Welcome to the PC Gamer Game of the Year Awards 2013. For an explanation of how the awards were decided, a round-up of all the awards and the list of judges,
2013's expansion, Enemy Within, has only deepened Enemy Unknown's excellent campaign. XCOM's narrative arc remains unchanged, but between the necessary story missions there's great scope for expression in the management of your band of battle brothers and sisters. The bonds you form with your troops - and the shock when they meet a messy end - form the highs and lows of a player-authored narrative worthy of our game of the year award for Best Singleplayer.
I feel like I'm sitting across a table from someone clever as I play XCOM, and I think that speaks to how well Firaxis create a relationship between you and your campaign. Depending on a turn outcome, I'll see my unseen enemy commander as lucky, or dastardly, or cowardly. XCOM also – unlike plenty of modern games – implements meaningful difficulty (and Second Wave) settings that increase the ownership you feel.
I gravitate to singleplayer games that make me feel like it matters that it's me playing. That's why XCOM has absorbed so much of my time – each of my campaigns is shaped by my ideas, creativity, skill and ineptitude. Mostly the latter. Whether I'm doing a run where all my soldiers are named after colleagues and wear PCG red or one where I take it seriously and let stories emerge from the soldiers the game generates for me, it's deeply involving in a way that scripted singleplayer experiences just aren't.
Playing XCOM reminds me of being a kid with toy soldiers, my plastic squad advancing from tissue box to Lego castle, chattering about “damned Nazis” and who should “take the shot” with bravado inspired by every war movie I'd seen. I gave them names and personalities, I made them kill, die, and mourn each other – “Noooooooo!”
The XCOM experience shares that playful melodrama, creativity, and choreographed tactics (though when I was a kid no one buried my dead soldiers and told me I couldn't play with them anymore). And Enemy Within is like pouring a tub of new bits into my toy set. The gene mods and MEC Troopers aren't just about gaining a tactical advantage, they're about telling new stories by snapping on extra bits to my action figures. The Exalt missions are tactically satisfying to play, but more important to me, they're new chances for heroes to emerge and sacrifices to be made. With Enemy Within, XCOM is my current favourite toy bin.
I love how it ramps up the number of choices you need to make, especially early on. Do you devote your resources to building MEC suits or gene labs, at the cost of diminishing your satellite expansion? Can you really wait to create MEC Troopers, knowing you'll get better bonuses for captains instead of squaddies? Even in early missions, I have to decide if it's worth rushing the field to get to Meld containers. risking an alien ambush, instead of methodically progressing through a map. Strategy games are better when you have to make tough choices, and Enemy Within introduces so many of them.
It's the miraculous thing about games, that we can derive human drama from cold mathematics. Why care when a squaddie – a mere computerised packet of values – gets melted by an alien in battle? The fantasy of XCOM is one factor, communicated by a timeless artstyle. Mostly, it's about investment: the resources you pour into the development of your soldiers, and the time you spend with them from battle to battle. In the genetic modifications and giant robot mech suits, Enemy Within gives you more ways to invest in your team, strengthening those bonds and squeezing more drama out of its perfectly paced campaign.