Growing up, I had one single fear: Aliens. When I was a kid, I was always terrified of them. During afternoon recess, my eyes were always scanning the skies, watching for that moment when several thousand silvery disks screamed down out from the blue carrying weapons and hyper intelligent, callous minds with the will to use them. My nights were spent hidden under the covers in stark silence, listening for odd sounds and waiting with bated breath for when my door might explode open in a shaft of light. I could practically feel the cold clammy hands grip my ankles and drag me out of bed, to a place where hostile demons from the stars might look at me the same way I might look at a lab rat. This feeling of dread was with me almost every night, all the way through middle school and going into high school. You can imagine what it was like for me to finally get ahold of XCOM.
I am speaking of course about XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis’s 2012 remake of the 90s classic. In it, you are given command of XCOM, a secretive paramilitary force dedicated to the defense of Earth from hostile extraterrestrial threats. With the resources at your disposal, you are tasked with intercepting an ever-increasing fleet of UFO’s, outfitting your troops for crash retrieval missions, and reverse engineering the recovered technology to make more advanced weaponry that makes defending the Earth much easier. This wasn’t your typical garden variety, Saturday morning cartoon-level of corny sci-fi either. These were the kind of aliens that I feared as a child. They were the kind of aliens who abducted helpless humans in their sleep, the ones who crashed at Roswell and the ones that every show on the History channel now are about. To date, XCOM was the only game that I have found that took my childhood fears and matched them with a sense of escalating action. To the developer’s credit, the escalation of the alien’s plot to enslave the Earth carried over to the gameplay flawlessly.
First contact is initiated by the aliens. First appearing on XCOM’s radar, high altitude UFOs rain destruction down below them in the form of high altitude drop pods targeting Earth’s cities. Coming down like fiery hammers, these drop pods impact cars, rooftops and asphalt, and immediately dispense a green gas that engulfs anyone near them in a silky cocoon. From then, the aliens emerge. Sectoids, based on classical depictions of alien grays, creep out of their loading bays, determined to harvest the humans unfortunate enough to get caught in their initial blitz. They are coming with plasma pistols and telepathy, a gift from their brutal and uncaring elders who are masterminding the invasion. Meanwhile, you are left with Kevlar and bullets—all standard issue courtesy of the XCOM quartermasters. Your first engagement with the aliens was hectic to say the least. Leaving behind a body of dead aliens, the lone survivor limps back to base for a promotion as the science labs go to work dissecting the alien corpses.
Over the weeks, you witness a slow build-up of alien forces on missions. Floaters—aliens with cybernetic rocket packs painfully grafted onto their bodies—appear. Acting as lookouts, these aliens will flank and snipe at your soldiers from every elevation. Meanwhile, the aliens are ramping up their subterfuge efforts, deploying hybrid infiltrators to assassinate high value targets. These “Thin Men” will wreak absolute havoc on your financial operations if you aren’t careful, as one well-placed plasma round to the back of a certain VIPs head may just determine the outcome of the game during XCOM’s formative months.
As weeks turn to months, their tactics will change. Mutons, nine foot tall hulking monstrosities packing heavy plasma weapons, will wreak absolute havoc on your squads if you aren’t ready. Cyberdisks, semi-sentient transformable turrets, will take to the skies and rain down missiles and blasts of destructive rays on XCOM and civilians alike. It is during this period that the civilians you are fighting to protect will suffer the most, as the alien forces will now start to target cities in large-scale terror attacks. Their deadliest weapon, a mutated insectoid bioweapon known as the Chryssalid, will make its ugly appearance on these missions. These chitinous hordes will roll out in force and implant fast-growing eggs inside of anyone unfortunate enough to get in their way. Like a virus, with each kill the Chrissalids replenish their ranks. If you aren’t careful, you may just be facing an army of them as they claw and scramble over each other to get to you.
By the end of the year, your squad will be completely different. Old faces that have been with you since the very beginning will likely be dead, with fresh-face recruits taking their places in the fight. Gone are the days of bullets and rockets. You are going in with genetically enhanced psychic super soldiers, armed with plasma weaponry and a host of powerful psionic attacks that rival the ones used by the Ethereals, the leadership caste of the alien forces. It’s at this point that the aliens have upped their game as well. With Berserker-class Mutons now ripping through roadblocks, and Sectopods—walking battle tanks—roaming the streets, the science expedition the aliens initially set out on is now over. Battle cruisers now patrol the skies as you face an armada, a full invasion force sent to subjugate the planet. The balance of the war is constantly changing, and just when you think things are finally turning in your favor, the aliens pull one over on you by deploying another type of alien or super weapon to use against you. Make no mistake, this is a game that you can (and probably will) lose. Death is permanent. The soldiers that you spend hours training and modifying with alien tech can die, and each death will leave a unfillable void in your squad roster. Each failed mission may push the various funding world superpowers away and into “devil’s deal” pacts with the aliens, their rights as a species forfeited in exchange for peace. One by one, the world’s super powers will fall to the might of the aliens, and in your darkest hour, Earth’s only hope might be a last-ditch suicide mission to decide the fate of humanity. To say that this game’s plot is intense is an understatement.
What makes the game unique, however, is not the plot itself but how the plot is presented to you during gameplay. As you meet the increasingly powerful alien forces, it soon becomes apparent that the aliens are doubling their efforts in order to counter your attempts at fighting them. They bring Floaters and Mutons, which are supposed to be reserved for frontline battles, along as security because you keep eliminating their field researchers. The aliens are conducting terror missions not because they find a perverse joy in it, but because they want to send a message to the world that they can’t be stopped. Your HQ getting attacked is not just the aliens hitting back at you, it is also the game’s clever way of taking you down a peg because it thought that you were winning one too many times. At the end of the day, it’s not just the cinematics that provide you with details of the plot, but the crushing difficulty curve that knocks you down when you get too powerful.