- Platform: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
- Developer: Firaxis Games
- Publisher: 2K Games
- Release Date: October 9, 2012
- Price: $59.99
- Official: XCOM
“Fan favorite returns new and improved”
Six well trained and experienced marines, outfitted with the latest in technological warfare, had arrived at the small shopping center located in the middle of Russia only twenty minutes prior, now five of those well trained and experienced soldiers have fallen in battle, victims of both an alien war none of them asked for, and the incompetence of their commander. Now the lone marine is panicking and screaming while being flanked on all sides from enemies the world doesn’t yet understand. In minutes he will be eliminated, and the world will be one step closer to annihilation. Welcome commander, welcome to XCOM.
The terrifying and stressful world Firaxes Games has managed to craft from the ashes of the original PC series is incredible in its accessibility and relentlessness. Both die hard veterans of turn based strategy and fresh faced newcomers can appreciate and enjoy this latest entry into the long dormant but beloved series. As mentioned, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fresh new take on a series many consider in the upper echelon of PC classics, many also consider the original UFO: Enemy Unknown to be one of the hardest games around, not hesitant to beat down and utterly destroy the player within minutes of starting up his journey. With Firaxis now in charge of the property it was up to them to keep longtime fans happy, as well as allow for a newer generation of gamers to hop on and figure out what XCOM is all about, luckily they succeeded.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is both a turn-based strategy game and a base building simulator, offering the player complete control of his squad while they are out in the field and control of construction and research while back at headquarters. Bringing one of these into the hands of both console and PC players is a challenge; two is just begging for trouble. But yet somehow Firaxis, creators of the hugely popular Civilization franchise, have managed to do so with only a few bumps and bruises along the way. The experience is the same across both platforms, an amazing achievement considering both strategy games and managing simulators usually struggle with a controller.
Once you hit Start you are promptly introduced to the situation, an unknown enemy has attacked Earth’s soil and it is up to XCOM, a military organization made up of various world powers, to find out what it is and how to stop them. You are then placed on the ground with a squad where you begin your story. The first several missions are tutorial, familiarizing players with the turn-based nature of the game as well as the controls and the abilities of your units. Controlling your squad with either controller or keyboard and mouse is easy enough, although PC controls are the superior option with quicker movements and easier mapping. Once you complete the first assignment you are then introduced to your HQ where it is explained you can manage your squad members and put funding into various new research and technology projects. After another assignment the training wheels are removed and you are left to dive headfirst into the meat of the game.
If I had to describe XCOM in one sentence it would be with “The game is utterly maddening and yet absolutely brilliant!” You will find yourself at the edge of your seat dozens of times over. At times you will want to punch your monitor or hurl your controller at the wall in disgust. But yet, time and time again, you will find yourself crawling back to sit in front of your television again and grabbing for that second unbroken pad to try and complete another mission before bed. The simple on the surface gameplay mixed with the tremendous depth underneath provides an experience not seen in years, or perhaps ever in the case of consoles. Once past the tutorial the world opens up before you, literally, and you are left to tackle the rest of the Campaign how you see fit. Will you put your small fortune into your squad, crafting new gear and equipment for them to carry? Or will you begin manufacturing new aircraft in which to shoot down the alien menace? Perhaps R&D is your bag and you want to start funding research into some of the alien technology you brought back with you after your first excursion? Nah, forget that stuff, it’s all about expanding your base and beginning construction on a new power generator and Satellite Relay. All of these options and more are at your disposal.
Before long you will find that the world needs your services again and you will be selecting crew members for another dangerous op, this is when you will discover a seemingly small feature that turns out to be one of XCOM’s best; character customization. In a game where resources and time are limited, you will come to care about the virtual men and women who are putting their digital lives into your hands. In between missions you can outfit your squad members with new gear and also train them in specific specializations and skills, as well as give them unique names, faces, hairstyles and voices. Each one of your soldiers can be customized in a number of ways to give them their own personalities. If you want to give the game an extra layer of tension I strongly suggest mapping out your squad as family, friends, and coworkers.
Upon completing an assignment your soldiers may be promoted and in doing so learn new skills that will actively shape the way you strategize on the battlefield. As the game progresses and the difficulty ramps up this is when you will become fearful of losing specific units whose skills and knowledge are invaluable in the field. When one of these special units inevitably falls in combat, you will realize you are openly devastated at the loss. These moments are made even more impactful when your squads share the names and likenesses of family and friends. When my sister panicked after being fired upon from a hostile enemy and then promptly went about blind firing into the cover my own virtual doppelganger was crouched in front of, I found myself both angry and scared as I watched virtual Chuck take three rounds to the chest. Luckily the armor had been enough to sustain most of the damage and he wasn’t going to become another picture on a wall, instead he was on medical leave for the next several days. Needless to say I wasn’t too disappointed when my sister fell in the very next battle. You will have countless stories of your own after spending several hours with XCOM, and each one will leave an impact.
When you are finally on an assignment the game is pure strategy at it’s finest. The game is turn-based with an isometric camera that you can zoom in and out and rotate freely. Each turn a soldier has two actions that you may use up. Generally you begin a turn by selecting a squad member and where he or she will move to, then you must decide whether they will drop into Overwatch, which is a maneuver where they keep their eyes peeled and fire upon any hostiles that run into their line of sight, or if they will instead take such actions as tossing a grenade, firing their weapon, healing a fellow squadmate and so on. With each soldier only having two actions per turn, and sprinting itself using both, you quickly realize that you must prioritize and manage each member delicately.
Battles begin rough and only get worse from there as the tension and stress ratchets up quickly when you’re on the ground. The enemy in XCOM is relentless and at times may just feel cheap. There are various stat screens explaining the background dice rolling that is happening between firefights, but regardless you will be upset when your trained sniper misses their shot only to have the enemy he fired upon take out your medic in the next go around. As mentioned earlier in this review, Firaxis has retained some of that vicious difficulty that the original series proudly boasted. While not impossible, if you are not careful in your planning, or are just impatient, the entire squad under your command will wind up like the squad in the first paragraph of this review; screwed.
Which brings me to the slight faults that can be levied against Enemy Unknown, if you aren’t careful in this game you will find yourself backed up against a wall with no discernible exit in sight. It is possible to play XCOM for twenty plus hours only to discover several countries have pulled out of the XCOM project, with several more threatening to do the same at the end of the month. There is a game over in this game, something that has mostly been buried in the past. If eight countries pull from the program, you lose, Earth is destroyed, and you are left to wonder where it all went wrong. Game over man, game over! Another area I feel the game could have used some work is in instruction. Although there is a tutorial, some aspects of base management are seemingly glossed over, allowing you to misinterpret certain facilities uses, or just not realize how important expanding your HQ really is. The game could also have used some extra polish in terms of unit movement. If a stage includes terrain that rises and falls, or if you are inside an alien structure with multiple levels, it is fairly certain you may wind up moving a soldier either higher or lower than you had originally intended, resulting in a wasted turn and possible death. You will be frustrated, and confused, but like I mentioned earlier, several hours later you will feel the need to sit back in your computer chair or couch and start it all anew, certain that this time you will manage your funding properly and put your resources into the programs that will bring you victory.
There is so much to XCOM that I have barely scratched the surface in trying to explain its intricacies to you dear reader. From capturing and dissecting the extraterrestrial enemies to learn more about them, to shooting down their UFO’s to prevent harm to other countries. From dropping down into a warzone to free trapped civilians, to researching alien artifacts and realizing you now have the capability to craft plasma weapons and a jetpack for your units. On top of this vast array of single player options there is also a competitive multiplayer portion for one vs one matchups against friends or strangers. There is never a dull moment in XCOM as there are always things to discover and randomized missions to go on. Each playthrough will be different and uniquely yours. The game can be brutal and it may not be as polished as I would have liked, but Firaxis Games has achieved what many deemed impossible and have resurrected XCOM in an utterly fantastic manner, do yourself a favor and do not miss this strong contender for Game of the Year. -Chuck
- + Addictive gameplay with lots of depth
- + Character customization and growth
- + Infinitely replayable
- – Game can sometimes feel cheap
- – Some aspects aren’t covered well in tutorial