Polygon 2012 Games of the Year #5: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown should be less of a surprise.

Yes, it's a turn based strategy game. And yes, it's a reboot of a beloved PC series, which would be enough of an epithet without the added emotional baggage of "now for consoles." This is a pretty decent trifecta of warning signs that manage to hit almost every audience XCOM hoped to resonate with — the old-school PC gamers and X-COM enthusiasts and a new generation of console gamers.

But XCOM: Enemy Unknown was also developed by the team who brought consoles and handhelds Civilization: Revolution, which took one of the PC platform's most beloved turn-based strategy series and streamlined it just enough to make it work, while adding a host of forward-thinking tweaks and changes that made it as relentlessly playable as Civilization has ever been. So maybe we should have known.

But even the highest expectations born of Civilization: Revolution's success couldn't have prepared me for XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It's a remarkable combination of meticulous strategy and the fallout that results when the fog of war meets the best laid plans. There's an element of the random that does't feel arbitrary, it feels unpredictable and exciting. XCOM presents several viable options for forward technological progress and then allows the player to prioritize as they see fit.

Maybe it's because failure in XCOM is simultaneously heartbreaking and ruthlessly educational.

It's not that every strategy is viable. XCOM has a number of clearly riskier tactics available. But you're not just playing XCOM; you play with XCOM. It feels like a toy box, save that you're using toys to hunt other toys and using their technology to build better toys.This might explain exactly why XCOM: Enemy Unknown became one of this year's biggest gaming timesinks.

It doesn't just encourage multiple playthroughs, it practically requires them. Maybe it's because failure in XCOM is simultaneously heartbreaking and ruthlessly educational. The possibility of squad member permadeath is an excellent motivator to study XCOM's harsh curriculum, and the price of failure makes the spoils of success that much sweeter. This loop made XCOM one of the only games of 2012 that warrants repeated attempts on escalating difficulties.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the best kind of reboot. It honors the original game, but Firaxis also labored hard over picking apart what made the original special. They didn't just take things, they performed a full (alien) autopsy on X-COM and its sequels to build something that feels new and exciting, and they've more than earned their place as one of the best games of 2012.

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