XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review
Written : Thursday, October 25, 2012
By: Dan Webb
One of the most dangerous things you can do in the games industry is take a beloved franchise from the 90s and “reboot” it. It’s nearly as dangerous as posting on a forum populated by “hardcore” gamers saying that you think Call of Duty is an innovative game. Preying on that nostalgia can often have damning effects and can potentially taint one’s childhood experiences causing a lot of outrage. I mean, when I play with my building blocks now it doesn’t have the same effect as it did when I was a child. After all, nobody wants their childhood sabotaged, right?
The truth is when the original XCOM came out I was nothing but a tadpole in my father’s nut sack…actually, that’s not strictly true. I was probably drinking cider in a park somewhere, so any childhood memories I have of XCOM are plagued by this hazy fog, thus I’m going in rather fresh. That said though, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is effectively an unknown entity as far as reboots go, as it not only nails what made XCOM so popular back in the day, but it does so by bringing the game into the 21st century.
For those blissfully unaware what the XCOM franchise is all about, it’s fairly simple: the world is under attack from an extra-terrestrial life-form and it’s your job to lead the XCOM defence force and sock it to the invading aliens, in turn saving the world. That’s doesn’t just mean controlling your units on the ground in various field-ops, that also means researching new technologies, building up your XCOM base, kitting out your elite soldiers, placing satellites around the world, coordinating your air vehicles to protect the skies and managing the operation’s finances, amongst other things.
"It's more fun than it looks. Honest."
The minute-to-minute gameplay sees you control a squad of up to six soldiers in a turn-based affair on the battlefield, partaking in a number of mission objectives, whether that’s saving VIPs and civilians, stopping bombs, salvaging shot down UFO wreckage, infiltrating alien bases or merely eradicating the alien presence from the streets of Earth. Think of it like a hyper aggressive form of chess, but with destructible cover and a whole host of spontaneous distractions. You move, they move. You take their pawns, they take your pawns. Or if you’re good enough, you take all of their pawns and they take none of your pawns. That’s the key to success in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Your squad is essentially your lifeline in the game. It’s necessary that you have a good balance of different soldier types on the battlefield, from snipers and heavies, to assault and support classes, as they’ll often complement one another, but not just that, it’s essential that you keep them safe as XCOM: EU features perma-death for its main characters. So all those fancy abilities like ‘Double Tap’ for a sniper class that they can get when they reach the Colonel rank, they’ll be gone if they die. If they die, you have to rope in inexperienced rookies with fewer abilities and less health and such. There is definitely that sense of attachment with characters as a result, which is a powerful tool in keeping you on the edge of your seat and always concentrating throughout, lest you lose a good soldier that you've invested hours in building.
Kitting your soldiers out with the best equipment is essential then. That will mean researching weapons and various other technologies from the XCOM base hub, then engineering them and equipping your soldiers with the best kit. Whether that’s medikits, stun guns to capture aliens, better weaponry, stronger armour or even quirky equipment like jetpacks, grappling hooks and combat stims. What you send your soldiers out into battle with will likely determine your success. Heck, you can even create mobile assault units to take into the battlefield as well if you wish, although they’re expensive and don’t rank up like the human counterparts. Later on in the game you’ll gain access to Psi-Ops too, meaning if you have a “gifted” soldier, they’ll be granted extra battlefield abilities like mind control and such.
"Time gentlemen, please!"
It’s not as easy as picking and choosing the best gear either as you’ll have to manage your finances and salvage enough materials from the battlefield to not only engineer them, but to research them too. When this money and equipment has to be spent on aircrafts to protect the airspace, satellites to monitor the skies and used for building new facilities in your hub as well, you have to invest wisely.
Balancing a good economy and protecting nations is at the forefront of XCOM’s strategy gameplay. If you don’t protect a country to a satisfactory level then be prepared for them to pull their finances and drop out of the XCOM programme. Managing the money coming in, the scientists and engineers you have on the roster, whether you have enough power to expand your XCOM hub and more, are all at the centre of XCOM’s strategy gameplay off the battlefield and chances are you’ll spend as much time here tinkering than you will fighting alien scum.
Let us warn you now, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is not an easy game and requires patience and trial and error in abundance. It’s all about learning the subtle nuances of the game’s mechanics and playing to the strengths of your squad, that means things like getting your sniper to the high ground, flanking your enemies with your assault class, not spreading yourself too thin, and generally getting the team to function as a unit, rather than a group of lone wolves. One wrong move and the soldier you’ve been playing with for five hours could be dead. The computer AI is relentless too, even on normal, so hunker down for a tough time throughout, but one that isn’t too overly difficult. It’s safe to say it’s challenging but fair.
Other than the odd clipping issue and line of sight issue when on the battlefield, the gameplay is rather flawless. The strategy elements both on and off the field are impressively deep, yet accessible, and incredibly useful in making the gameplay meaningful, ultimately meaning XCOM: Enemy Unknown has the makings of a perfect strategy game. “But strategy games on consoles don’t work” you say? Tell that to the team at Firaxis, who have created a strategy game that works perfectly on consoles and makes sure you don’t feel at a disadvantage playing with a controller for one second.
"Hide and seek. With aliens."
Thanks to the random nature of the levels too, there’s tons of replayability to be had here. Once you’ve completed it on normal difficulty you’ll want to challenge yourself on classic, and maybe even impossible. For the sadists out there, there’s always the Ironman mode too, which saves after every turn, meaning no loading up saves when your best soldier dies. On that note, let this be a warning to most of you: XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn’t autosave in regular mode, either, so save often. Trust us, or prepare to be frustrated.
While its 360 counterpart provides an almost flawless experience, the PS3 version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is hampered by its frame rate in places. When action gets a little intense on screen, whether that's with multi-storey environments or through lots of characters on-screen, the frame rate can take a nosedive, often resulting in gameplay of the stuttering variety and mild frustration. Thankfully, because it's a slow paced, turn-based strategy game, it doesn't really affect the proceedings all too much, but it can often result in taking the edge off what are usually fantastic gameplay moments.
If you do get sick of playing the single-player, there’s always the multiplayer to try your hand at. And when I say try your hand at, that’s all it’ll likely be: a fleeting interest. It’s like the single-player but against human opponents and with less depth and variety. You basically get a set number of points to spend on units – both human and alien – and their equipment, then you go battle whoever it may be. Simple as. Although it can be quite fun to outsmart a human opponent, with only five maps and limited options, you can see everything the multiplayer has to offer in under an hour. Enemy Unknown is all about the single-player.
You’ll be glad to hear then that there’s only one trophy tied to the multiplayer, the rest are spread across the single-player. It's by no means is an easy list, with plenty of challenging trophies thrown in there, but the balance and spread are almost perfect. Trophies will drop frequently and at perfectly placed intervals, meaning you almost always feel like you’re accomplishing something and progressing at a steady pace. Throw in a few unique and creative trophies and what you have is a great list, to complement a superb strategy game.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn’t just the best strategy game of the year though, it’s quite easily the best strategy game of this generation. Heck, it’s probably the best console strategy game ever conceived. Firaxis Games has managed the almost impossible task of maintaining what made the original so beloved back in the day, doing so while at the same time instilling a new lease of life into the franchise.
Suspenseful, eerie and charming. A lot like the game itself.
There’s a surprising amount of detail up close considering how far the camera actually pans out. The environments are alive and bloody brilliant, just how we like it. Unfortunately, it's let down by an unsteady frame rate at times.
Strategy games don’t work on consoles? That’s bullhonky! XCOM: Enemy Unknown feels like it was designed to be played with a controller. True story.
Strategy fans rejoice! XCOM is back and better than ever. With more strategy than a chess boot camp and more tension than an episode of 24, Firaxis has completely knocked the ball out of the park with this one.
A well-balanced list with a superb spread. Plenty of challenging and creative trophies in there to keep you occupied from start to finish too.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is not just the best strategy game this year, it’s the best strategy game this generation and possibly the best ever strategy game on consoles.