Despite the overhead camera and chunky, cartoonish art style, every shot in XCOM feels immensely satisfying. Weapons echo with a thundering boom, and death animations are exaggerated and theatrical. When you execute an attack, the game flips to a cinematic 'kill cam' and teases you with a brief pause before your soldier takes his or her shot.
You'll miss, a lot, but when a shot connects and your target tumbles backwards or explodes into the air, it feels great. Explosives shred the scenery around the impact zone, and almost everything on the map is destructible, but if you evaporate an enemy with a rocket launcher, you won't be able to recover their body and weapons to give to your scientists to research.
We almost lost Harper in his first mission. He was pinned behind a car, using it as cover. When you move your soldier to a location with a shield icon, they'll automatically hunker down and get a defence bonus. But we didn't realise that the car was on fire, and in the next turn it exploded, leaving our sniper as a bloody, writhing heap on the ground. Luckily we were able to revive him with a nearby support soldier equipped with a medikit.
One of the best things about XCOM is how it creates endless little anecdotes. Missions are filled with drama, and you'll come out of every play session with a head full of stories. Especially if you've named your soldiers after friends or celebrities. "So, Nicolas Cage was about to get eaten by a zombie, but Barack Obama had the high ground on the roof of a nearby pub..."
As you research new technology and weapons, and face more advanced enemies, the combat gets increasingly rich and varied, and more entertaining as a result. You'll start out with regular guns, but end up using laser rifles and devices that stun enemies so you can capture them alive for study. Your Interceptor jets - which are used to shoot down UFOs, but not controlled directly - get more powerful as bits of glowing alien tech are bolted to them.
Firaxis have added a version of their advisor system from Civilization to XCOM, and you have people on hand to give you suggestions on what to do next, or what research to pursue. Occasionally an item will be marked as 'priority' (like capturing your first live alien), which will advance the story, but you can tackle these objectives at your leisure. The B movie story threads missions together, and it's enjoyable enough, starting from the moment the aliens arrive on Earth. Characters are well voiced, and brief cut-scenes bring your ant colony-like base to life. But it's the random stories created on the battlefield that will linger in your mind.
As well as managing your base, you also have to expand it. Providing you have the money and engineers, you can add new facilities to your headquarters. You also get bonuses for building similar facilities next to each other: two laboratories, for example, will give you a research boost, while two satellite uplinks built side-by-side will increase your scanner coverage.
Scanning the planet cycles time forward, and everything you do takes a set number of days, whether it's researching a new gun, or building an elevator in your base. You can also hire new soldiers if your numbers are running low, but they'll be fresh-faced rookies and will have to endure a number of missions before they move up in rank. There's a lot of micromanagement in XCOM, which sometimes feels laborious when you're deep into the game. You'll have to deal with tech requests from other countries, UFO attacks, abductions, countries leaving the XCOM project, requests from the council, and a dozen other things, sometimes all at once.