XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review
Worlds are at war again in Firaxis’ XCOM Enemy Unknown, a slick reboot of the ‘90s DOS classic – which any fan will tell you didn’t need one. Invaded by an unidentified flying armada, the game focused on turn-based management as you battled an alien enemy, letting you lead humanity’s first line of defense as a commander. Sid Meier returns to his old IP – once with Micropose, now with Firaxis – and XCOM, sure as the name ‘Sid’ should signal – is a brilliant console strategy sim that has enough depth for long-time Meier masters, with intuitive real-time action that will make newcomers feel like pros — that is, after a few hours.
The story in a game like this is inconsequential. Like questing for the experience points rather than the plot progression in an open-world RPG, the strategy genre is one built on choice, and those choices are the story of your playthrough. Nonetheless, Firaxis has fitted some fiction into XCOM. Aliens – the cliché, bulbous head and ray-gun wielding variety – have invaded and a Council of Nations has convened. You are the Commander – the designation won’t be the only thing to remind you of Mass Effect – and you are again charged with holding the lines against the intergalactic interlopers. Simple.
Turn It On
The turn-based gameplay is not as artless, composed of ‘big picture’ micromanagement and front-line fighting. From headquarters, you scan the globe for available missions, mandatory and optional, that reward you with military assets and money. Sometimes nations will call for support, and sometimes you’ll have to choose which to aid, your choices carrying consequences. Send in your best to a failing stronghold in China and you may earn their trust – not to mention some of their financial coffers – but neglect an appeal from a fellow state and they might back out of humanity’s military alliance, leaving you that much shorter on manpower and friends.
From your base, you also oversee all of the tasks that will help your cause in the long-term. These include researching scientific developments, fortifying your chateau with additional facilities, and maintaining the spirit and arm of your soldiers. From the situation room, maintaining your finances and launch satellites to keep an eye on key regions and nations – I kept careful watch over Canada and the UK, naturally. Buy weapons and abilities to upgrade troops, equip your air cavalry with hardier cannons, and play peace-keeper as you diplomatically try to unite every faction on Earth against a common threat. This type of dual-layered command resonates Mass Effect 3, more so because XCOM looks and sounds a lot like this year’s trilogy-topping blockbuster.
Were this any other year, the aesthetic of XCOM would mean little other than its off the charts in terms of production value. But with Bioware’s epic space saga still fresh in our minds as conversations of Game of the Year come to a climax, the similarities are tough to ignore. From the similarly rendered characters to the similarly sounding voice-over snippets of ‘Oh, Hey Commander…’, to the synthetic ambience of its musical score, you’ll occasionally expect to see a Krogan or Salarian around the corner. The irony is that the aliens in XCOM are not the the spawn of the ‘Star Wars’ imagining, but the cliché, 50’s invader flick variety. Obvious similarities aside, these are nothing but compliments, though. This is a terrifically produced game that updates the original with a great sounding, great looking strategy sim that also retains a very retro feel.
While the micromanagement of your big-picture command can get wearisome – the tutorial elements never seem to end in this regard – leading your troops into battle steals the show by a slide. On the field, you control four squad-mates who run from cover to cover, turn by turn. Different units bear different specialties, with a common crew consisting of a rifleman, support unit, sniper, and engineer. But again, it’s entirely up to you.
The genius of XCOM’s gameplay is that it is considerably easy to pick up, but incredibly difficult to master.
Maps are typically small, but there are a heck of a lot of ‘em, and as your missions mostly entail fast, get-in-get-out guerrilla tactics, the action is intense. As you explore the field, the shadowed sections recede until you at last make contact with enemies, who do everything they can to exploit porous flanks and take you out. As you and the aliens exchange fire, a success rate is associated with each attack – the higher the percentage, the higher the chance of a critical hit. The complete lack of predictability in combat makes this a deeply real and powerful experience. The feeling of relief as you pick off a heavily fortified hostile is often countered by the sourness of losing one of your own men because of careless positioning on your part. Despite being turn-based, it’s quick and tactical, and a lot of fun. Not to mention fair.
Save Our Souls
The genius of XCOM’s gameplay is that it is considerably easy to pick up, but incredibly difficult to master. Just when you feel that you’re taking out waves without breaking a sweat, and start to consider ramping up the difficulty, two aliens pop out of nowhere and down two of your men. And once you lose a man, he’s lost to you forever, another brilliant device meant to make XCOM more personal. As you level up the men under your command, watching them rank up and donning new equipment, you begin to suffer the illusion of their immunity; but they can die, they will die, and you have to deal with it and move on. Shocking as it may sound, even compared to the almost complete virtual immersion of a first-person war shooter, this is a game that makes you feel something when NPC’s die, and that’s saying something.
Though it may not have been the most anticipated or widely discussed game of 2012, the year has ended with one of its best. XCOM is a fantastic remake that updates the DOS original for the consoles, while retaining all of the strategy-sim goodness that made that classic worthy of the word.
Prefer moving pictures and sound? Then check out our video review here.
XCOM: Enemy unknown was reviewed on Xbox 360.
Read You Loud And Clear
Rich graphics, stupendous sound, and tens of hours of satisfying tactical gameplay that blends frontal command with diplomatic expertise make Enemy Unknown an easy recommendation. Don’t be put off by its considerable learning curve – because make no mistake, it’ll take you a few hours to become proficient at its ins and outs – this is another brilliant offering by Sid Meier and a must have for the thinking man, the science-fiction aficionado, the E.T. extremist, or all of the above.