arrangements. You can’t help but feel good about yourself when you spring a trap on a pack of sectoids and watch their little grey bodies slump to the ground (or rocket off into the distance, as the case may be). Don’t worry that they might be here on a peaceful mission and there’s been some horrible misunderstanding: the game makes it clear that these aliens are total shitheads.
The game becomes less fun when you realize it really is about math, completely and absolutely. A risky shot is actually risky. You’ll probably miss because that’s what a 25% chance means, and then you’ll die because the aliens will shoot you for what I estimate is one billion points of damage. XCOM pulls few punches.
You’ll even miss some of those near-guaranteed 90% shots, because that’s how math works. Sometimes aliens will make some near-impossible critical hit and you’ll lose your most experienced soldier even though that’s totally bullshit. Much like taking an algebra test, you have to accept this, and you may come to appreciate this bullshit math on its own terms. You even enjoy it in a perverted way. “That’s XCOM for you!” you say, as if it’s charming that this video game is as capriciously unfair as real life.
XCOM’s story, as I’ve come to understand it, is about me getting less mad at video games as I get better at math. In this regard, the game follows a satisfying curve. Your soldiers level up and aliens get stronger at about the same pace that you get comfortable making the necessary calculations in your head. XCOM offers several difficulty modes for those who are better at math at begin with, or want to have less fun. I opted for “less fun” and jumped right into Classic mode, a reference to the notoriously difficult 1994 original, X-COM: UFO Defense. Many hours later, I started to enjoy myself.
There is a second point where the game becomes less fun, and that’s when you realize it’s sometimes not about math at all, and you have been lied to. Like many strategy games, XCOM relies on random numbers to determine whether a shot hits or misses. It’s a simple percentile roll, somewhere between 1 and 100%, which you try to influence as best you can by taking cover, buying better equipment, flanking your enemies, etc. This means that sometimes, despite your best efforts, despite having a measurable numerical advantage, you will suffer severe losses. Dumb luck. This is why XCOM is a lesson in probability and not arithmetic, and why optimal strategies do not always win, but – on average – leave you with greater resources than the alien menace at the end of the game.
Random numbers bring with them a sort of drama, it’s true, and gamers enjoy landing unlikely shots and critical hits. We like a little Candy Land in our chess. But more than that, these random numbers make strategy games challenging to average people. However accomplished we feel after dispatching an alien attack force, XCOM doesn’t require that much brain power. XCOM is, after all, played by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. At most, it’s a sort-of-difficult puzzle, one that most of us could solve pretty quickly if it didn’t involve random variables.
But oh, those variables. A single missed shot can change the momentum of an mission. One unexpected critical shot can force you to restructure your entire attack. Unlike some strategy games, XCOM isn’t a puzzle you solve once before coasting to victory. Every mission is a little bit complicated from start to finish. As long as you’re paying attention, it’s hard to screw up too badly, but you need to be paying attention all the time.
XCOM has received a lot of attention for its difficulty, but what’s more remarkable to me is that you do not need to be a strategy masochist to enjoy this game. XCOM is unforgiving and yet completely accessible. It is difficult, but you don’t need to keep GameFAQs open in a separate window (which wouldn’t help you anyway). XCOM won’t let you get away with poor play. You can’t brute force your way past the enemy, and you can’t ignore key strategies of the game. You need to learn the lessons XCOM‘s trying to teach, but they’re not hard lessons to learn. They’re just lessons you can’t forget.
One sloppy turn and the aliens have wiped out half your team. A second sloppy turn and the mission is over. I’m mouthing “bullshit” as soon as the game loads, sometimes because of dumb luck but mostly because I let my mind wander. Then I hit reload as fast as I can because nothing is quite so satisfying as nailing a Thin Man from across the map and watching him burst into a cloud of useless vapor.
Because fuck Thin Men.