According to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the future is bleak. We may make it past the predicted 2012 apocalypse, but 2015 has something even worse in store for us: a brutal alien invasion. Luckily for our future selves, humanity had some foresight and saw fit to create the XCOM initiative, a multinational troop of elite soldiers given the unenviable task of saving Earth from the extraterrestrial menace. As commander of XCOM HQ, it is your job to save the day by carrying out successful combat operations, placating the Earth’s terrified nations, and managing your base. It’s a hard job that provides one of the most satisfying and simply addictive gameplay experiences out there. This and more ensures Enemy Unknown’s place as a fantastic strategy game with enough depth to please genre fans and enough accessibility to appeal to anybody with even a mild interest in blowing up alien scum.
Sometimes you just have to protect the homeland.
XCOM's campaign splits the gameplay into two distinct parts: turn-based battles against the aliens and base management, and a successful XCOM player will have to excel in both spheres. The immediate appeal is, of course, the combat missions that give you the opportunity to control your squad of veterans and utilize your tactical prowess to save the day. The setup for every combat mission is the same: you select your squad from a list of all the soldiers you have available, kit them out with your chosen gear, and send them across the globe to wherever the action is. The mission objectives do vary, but the core action stays pretty much the same. Your XCOM veterans are grouped into four distinct classes (sniper, heavy, support, assault), each with their own skill tree and special abilities. The skill trees are very simplistic (offering you at most a choice of two specializations at each level) but are uniformly well designed, offering you smart options that all cater to different styles of play. On top of this, you can assign one piece of equipment to your soldier (some skill trees offer the ability to add more), and the variety of items adds an even greater level of choice. Items range from your basic grenades (which you can freely aim rather than just targeting an enemy) to more high tech gadgetry like the Arc Thrower, which allows you to capture aliens alive and take them back to your base for interrogation.
All this preparation is but one part of XCOM’s ground missions. The real action takes place when you are using all these items and abilities to take down the alien menace. Each level takes place in a limited area scattered with features like cars, crashed (or landed) space ships, buildings, and the odd waist-high wall. The maps are designed in a way that makes them the perfect setting for a tactical battle, but there's not quite enough map variety. Putting dozens of hours into Enemy Unknown mean you will end up seeing the same handful of locales a lot. However, the action is different every time, and this makes every encounter more worthwhile and interesting. This randomization cements the superbly implemented gameplay by leaving the player with multiple options at every turn.
At least the Nigerian military is happy!
The strategic nature is further reinforced by XCOM’s handling of consequence, a tough but fair system that rewards you for smart decisions and punishes you for tactical errors. The way XCOM handles injury and death are key. You start the game with a small amount of soldiers that level up due to their experience gain in missions, growing more powerful the more you use them. However, you can only take up to six soldiers at a time (initially only four, though you can purchase squad upgrades from your base which up the total) and this has interesting consequences. For maximum effectiveness, you will want to take out your best veterans, but the cost of doing so could be dire. In XCOM, when a soldier dies in battle, they are actually dead. Their name will appear in the HQ's memorial section, and they can never be used again. You have injuries to deal with, too. If someone takes a significant amount of damage on a mission, that soldier will be injured, the severity of which determines how many days he or she will be unfit for active duty and unable to participate on missions. Squad choice is more tactical than it appears, as taking rookies out into the field is a risky choice due to their inexperience and a greater chance to panic in missions, but this may be a necessary course of action. The mere fact that your soldiers can (and will) die is a great addition that makes life more meaningful and forces you to play carefully and intelligently.
The basic combat will be familiar to strategy gamers, but XCOM has enough clever additions and options to make it a unique experience. Genre staples like line of sight and fog of war are all in effect here, and when you find an enemy, they instantly get a turn in which to position themselves. Careless and rushed movement may leave you with more aliens than you can handle or just hopelessly flanked. This adds to the strategic nature of the game, because flanking a target may be the most efficient way to take them down, but that often means moving into the unknown and the possibility of stumbling across another group of baddies. The use of cover, then, remains an integral part of the game if you want to keep your squad alive. If your soldiers are left in the open and in sight of the enemy, the aliens will show no remorse in gunning them down where they stand. However, if you make sure your infantry end the turn in cover, not only can they shoot enemies from this secure location next turn (if they have line of sight), but they are harder to hit and have a line of defense. This, of course, opens players up to flanking, as cover on its own is not enough. You need to make sure your recruits are in the right cover and able to take down the enemy with minimal chance of them taking your men down. This makes for exciting battles that rely on smart thinking.
When XCOM is good, it's really good...
Attacking in XCOM is measured by percentages. Your distance from the target, general location, and weapon all impact the chance of a successful shot. If an enemy is in range, your chance of hitting them appears as a percentage and also tells you how much damage the attack could potentially do (not including critical hits). Although this element of chance may annoy some, it’s a crucial part of XCOM and adds to the tension. It is horrible when your soldier manages to miss on an 80% or more shot, but this is balanced out by the moments when you run out of options, take that 30% shot, and eliminate the enemy. This degree of uncertainty further cements the need for careful play with a certain unpredictability that keeps the game from getting stale. It can be an occasional annoyance, but the enemies are also bound by this system, making the whole experience nothing if not fair.
The other half of XCOM, while not as instantly appealing as the on-ground action, is just as important. When you are not actively fighting the aliens, you are preparing for the next battle and running XCOM headquarters. This process involves a lot of money and resource management, and requires as much contemplation as the battles do. The limited funds mean you will have to make important choices about what necessary upgrade or piece of equipment you can afford to research, and though there is only one base to manage, there are more than enough variables you will need to worry about. In order to be successful, you will have to see to all of the base's needs, but knowing what you can pay to neglect and what you should focus on remains an important tactical consideration that can have far reaching consequences. The ultimate goal is to eliminate the alien threat on Earth, but you can only do this while the XCOM project exists. The project relies on the funding of various nations, and if you fail to satisfy them, they will stop supporting you. Once too many countries pull out, it’s all over. To keep the countries happy and to maximize your funding, you need to maintain satellite coverage (something trickier than it sounds) and complete missions in those countries, but the amount of nations you have to balance makes this a hard task. In the meantime, you must also devote the same resources to keeping your operatives at the top of their game, keeping the base up to date, and ensuring you have aircraft stationed over the world to take down UFOs. There’s a lot to do, and you can’t do it all. It’s a stressful situation, but there is nothing more satisfying than getting it right. You may take heavy losses along the way, but the hardest earned victory is always the sweetest.
... And when it's bad, I go to pieces.
The only real issue with XCOM: Enemy Unknown equates to a small amount of bugs. The game runs fine except for the numerous visual quirks that pop up. The animations tied to your actions won’t always make sense, but this discrepancy has no impact on your chosen action and doesn’t affect the gameplay itself. Frankly, the gameplay is so brilliant here that the flashy graphical touches are merely a nice addition. Other issues include a certain enemy type that usually slows the frame rate during one of its movement animations and instances when an enemy manages to walk through a solid wall. These do negatively impact the game, but they are extremely rare. There are some occasional interface issues too. A warning may pop up saying there is an enemy in sight when there actually isn’t, or the attack icon simply won’t light up when you actually can use it.
The interface itself is worth mentioning, though. Strategy games are somewhat infamous for complex interfaces, something that has seemed to have been a necessary side effect of the genre's depth. This isn’t true of XCOM. Enemy Unknown has a great interface that works on the keyboard and mouse as well a gamepad without feeling like it was made with one in mind at the expense of the other. The interface allows you to pull off complex maneuvers, and select targets and abilities with great ease.
The ability to rename your soldiers does add an emotional investment, but it sucks when you and your friends all die.
Simply put, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a sublime strategy game with enough depth to appeal to a wider audience. It’s accessible yet deep, challenging yet fair, and completely satisfying from beginning to end. It will test your mind and keep you enthralled for countless hours. It’s lengthy to play through once, but it’s a game you will want to play again and again. XCOM's the kind of game you will lose dozens of hours to and love every minute of it. Every part of the game is brilliantly handled, making it a constant pleasure to play. You owe it to yourself to pick up this game and start saving Earth. So good luck Commander and remember, we will be watching.
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