Why RPG fans really should give XCOM a try
Before I push live a review of XCOM 2 to the site, I feel I have to explain myself. The XCOM series isn't really an RPG series, of course - it's a strategy series in the finest tradition of PC classics now coming from the makers of another strategy classic, Civilization.
There's a catch, though. Where Civilization feels like a more clinical and 'pure' a take on strategy, XCOM is quite different - it asks you to invest in your cast of characters and the narrative deeply, and bolsters this suggestion with a raft of features that are surprisingly RPG-like. The core of XCOM might be absolute strategy, but bubbling beneath the surface is an undercurrent of RPG mechanics that make the game seem a natural fit for fans the genre - especially those who've enjoyed tactical or strategy driven titles. Here, ahead of XCOM 2's launch, I explain why.
Let's start from the top. Let's assume you're a hardcore RPG fan and you've never actually really even given XCOM a thought - the classic games, the modern reboot - none of it. What is it?
At its core, modern XCOM is a turn-based, grid-based strategy game. Aliens invade Earth, and you're tasked with fighting them off. In the first of the XCOM reboots, Enemy Unknown, you're a government-sanctioned agency battling the invading forces. In the second, the aliens have taken over, and you're now an underground guerilla warfare movement essentially committing acts of sabotage against the new alien puppet government of the world.
By even the publisher's genre definitions it's a strategy game, as I said before, but so much about it feels like many of the greats of the strategy RPG genre.
Behind the scenes statistics and dice rolls are determining how likely your attacks are to hit, for instance, and the grid-based movement really isn't that different - even if it is more fluid - to the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem or Disgaea. Moment-to-moment the combat is absolutely most of all about strategy, yes, but beneath that sits a thematic thread that's very RPG-like.
As such, you're worried about the class breakdown of the squad you take into battle, the equipment they have on them, and what abilities you've unlocked from their skill trees as they've grown in rank. It's true that the skill trees are more limited and binary than those in most RPGs, but they're there - there's choice.
The XCOM base is as iconic a hub and prep zone as the Normandy in Mass Effect or Laharl's Castle in Disgaea, too. Here you spend precious, limited resources to upgrade old technology and research new gear entirely, or to give your soldiers additional powers to make them more deadly. All the work you do here feels like the most engaging of RPG preparation. Scientists research technology, engineers build equipment -- even the base itself can be expended and augmented to perform better through new facilities or recruiting new staff.
Most pressing of all is the Memorial Wall, which lists the names of the soldiers who lost their lives in the line of duty, because permanent death is an absolute staple of the XCOM series.
This perhaps more than anything else encourages you to jump into the role of the commander and truly play it. Most RPGs draw you into playing the role of their hero with carefully crafted stories, but XCOM is like a Fallout or Elder Scrolls, in a weird way, in that it provides you with a brilliant sandbox to tell a story of your own.
Some of the missions are preset and some are randomly generated, and the core story of the alien invasion is of course the same - but your story truly emerges in the soldiers you train and fight with.
I still remember one of my squad members from 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown fondly; a Chinese Sniper who somehow survived for the entire game, becoming the most veteran soldier I had. Time and time again she saved the bacon of other troops with incredible shots and more than a little good luck. She became legend to me, as did others - and if these soldiers get in danger, or bite it, your heart pounds. The death is permanent. There's no going back.
The game makes you feel your role as commander so much more than any other, and when you meet up with friends who have also been playing it, all you can do is trade war stories of how your XCOM experience has unfolded.
XCOM doesn't just crib from the RPG genre, either - the more truncated story that encourages repeat playthroughs and the ease of failure recalls rogue-likes, for instance, but more than any other genre its mechanics feel most like that of an RPG.
XCOM is a Strategy game first; I don't deny that. My argument, then, is that it is an RPG second - a sub-genre, if you will. It ticks all the boxes I need it to for me to suggest it to RPG fans - it encourages you to truly immerse yourself in the role it offers you, handing over significant player choice and agency to shape the story and gameplay to your tastes. That's why we're covering it here on RPG Site.
There's a bonus for older RPG fans, too - in an age when more and more traditional turn-based RPGs are turning to action-based systems, XCOM remains steadfastly dedicated to the thinking player's turn-based combat. Take as long as you like to make those decisions, because they matter.
XCOM 2 is new on the scene, while the first game and its expansion pack are now available dirt cheap on Steam. If you love some engaging combat and have liked strategy RPGs in the past, I can't recommend it enough. Sure, it might not technically be an RPG -- but this is definitely a series that will appeal to the sensitivities of fans of the genre. If you haven't already, you should give it a shot.