Why is XCOM the best game of the year?

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a risky game. Reviving a classic franchise’s gameplay, and not just its name, XCOM is difficult, complicated, and uncompromising. More than that though, by focusing on great gameplay above all, they created something addictive, surprisingly daunting and, as we know now, one of the best games of the year.

Before its release, there was no reason to think that XCOM would be good game, never mind a great one. Conceptually, it’s a fusion of two niche genres - turn-based strategy and Civilization-style resource management. Moreover, developer Firaxis revealed that the game was being designed to work well on consoles, despite the fact that the game they described didn’t exactly sound like a console-minded product. In the end that’s Enemy Unknown’s greatest achievement, mechanically speaking.

Friaxis took an inaccessible genre more infinitely more playable by optimizing the unwieldy controls associated with the type of game they wanted to make. When you boil it down, all they did was streamline the various inputs for your soldiers, minimizing the amount of time spent in menus away from the action. For example, to move a character, all you have to do is highlight them, then click on where you want them to go: The UI indicates how far they can go, what kind of cover they’ll have, and if a visible enemy would have a clear shot at them. Getting so much information so quickly makes it easier to strategize without having to stop and consider all the angles.

Streamlining aside, the real strategy of XCOM’s combat comes from a new command the developer gave to every character in the game. “Overwatch” sacrifices a character’s action (or second movement) to put them in an offensive standby mode. If an enemy enters their line of fire, either because it’s appeared out of the fog of war or if they move to find new cover, that character will attack. Aside from giving players something for characters who aren’t combat to do that could end up being helpful, the command encourages player to move more slowly, methodically, waiting for enemies to make the first move so you can make the first strike. Conversely, enemies using overwatch will affect your movements as well.

Clearly being “simple” and “streamlined” doesn’t mean the game is easy. A big part of XCOM’s appeal comes from the fact that it’s one of the year’s most challenging games. There’s a lot to think about, and very little room for error. The difficulty is what brings the whole game together: Once things start getting tough, (which is pretty much immediately,) every moment is thrilling.

There’s something inherently stressful about playing about even the most trivial battles. The feeling you get as your squad inches forward, moving from cover to cover and waiting in overwatch for your enemies to appear out darkness beyond your field of vision. The knowledge that, while the game technically has a difficulty arc, there’s a chance that even the best people you’ve got won’t be able to take down whatever’s out there, because you’re never really sure. The game spreads out the introduction of new enemy units just far enough that you’re always waiting for a new enemy with a game-changing ability to ruin your entire gameplan.

That tension doesn’t dissipate when you finish a battle. You can get 90 percent of the way through the game, win every battle and not lose any high-ranking soldiers, only to find yourself without the money and supplies to complete, or even initiate, your next mission. As bad as it is to lose a whole squad, when you lose the whole game, it’s more likely that you didn’t budget your resources very well. There’s a good chance that you’ll have to restart the game at some point on your first playthrough. You live and you learn, right?

Whether you’re in combat or back at base, you’ll start to get a certain feeling that may be foreign to those used to mentality of modern games: The feeling is fear. Fear of impending doom that comes with the knowledge that this game wants to beat you. Not impede your progress, not make you restart from a checkpoint. XCOM wants to kill you, and if you don’t do everything right, there’s good chance it will.

Despite its bare-bones narrative, one of XCOM’s strongest qualities is its amazing storytelling. The stories it tells haven't been written by developer Firaxis. (Here’s the plot: XCOM is a secret military organization designed to defend the world from an impending alien invasion: It’s kind of like Men in Black with bigger guns.) This is not the story you play the game for, though.

The important story beats are the personal ones. Every game of XCOM is a personal war. The threat of death and the revolving door of rookie soldiers cements a connection between the player and troops who make it through a few battles. Though you could obviously name after your favorite characters or media personalities, there’s just so much more on the line when you’re sending family and friends into battle. Likewise, there’s something undeniably heart-wrenching about being forced to choose between two friends when you know there’s no way to save them both.

Though some would call it “cheating,” there will inevitably be times when you’ll want to restart a battle because something went wrong. Most people do it for technical reasons: They're no longer able to get a high combat rating or achieve a secondary goal. Sometimes that was my rationale too, but there were also times where I wanted to change the outcome of the battle because of who I lost, not because of how things went.

XCOM showed us a few things that many gamers may have forgotten: How good a strategy RPG can be, that turn-based gameplay isn’t just for asynchronous iOS/Android games and, most importantly, that winning is so much more rewarding when there’s a real chance that you might fail.

Why is Dishonored better?

For all of the tension and excitement that XCOM can bring, it has an well-defined, undeniable tempo. The slow crawl of your squad moving across the map is slow and plodding. Dishonored does the exact opposite: It gives you absolute control of over your own destiny.

In XCOM, once you give an order, there isn’t any way you can tip the scales in your favor. As the omnipotent “commander,” you aren’t in the field, you’re just watching the action. While that voyeuristic quality often works in the game’s favor, there are times when your powerlessness may leave you unfulfilled.

Dishonored asks you to actively “do” more. Though planning your approach and understanding how to use your unique skills are incredibly important, there’s more to the execution than a roll of the dice. When you shoot, you have to aim. When you use your sword, you have to time your strike and actively parry enemy strikes.

On top of that, one of Dishonored greatest strengths is that its systems reward creativity and improvisation - You can and should try to use different combinations of powers and weapon in different situations. In XCOM, the nail sticking out get hammered: You always want to make the “right” move.

As great as XCOM is, it isn’t for everyone. If you’ve played a strategy RPG or a world-builder like Civilization or Age of Empires and actively disliked them, the game may not be for you. Dishonored can be all things for all people… Or it at least comes a lot closer than XCOM.

Why is The Walking Dead better?

In The Walking Dead, narrative is everything. Toeing the line between a video game and “interactive storytelling,” the game is the greatest, most depressing choose-your-own-adventure book you’ve ever encountered. The writing are incredibly tight, maybe even the best ever produced video game.

As I intimated before, XCOM has a unique brand of storytelling that overtakes the game’s main narrative. The downside to that brand of storytelling, at least the valuable part, is that it asks a lot from the player. The game sets the stage, but the human element of the squad, your investment in them, is something that the player needs to dream up. XCOM is still a fantastic game to play, but that personal attachment is what ties the whole thing together. If that doesn’t click for them, then that’s a whole aspect of the game that they will never experience.

(For the record; I don’t really see the act using your imagination as a “weakness,”per se, but the fact remains that the script of The Walking Dead is infinitely better than the writing for XCOM.)