Jarenth Plays XCOM: Enemy Unknown — Introduction

For as long as we’ve had the capacity for thought, mankind has looked up at the stars and wondered. What lay beyond those shining points of sky? Do other creatures, in other places, make their homes in the celestial? Are we alone in the universe… or are we not? And to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke: which option would be the most terrifying?

On March 1st, 2015, both of these questions were answered in a single, violent stroke, as several unidentified objects touched down in the German town of Cologne. Mistaken at first for crashed satellites, reports quickly started flooding in. Of their strange behaviour; of their hostile intent; of their undeniably alien nature.

We are not alone. But whatever is out seems to wish it was.

On that day, the Council of Nations activated the XCOM Project: a global initiative aimed at combating the alien menace, and humanity’s last, best line of defense.

This is the story of what happened.

Hello, dear readers! As you may have gathered by now, what you have in front of you is a Let’s Play of the recently released XCOM: Enemy Unknown. A remake of the ever-popular and many-named X-COM, its announcement was met with equal parts delight and apprehension; the later announcement of a tactical shooter game by the same name not helping the latter reaction. Fans of the original the world over were hoping for a game that could capture the spirit of the older ones while improving playability and design, while fearing for much the opposite.

Now, confession: I myself never played any of the old X-COM games. Not the one. The closest I’ve gotten to the experience is through several Let’s Plays, such as this excellent X-COM: Apocalypse text LP and our own Rutskarn’s Unfit for X-Command. I am, in a nutshell, not really qualified to compare this newer installment to the older games. However, I did play the first two tutorial missions at Gamescom this year — on an XBox, no less — and found it to be quite entertaining. Because of that, and because of the largely positive reactions to my previous text-based Let’s Play, this idea was born.

Here’s the plan: I am going to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown as blind as I can. I’m not actively going to avoid information about the game, but I’m not hunting for it either. Beyond the aforementioned two tutorial levels, I have seen or read absolutely nothing about it. I’m going to play until I win, until the aliens eat me, or until it drags out and stops being funny; whichever comes first, really.

Starting a new game in XCOM provides you with three sets of options. To wit:

The Advanced options are invisible by default, but I thought you’d be interested.

The difficulty seems pretty straightforward: Easy is for new players, Normal for regular players who like winning, Classic — set to evoke the earlier X-COM games — for regulars players who like losing, and Hardcore for masochists. I should probably start on Easy, but on the other hand, that’s not going to happen. I pick Normal for this game: I hope it gives me enough challenge for interesting stories, while allowing enough leeway for my nigh-inevitable mistakes.

The optional Ironman mode, as it so often does in games, restricts saving to only one auto-save. In practical turns, that means all decisions are permanent: no re-loading to undo earlier messes. Opinions differ about its entertainment value, but for a Let’s Play, it’s really a no-brainer: I wasn’t planning on loading anyway. Plus, I find that this permanency gives every action a little more gravitas; like permadeath in roguelikes. I might turn it off in a later game (i.e. ‘if I want to win’), but it’s in full effect for this game.

Finally, the Tutorial mode scripts a few of the earlier missions for explanatory purposes. I’m leaving this on, because I have absolutely no illusions regarding my own skill.

Really, though: I don’t actually *expect* to win.

And with that, we’re off! XCOM: Enemy Unknown opens with the earlier-mangled Clarke quote…

This quote is about to be proven *hella* wrong.

…before bringing us to the town of Cologne, Germany. Impact site zero.

Objects streak from the sky, smashing into the asphalt oddly unharmed. Curious citizens draw near; what are these things? Are they alien? Are they hostile?

Just look at that smiling face! There’s no way this thing is hostile.

Oh, they are hostile. Green wisps of something — energy? — draw forth, people scream, and explosions rock the offscreen: more death from above.

There are no survivors.

Or I *think* there are no survivors. It’s hard to tell, really.

Next, a briefing from the leader of the Council of Nations, who looks suspiciously like Agent 47…

Tell me I’m wrong. I *dare* you.

…while in the background, soldiers suit up, grab weapons and pile into a VTOL. Time to find out what’s going on.

All missions start like this. Usually, though, the video image is more sit-rep and less ‘a guy talking’.

Now, as I alluded to before, I’ve played the first tutorial mission before. It is highly scripted: you make approximately zero own decisions. As such, I’m not going to do a play-by-play here; rather, I’ll tell you the three things this mission has to teach us.

Vigil. Confidence. And the Tip of the Day.

The first lesson the tutorial confers is basic control. For reference, this is the opening screen you wake up to after the various cutscenes:

First off the ramp.

Like its spiritual predecessor, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based tactics game at heart. On your turns (that is to say, my turns) each soldier can perform up to two actions. The five basic actions are Move, Fire, Overwatch, Reload and Hunker Down: Moving can be done twice, while any of the other four ends the turn. Weapon swapping, a sixth action, can be done at any time without using up an action.

Look at this schematic overview of how Moving works:

Courtesy of the tutorial.

The blue line indicates the distance a soldier can move in one action, while the yellow line costs two. Moving directly into the yellow zone — and using up both actions in the process — is called Dashing: a Dashing soldier can cover a little more ground than one who Moves twice, and also gets some mild defensive bonuses.

XCOM is fairly uncomplicated in its movement. You can sidle up to doors and open them manually, but if you plot a path that would go through a closed door or window, your soldier will simply take the most expedient route:

*Straight* through the window.

Hand in hand with moving comes the element of cover: soldiers who end their turns next to obstacles automatically hug up to it. Cover is directional, and can either be full cover — indicated by a full blue shield — or partial cover — indicated by the half-full shield. Cover means defensive bonuses, which means being harder to hit. Conversely, a yellow shield — being out of cover — is bad business sense all around.

The first half of the tutorial is pretty much this: our soldiers run around, move from cover to cover, find some disgusting corpses and enter a warehouse, MAN-STYLE. It’s there that the tutorial dispenses its second lesson: a little glimpse into the nature of our enemy.

That is to say: they’re creepy little grey aliens, they apparently have at least some sort of mind-controlling power, and they think *very* little of human lives.

The second half of the tutorial mission involves the basics of combat. Firing a weapon brings up a neat little overlay, showing to-hit and crit chance and damage potential, zooming in from the 2D-isometric view to a more involved 3D line of sight:

You just *know* there are people out there hating this, but I thought it was pretty neat.

What’s that? You want more numbers?

Well, alright, here. No need to yell.

The other options aren’t as well explained, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look at the tooltips. Overwatch, another old X-COM staple, basically puts a soldier on guard against alien movement in the alien turn. The hope, here, is that you can catch an alien out in the open while it’s moving from cover to cover, killing it before it does any more harm. Hunker Down increases a unit’s defense, but at the cost of removing their line of sight: you basically literally put your head down.

There’s more, situational actions, too. For instance, every soldier in this tutorial carries one grenade, which can be lobbed through its own interface:

You’ll also notice that things like ‘missing’ and ‘failure chance’ do not seem to factor into grenades. Whether or not this is actually true, I don’t yet know.

As I said, this whole mission is pretty much scripted. This is done partially to drive home the third, incredibly important XCOM lesson: everybody dies.

It’s a little hard to see, but there are four corpses in this screenshot. Six if you count the aliens.

Nobody is safe in XCOM. Death is only one unlucky shot away. True, these aliens are a little turbo-charged compared to the versions I’ll meet later (again: foreknowledge) but that’s just dramatic freedom. The point stands: four people go in, only one comes out.

As the mission ends, and the lone surviving soldiers falls back to base, the game reminds itself that it doesn’t really know where that base is, yet. Correspondingly, I get a choice of continents:

Pick any place. No, not that one.

Every continent has a bonus attached… but for some reason, only Europe and America are open for me. Tutorial thing? Related to the difficulty level? Whatever the cause, it hardly matters for now: since I am a European in real life, it would be remiss of me not to base myself there.

The Skyranger (for that is what these VTOLs are called) touches down, and a lone, dejected soldier walks out.

He is not in his happy place right now.

A cutscene introduces us to the main base players: Dr. Vahlen, head of science, dr. Shen, head of engineering, and… green-sweater-guy, whose name I don’t recall actually ever seeing somewhere. We’ll call him Steve for now; Steve is head of communications.

Left to right: ‘Ninja’ Shen, ‘Steve’, and dr. ‘Vahzilok’ Vahlen.

As for the base itself: it basically looks like this:

Well, what did you expect?

Because we’re still in the tutorial, function access is restricted. First, I’m to visit the surviving soldier, whose combat expertise has granted him a promotion!

Before we get to that, though, I’m going to customize this man. Yes, I know he’s just been through hell. I’m not sending him out to fight more aliens — yet — but all I want to do is completely change his name, race, head, hair colour and style, facial hair and armor colour and layout.

Meet Elijs Dima, first volunteer of the XCOM Total Image Re-imagining Project.

In fact, let me just do that for all of the other eleven new soldiers I’ve gotten:

The list is actually a little longer. And even then, if your name is not on here: have patience. It likely will be.*

That SQ. next to Dima’s name indicates his superior rank: he’s a Squaddie, whereas all the others are mere Rookies (denoted by RK, sometimes). Which brings me back to this:

Ah, a skill tree. Now we’re in familiar territory.

While Rookie soldiers are all alike, every soldier who makes Squaddie is assigned a class. I don’t actually know how many classes there are, or what they do: in this tutorial, your first soldier becomes a Heavy. This changes their weapon loadout and unlocks a small skill tree, with a binary choice at some levels. I’m quite curious to see the other classes, but the Heavy — who carries a rocket launcher and trades his assault rifle for an LMG — will suffice for now.

Finally, science: an introduction is made to the research system, which basically boils down to picking one topic from a list and waiting. There’s more to it than that, but this introduction is running long as-is. There are three options currently, one of which is unavailable due to lack of… ‘materials’. I opt to research Alien Materials, hoping for better armor.

Don’t get me wrong: I love research, and this will probably be a recurring element in this Let’s Play. But I’m honestly running out of words.

And with that, our introduction ends. Steve is calling me to the Situation Room, which I’ve learned before means another mission; my first real mission, this time.

Next episode: my first real mission! Sort of.

*I sent out a Twitter call a few weeks back, asking for volunteers who’d like their names and/or handles pasted to various doomed soldiers. This list is the result of that. At time of this going up, the 21st of October 2012, I am still accepting submissions: leave a first name, last name, and possible gender preference in the comments and you’ll be added to the list ‘o doom. There’s no guarantee that late submissions see combat time, but then again, there’s no guarantee they won’t, either. Cancel that, folks, death-signup’s over: I’ve finished the gameplay part of this Let’s Play by now. Better luck next time!


  1. Huh, so I’m Isreali (Loa Vecre). My bet was on Russian.

    Some remarks/Tips:

    – “Steve” is actually called Bradford.
    – There are four classes: Assault, Heavy, Support and Sniper.
    – Europe and America are only open for your base selection because you’re in the tutorial mode.
    – Grenades have no failure chance and cannot miss. Rockets *do*, however. (They always shoot with 90% accuracy.)
    – Charging into things, MAN-style might be fun, but also alerts aliens to your presence. The same rules apply to them as well: occasionally you’ll see sound waves coming from the distance, and one of your squad will say something along the lines of “What’s that noise?”. The sound waves give you a direction and a distance, plus each species can be identified by the noise they make.
    – Dashing to a place decreases the accuracy of any Overwatch you might trigger along the way.

    1. Appreciate the comments. Keep in mind, though, that I’m already a *little* farther than this. So I actually know most of this. I’m just reconstructing the narrative, here.

      Steve is called Steve.

      1. I know you’re further from the Twitter messages, but a lot of this stuff is never clearly explained outside of random tooltips (like how dashing helps against Overwatch). I only discovered the “more numbers” window at the very end of my first playthrough. And rockets missing their target first happened to me just yesterday.

        Of course, every bit of info I give that you didn’t know before helps my character survive, so it’s not all altruism.

        Steve Bradford does have a decent ring to it.

  2. Interesting. How does the game determine the classes? Based on the stuff rookies use and in which style they are played, or is it just random?

    Just wondering that maybe due to it being a scripted tutorial, the first meatpuppet you get is always going to turn into a heavy…

    1. I can’t say for sure, but it feels like the class for a rookie to turn into is determined when they are first created. I’ve tried forcing things by making rookies throw grenades about or use medkits, or shoot from long range, with no signs of it influencing anything.

    2. It’s usually random, but the tutorial does force a Heavy on the first. This is for reasons that will become obvious in the second semi-scripted mission.

  3. I believe ‘Steve’ gets his name mentioned precisely once, in an early cutscene, but it’s only his surname, so he could very well be a Steve.

    Should you need another rookie to throw into the meatgrinder in the future, Mr Paul Museli is available for duty, sir. :)

  4. How often are you going to be posting? Also did I make it onto the later part of that first list, or not until later?

    Not much else interesting to say on this post, but I’m looking forward to more!

    1. I’ll post these either once or twice weekly, depending on schedule. Which is to say: if I can hack it twice weekly, the second episode goes up this Thursday; in weeks where I can’t make it, Sunday’s the way to go.

  5. Wow. It’s not enough that I sometimes slip into a Canadian accent and spell words with the unnecessary and unpronounced ‘u’. (Also spelling cheque like, well, that). Now it turns out I *am* canadian.

    Sweet! Health Care! I’m off to the doctor!

    (Also I had a feeling this LP would make me want X-Com more. And it did. I need money. And free time. And money.)

    1. Frankly, if you’re enlisted in XCOM, I think life insurance and a will would be more useful than health care. At least, for anyone close to you. ;)

  6. Australian eh? That’ll work. I look forward to what will totally be a long, distinguished career!

    I mean, what could possibly go wrong? I’m sure everything will be just fine.

    1. What it does is make you a goddamn murdering machine. Really: at the present point in my game, I have three Japanese characters, and all three seem to hold a no regrets policy.

  7. Welp, I’m late, and there might be no more ‘recruiting’, but just in case you suffer a mini-genocide, sign me up – Robert Jurao – would prefer a black dude. And that did not sound at all wrong.

    Let’s see how this goes. I’m playing on the same difficulty level but without the ironman option (because fuck Robert Downey Jr.), however, I did suffer some heavy casualties due to zombies. Stupid zombies. I didn’t wanna load for casualties though, just for failed missions or corrupt files and such. Also, I seem to have a duo of angry British chicks who just won’t die. Loving it.

    Overall, thus far, this LP is even better than I expected. High hopes. Cheers!

    1. Black, I can make happen. ‘A dude’ is fully up to the random soldier generator, though.

      I have three Japanese soldiers, and I have three rather advanced Assault killing machines. And to crib a Samara quote, that is as it sounds.

      1. ‘A dude’ is probably gonna be easy to come by if your game follows the same ‘randomization’ as mine does. And by that I mean that out of about 45-50 recruits, I got around 8 females. Total sausage fest up in here.

  8. Argh, I’m gonna have to start playing XCOM now. Want to figure things out for myself a little, too :P With how much time Borderlands 2 is soaking up like a bloody sponge, I might be able to kind of run parrallel? Maybe? (‘parrallel’ is a little ambiguous here all things considered, but the idea’s there)

    Can’t imagine that list being long enough yet, so, might as well tag along. Elmo Wever. :)

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