Video-game aliens have gotten bigger, uglier and meaner over the years.
Think of the Covenant warriors in "Halo" or the Locust Horde in "Gears
of War" huge, dumb, slobbering brutes who can soak up plenty of bullets
before they pounce on you and crush your skull.
invaders in "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" (2K Games, for the Xbox 360,
PlayStation 3, $59.99; PC, $49.99) aren't exactly benevolent they have
come to Earth to enslave humanity but their advantage is more
technological than physical. Indeed, the first aliens you encounter, the
Sectoids, are so scrawny they look like a stiff breeze could snap them.
But their laser guns can disintegrate human flesh, and some of them can
take over helpless Earthling minds.
"XCOM" (as in
"extraterrestrial combat") is a throwback to the golden age of science
fiction, when bug-eyed monsters stalked the pages of pulp magazines. The
story is nothing new a relative handful of stalwart men and women make a
last stand against overwhelming odds but the developers at Firaxis
Games know how corny it is and have some fun with the melodrama.
the Thin Men, aliens who are bioengineered to look like humans, only to
be given away by their discolored flesh and reptilian eyes. Or the
insectoid Chrysalids, who lay eggs in their human victims, who then turn
into zombies until they explode and give birth to new monsters.
for the good guys, you have a couple of gleefully deranged scientists
who seem more obsessed with studying alien tech than with saving the
planet. And you have the shadowy Council, a global consortium that keeps
pushing you to fight while barely providing the resources you need.
field engagements you have four kinds of troopers: Assault, who are
skilled in close combat; Heavy, who can lug around machine guns and
rocket launchers; Support, who make good medics; and Snipers, who are
deadly at long distances. The more missions they survive, the more
skills your troops earn, and you'll need a good mix to defeat the
increasingly powerful invaders.
This isn't the kind of combat that
"Halo" fans are accustomed to. Instead, "XCOM" revives a genre that has
rarely been seen on game consoles turn-based strategy. Essentially, you
take a turn moving your troops around and attacking the aliens; then
the game's artificial intelligence takes over and strikes back.
each mission begins, you can't see the enemy. Rushing headlong into the
fog of war is a good way to find your squad outmanned and outgunned;
it's wiser to take things slowly and try to pick off the invaders a few
at a time. It's like chess with plasma rifles, and it's a refreshing
break from the usual run-and-gun mayhem of video-game combat.
is best-known for its landmark strategy series "Civilization," and
players who enjoyed conquering the world in those games will have just
as much fun saving the world in "XCOM." On the other hand, those who
have been intimidated by "Civilization" or just don't have the time for
its epic, dayslong matches will find "XCOM," whose missions rarely last
longer than an hour, easier to get into.
The original "X-COM"
(with a hyphen) came out nearly 20 years ago and is still regarded as
one of the greatest PC games ever. But for all its retro trappings, the
new "XCOM" feels entirely fresh. There's nothing else like it on
consoles. Three and a half stars out of four.