For those who grew up in a post-Amiga era, then you may not remember the original XCOM. I, for instance, had never heard of the game until months after the announcement of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. From what I can tell, the original XCOM was a squad tactics game about fighting aliens that was renowned for its vicious enemies and its brutal difficulty; assuming that's true, then I can happily report that the new XCOM lives up to the series’ previous entry.
Now for players who, like me, haven’t played the original, the core gameplay might seem deceivingly simple. XCOM is a turn-based tactics game that has you moving a squad of up to six members across a map, killing aliens and occasionally saving civilians, defusing bombs, and looting crashed UFOs. You get to control each soldier one time per round, and each soldier can move a certain distance. After they move, they can perform an action – such as shoot, throw grenades, etc. – or they can continue to move extra distance whereupon their turn will end. When you do choose to perform an action, there are usually percentages associated with the ability to give you an indication of whether it’s a good move or not. Once you have used all of your soldiers' turns, it will become the enemy’s turn, where they can do the same things as you can. If the enemy is not in sight, they will move without any knowledge of where you are, and you cannot see their movements. Once they come into your line of sight, the enemy gets a turn just to move into cover, but they cannot perform any actions until their proper turn.
Who needs a helmet when you have AN AMAZING HAIR STYLE?
What makes XCOM great isn't the core gameplay – which isn't all that original – but rather the brutal difficulty. When most developers aim to make a difficult game, they simply make enemies more resilient, give them significantly more firepower, or spawn more enemies in general. This certainly makes the game more difficult, but it feels cheap. When the player dies, they really couldn't have done anything to survive, whereas in XCOM, it is very clear when you die that it was your fault. There is a clear distinction here, because instead of producing a frustrating game that actively makes you hate it, Firaxis has crafted a game that constantly provides constructive criticism on your ability to play the game by shooting your squad in the face. This challenge adds an extra pseudo-level of reward to each mission by not only giving you loot, but also the wave of relief that you've finally finished a mission.
XCOM pulls off this terrific balancing act with great game design. The AI learns to counter your own positioning and abilities, and none of the deaths result because the game pulled a cheap maneuver: it’s always because you made a bad decision. The good news continues too, since the gameplay's turn-based mission aspect is only half of the game. Even though you’re likely to spend the most time with this part of the game, it’s really the devilishly well-done base building and squad management that makes Enemy Unknown wonderful.
First, the base management. Between every squad mission, you are in charge of your home base, whose location you chose at the beginning of the game. The strategy starts here, since building in different continents gives you different rewards to research, experience earned, and scientists and engineers. This strategy continues throughout the rest of the base as well, as you will be making a multitude of decisions within your HQ that will greatly impact your play style. One of the most important things to always have going is research in the labs, because you will unlock new weapons, armor, and more. Of course, all the research has varying times, so choosing wisely is a must. Choosing what structures to build within your base walls is also essential, since it will dictate what you can research, what you can build, and how many satellites you can launch.
And they said robots would never replace humans in the work environment.
But the base management doesn't stop there. On top of new research and development, the player must also maintain a fleet of aircraft and soldiers. One of the important things to note is that once they are dead, they are dead. This layers more strategy on top of your decisions, as you rank up your soldiers by bringing them on more missions, but you risk having them die when you do. Even if they get injured, they are quarantined for a certain amount of time depending on the severity of their wounds. During this time, they cannot be used for combat missions. This aspect of perma-death is probably the single greatest thing about the game, since all the strategy gets brought to the next level. No longer do you simply move your soldiers at random and hope for the best. Rookies become scouts, and they can be killed before anyone whom is higher ranked. The game allows you to become even more intimate with your soldiers by giving them names and personal attributes. The same goes for aircraft, which are integral to protecting your base and the world, yet heavy damage causes long repair times and their possibility of being destroyed.
Then there is the council and the situation room. The XCOM project is controlled by a committee that check in on the project at the end of each month. They consider many factors, such as rookie deaths and UFOs captured/escaped, then slap you with a letter grade and rewards based on performance. If you do too poorly, you will lose the support of the council and lose the game. Not only do you have to keep the council happy, but also the countries of the world. Each country has a panic level associated with it. When the panic level gets too high, that country will pull out of the council. Lose too many and you lose the game. The only way to keep panic down is to complete missions in those areas, but to do that you have to decline missions from other countries and hence increase their panic level. All of this just adds to the tension and builds on an already great game. In addition to getting random missions, you can launch satellites over countries to monitor UFO activity. If you pick up activity, you can send aircraft to shoot them down and recover artifacts. But again, you only may launch so many satellites, which is determined by how many satellite outposts you built in your base; even then, each country shielded by a satellite gives you extra monthly income, but it’s different for every country.
All in all, XCOM is, as you can very well see, a complex game chock full of strategy that forces you to mull over the simplest of decisions. Some might find this tedious, but this system had me sucked in for hours at a time, waiting for research to end so I could build new armor and begin more research. It’s tense, too, because there is a fast forward button to get research done faster, but you run the risk of declining missions that raise that panic level. So really, it’s a fine balance between the two sections, and it’s done extremely well.
This is what happens when you wait till the last moment to make a reservation.
If I had to find something lacking about the game, it would be the story, which certainly won't win awards. Basically, aliens invaded Earth, and the world governments created a Special Forces team called XCOM to stop them. It’s not original, and the characters aren't interesting, but no one came to XCOM for the story; they came for the gameplay and the challenge.
The game is rounded off nicely with some slick graphics as well. The characters models animate really well, and the overall feel of the game is traditional sci-fi, which suits it perfectly. Sometimes the dramatic camera angles that zoom in on a shot being taken clip through the environment, but this doesn't happen very often.
Occasional camera work aside, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a great game. The air of strategy that blankets every move you make is excellent, and it’s probably the most challenging game to come along in a while that maintains an exceptional balance between fairness and frustration. If you are a strategy aficionado, this game gets a strong recommendation. Even if you just want something new to try, consider XCOM my game of choice.
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Firaxis Games
Release Date: October 9, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation 3