XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a revival of the classic PC strategy franchise. Many fans of the original title have been waiting a long time for another installment. Some cried out in rage when the XCOM shooter was announced before anyone revealed that there was indeed a proper strategy game also in the works.
To be honest, I’ve never played the original, so I came into this title without any specific expectations and have to say it is one of the best strategy titles I’ve played in a long time.
The premise of the game is fairly simple. In response to an aggressive invasion by an extraterrestrial race, the internationally funded organization is activated as Earth’s only real line of defense against the alien threat. Outside of that, there is little actual narrative to the game outside of discussions with your heads of research, engineering and command. This isn’t really a problem since half the fun of the game is the emergent storytelling that comes from the battles your squads get into.
One of the things XCOM does incredibly well is get the player invested in what’s going on with their soldiers. You can customize individual soldiers, name them, give them specific equipment and ability upgrades as the game goes on. All this effort leads to an attachment to your most utilized team members. The player feels a rush of satisfaction when the camera dramatically closes in on a soldier as they wipe out an enemy with a single shot.
Unfortunately, there’s also a feeling of absolute terror and rage if that same soldier, decked out in all the high tech armor with plasma based weaponry you spent so much money and time on, gets torn apart by the enemy. It adds an enthralling level of tension to every mission.
My one complaint about this particular aspect is that I don’t think there was enough time put into the actual physical customization of soldiers. There aren’t that many choices of facial types, hair styles, etc. to give people a deeper connection to their characters via their creativity. It’s an unfortunate oversight but a fairly small one.
The meat of the game is controlled as an isometric turn-based tactical ground battle. All the other aspects support this fundamental system. Missions can vary from simple seek and destroy to civilian rescues, bomb diffusing, etc. Each turn you can move your soldiers or command them to take either offensive or defensive actions based upon that units special abilities/ weapon class.
Much of the maps are hidden behind a haze beyond your squads line of sight, hiding potential threats that could appear during any individual step you take forward. It’s often wise to make sure you keep your squad in cover at the end of your turn or risk losing them relatively quickly.
One thing that is important to mention is that this game does not mess around. Even on the normal difficulty this game can provide a fairly stiff challenge. As you go on more and more missions you will be introduced to new types of aliens, each progressively getting worse than the last in one way or another. Often you end up dreading the revelation of a new alien type as it pops out in a battle unexpectedly, existing as a maliciously taunting threat against your team.
Having access to saving mid missions can help if you don’t want to end up losing too many of your soldiers or failing missions. However, for those who hate themselves or are insanely arrogant enough, the Iron Man setting removes that capacity so you have to live with every mistake or misfortune that befalls you.
Outside of the ground battles, you have a base of operations where you spend time researching and developing new weapons, armor, and other resources. If you’re playing for the first time and using the tutorial, you may want to spend some time exploring the base and seeing what each facility does yourself, because the tutorial does a decent job teaching the basics of the combat system, but does a really poor job introducing players to the intricacies of the base.
A big part of the strategy is choosing exactly where to focus your limited funds that will make you more effective. Is it wiser to concentrate on beefing up the field units at the expense of building satellites to help protect certain countries, or perhaps building better jets to take out UFOs?
Also, when scanning for threats, often times you’re given options between multiple sites that are being attacked. You can only save one, the others’ panic levels will go up, leading to them potentially withdrawing funding from the XCOM project robbing you of more resources to help against the already challenging task of defending the world. These are the kinds of decisions you’ll have to make, weighing out the benefits and suffering the consequences of your mistakes.
Even building the base itself takes strategy. Building more facilities can add efficiency to production, but require generators to work. You’ll also have to excavate in order to create room enough to build your base out further. Having similar facilities adjacent to each other provides bonuses, but you have limited space to work with so even here your decisions may have consequences.
Despite all the potential for screwing yourself over, there’s a huge sense of accomplishment when your choices work out in your favor. Entering missions with a squad of fully equipped death machines that blast targets into ruin almost as soon as they’re revealed is the best feeling you can get playing this game.
Not every aspect of the game is as fun to deal with as some. The interceptor fights where you send a jet to fight against a UFO is disappointing because it’s mostly just watching a simulation with minimal input. Luckily, this part is a fairly small portion of the game compared to everything else.
As far as presentation goes, the game looks good for what it is. Character models aren’t particularly impressive close up but that’s true for most games of this genre. There are animation and camera glitches here and there that span from mildly amusing to utterly annoying. At one point the cinematic camera followed an enemy as it fell to its death, glitching through the ground leaving me to have to scroll the camera all the way back up to the battlefield from the gray nothingness.
Environments are handled well, often offering a variety of cataclysmic turmoil or tense stillness depending on the setting. Exploring the different areas is fun, regardless of the innate fear that comes with potentially opening a door and getting swarmed by enemies. The destructibility of objects is also a nice touch, cover potentially being destroyed or blowing up in your face adds to the dramatic cinematic moments the game tries to illicit throughout the experience.
The music is exciting and compliments the action well when you’re in the thick of things. For the moments where there is actual dialogue, the voice acting is decent, but far from impressive.
If there is one huge flaw with the game, it’s in how the camera angle can impede your ability to control your squad. It’s ridiculously jerky and if you’re inside a building with more that one floor, you may end up wanting to throw your computer out the window.
Just trying to get a soldier to the railing on the second level of a space ship was a trial because the game would highlight a spot on the first floor instead of the floor he was on. Scrolling up the camera even one floor to fix this turned it into a guessing game as now the outside of the ship obscured my view of the interior completely. There were not many times like this but it was enough to have me screaming at the screen during the entirety of some missions.
XCOM does offer great replay value, playing it over trying to concentrate on other research , seeing if you could do things better than in the previous playthrough or even trying to beat the game on the Impossible difficulty (good luck, by the way).
Multiplayer strips the game down to the on ground tactical gameplay and each player creates their team and equips them based on a set number of points at the beginning. It’s definitely a fun mode to play and is worth it just because it’s the only mode that gives you access to the alien units as squad members.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a great game despite some of its technical flaws. It’s incredibly punishing making it feel all the more satisfying when you struggle through it to achieve victory. It’s certainly not a game for everyone, especially in a time when most games with mass appeal tend to remove any real difficulty. If you’re a fan of tactical strategy games, definitely pick this one up.