How XCOM Set the Gold Standard for Strategy in Tactical Games


Treating XCOM as the sole representative of the turn-based tactics genre would be horrendously unfair. Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series has a similarly long history, with its first installment launching four years before X-COM: UFO Defense. Meanwhile, more modern examples of the genre include 2018’s BattleTech and Phantom Doctrine and Nintendo’s and Ubisoft’s Mario + Rabbids games.

Despite this, XCOM continues to hold a special place of honor among turn-based tactics fans. There are several reasons why this is the case, and different players might give varied answers to which one they think is the most important. However, a big part of what makes XCOM stand out is the brilliant interplay between the franchise’s tactical and strategic layers.


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The Difference Between Strategy and Tactics Games

While people often use the words interchangeably, tactics and strategies are different things. Firaxis Games’ Civilization series is perhaps the perfect example of a turn-based strategy game. Victory in these games often requires some degree of long-term planning. The definition of long-term is naturally going to vary from game to game, ranging from a single map in Age of Empires to an entire playthrough in Civilization. However, the common idea is that players control an entire nation or army instead of a small team.

By comparison, tactics games are narrower in scope. Instead of a large army, players usually have a single squad or team under their command. However, this allows the games to depict individual battles with much more granularity. With some exceptions, strategy game players usually don’t command each unit individually or need to worry about where a given soldier is facing. Some games blur the line between the two, and many strategy games involve tactical decision-making and vice versa – though many games lean firmly towards one or the other.

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Strategy in XCOM

XCOM 2 geoscape

XCOM is firmly in the category of tactics games, but the series always incorporated a prominent strategic element in the form of the Base and Geoscape. The games have varied in how each function, but the basic premises are the same. The Base, or Bases in the first two games, is where players research technology, build weapons, and train and equip the Soldiers they command during the tactical missions. Meanwhile, the Geoscape is the world map where players monitor UFO activity, deploy Interceptors and ground teams, and, depending on the game, build new Bases and gather resources.

However, what makes the XCOM franchise stand out is not its tactical and strategic layers but how those two interact and reinforce each other. Players start at a significant technological disadvantage compared to the Aliens, and closing that gap is vital to protecting Earth from extraterrestrial assault. This means bringing back Alien artifacts, bodies, and eventually captives to research and interrogate. Successful missions also increase the funding that XCOM gets at the end of every month, letting players expand their base, recruit new soldiers, and invest in new Satellites to expand the origination’s ability to detect UFO incursions.

This creates a stable loop of alternating tactical and strategic gameplay. XCOM Squads fight aliens in turn-based tactical battles, collecting artifacts and resources in the process. Players then tasked their Scientists and Engineers with developing new technology and building more advanced equipment and facilities. These upgrades make XCOM Squads more effective in combat, allowing them to combat deadlier threats and take more risks with fewer casualties. This, in turn, lets them collect more and better artifacts and resources, beginning the cycle again.

It’s also hard to overstate the importance of strategic decision-making in XCOM games. XCOM, as an organization, doesn’t have infinite resources. Players need to carefully consider which projects are worth investing in and when. Soldiers can be injured or killed if a mission goes poorly, forcing the player to do without next time. The next mission may offer great rewards or Panic reduction in a critical area, but players must decide if it’s worth the risk of going in understrength.

XCOM Players may even find themselves weighing strategic considerations during tactical segments. For example, explosives are a great way to kill enemies and clear obstacles. However, in the Firaxis XCOM games, this carries the risk of destroying valuable Alien Artifacts. As a result, players will need to decide if the short-term benefits of using explosives are worth potentially losing out in the long term.

The point is that each step forces players to think beyond individual battles and consider how it fits into their larger goals. Now, XCOM may not be wholly unique in that regard, and players can find similar elements in games like Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock or the Darkest Dungeon series. However, XCOM emphasizes this aspect more than most, permeating the gameplay in ways few can match.

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