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Ian Clark's Pop Culture Club: New XCom is excellent

Updating a classic, especially one that gaming geeks revere, is always a tricky undertaking.

Hats off to video game publisher 2K Games and developer Firaxis for delivering with the excellent XCom: Enemy Unknown.

The game was released a little more than a week ago for the personal computer, Playstation 3 and XBox 360 consoles and I've been playing it like crazy ever since.

The original XCOM game was called X-Com UFO Defense in the United States and UFO: Enemy Unknown overseas and was released for home computers in 1994.

The game spawned several sequels and rip-offs (including my favorite, the cheesy but still fun Laser Squad).

So just what is XCOM? Well, if you're the type of gamer who loves to mash buttons and play games that move quickly, XCOM is not going to be the game for you. The keywords for XCOM are patience and strategy.

The in-game story is that in the future Earth is under siege from alien invaders. It's not a full-scale assault, but a more measured one that sees single crafts dropping off squads of aliens to harvest humans.

When these alien invaders reach the ground, it's up to the forces of XCOM to stop them with small squads (four to six soldiers) of highly trained troopers.

Each mission will have clear objectives such as saving humans or wiping out the aliens and sometimes secondary objectives such as taking an alien alive for study.

The missions play out like a turn-based board or miniatures warfare game. Each trooper has two actions they can perform (such as moving or shooting) and you have to carefully balance what to do with each trooper.

The decisions are often nerve-wracking. Do I take a shot at an alien that has only a 50 percent chance to hit (percentages are presented to you on-screen) or run to better cover?

Tactics are also huge in the game. Do you try and advance around a corner to try and flank the aliens you can see or is it too big a risk that you will reveal more hidden enemies and suddenly be outnumbered?

Poor decisions usually lead to dead troops and that can actually be tough to take. The troops begin as rookies and advance (taking on special roles such as heavy gunners, snipers, etc.) and build up experience and skills as they complete missions.

You can also customize the appearance, name and code name of your troops (I chose to make mine all G.I. Joe comic book characters). Having a veteran trooper killed in action makes you feel like you let them down.

The maps that you play out the missions on are also nicely detailed. Your troops sometimes fight through forests or even urban landscapes complete with cars, stores and other buildings, all of which can be climbed on, used for cover or destroyed.

The controls are very intuitive and easy to manuever. Activating a trooper shows you where he or she can move to, what the cover will be there and how many enemies that trooper can see (to shoot or be shot at by).

The missions are only part of the game. The rest is managing your resources at XCOM headquarters.

You have some tough decisions to make in this regard as well since you have limited resources (money, engineers, scientists) and numerous options to spend those resources on.

Do you launch another satellite to monitor (and keep safe) another part of the world or put more money in researching alien technology to provide your troops with better arms and armor?

The depth and strategy options are what make XCOM: Enemy Unknown so good. Yes, going on missions is fun, but managing your XCOM base is also strangely engaging as well.

In updating a classic, Firaxis managed to do just about everything right. Be warned that it is graphic in language and gore (rated "mature') so it's not for kids.

But if you like deep strategy games, don't let XCOM: Enemy Unknown slip past your radar.
 

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Ian Clark's Pop Culture Club appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Check out his podcast "Nerdherders" on iTunes. His e-mail address is iclark@unionleader.com.

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