There has always been a special place in my heart for strategy games. As an avid board gamer, I’ve been on the hunt for an experience that reasonably captures the feeling of sitting across the table from an opponent. When I first heard that 2K Games was planning on rebooting XCOM, I was ecstatic… until I found out it was going to be a first person shooter. It’s not that the universe can’t support multiple approaches, but an authentic update to the turn-based strategy classic was what fans really wanted. Not only did we end up getting just that, but Enemy Unknown is coming out of one of the best development houses in the genre. Firaxis has been helping players build Civilizations for years. Now, they’ve given us a chance to save one.
While many tactical and strategy games are designed with a firm story arc, I find it best to view XCOM: Enemy Unknown as an alien invasion simulator. Much like the Civilization series, this title is designed for maximum replay. It’s not that there isn’t a story, but it’s set up more like milestones than a traditional narrative.
This story is about to end with an alien getting its face blown off.
At the outset, you’ll choose a location for your base. The continent selected will afford you a bonus once you’ve blanketed in with satellite coverage. Missions emerge randomly, as will requests from council nations. Fulfilling as many of these as possible will put you on the path to more funding and greater manpower. Often you’ll be faced with multiple countries under attack and requesting military assistance. Helping one means the terror level increases in the others, which eventually leads to withdrawal from the council. If too many nations withdraw, it’s “game over.”
Yes, you can absolutely lose at XCOM, and it’s a terribly painful experience after you’ve invested hours into a game. It’s the losses, both minor and major that help shape the experience, though. In my first game, I made some tactical mistakes when constructing my base and launching satellites. I went in the next time armed with better strategy and a greater understanding of the alien menace.
One of the greatest compliments I can offer the team behind XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that they’ve managed to strike a perfect balance between accessibility and aggressiveness. Not only is there a well-designed and appropriately paced tutorial, but the core systems the game is built upon are logical and intuitive. I played primarily on the PC for this review, which offers up a more traditional grid view when selecting target locations for movement, but the controller option both on PC and console works quite well. Here, a line is drawn from your soldier to indicate pathing, and the blue and yellow move/sprint boundaries are clearly delineated.
As a strategy veteran, it’s easy to appreciate the move/action system which fosters squad-level thinking rather than simply a unit-by-unit approach. In many genre titles, once you start moving one of your troops, you are committed. You can’t move and then come back later to attack. Firaxis turned that standard on its ear.
In XCOM: EU, being able to move each of your units once and then decide how to complete their turns (with another movement, an attack or by placing them in “overwatch,” which awards a free attack on a moving enemy, for instance) gives you the opportunity to keep allies under cover and out of harm’s way. Playing safely and ensuring that troops are located in smart positions matters, because one false move and that veteran you’ve become attached to could end up bleeding out on the ground or worse. Again, this is where Firaxis has made some intelligent choices.
Best choice? The flat-top!
You can always load a previous save and give a mission another go, erasing the casualties and coming home victorious instead of in body bags. For those seeking a more brutal experience (or the weak-willed that simply don’t want to be tempted to turn back the clock), there is an Ironman mode. You get one save that is auto-updated as you proceed. If your A-team wipes, you’d better hope that you’ve been training understudies. Had this been the only option, it would be extremely difficult to recommend to those new to the genre. Instead, it’s a play style that can be eased into after learning the ins and outs of the invasion forces. The only confounding factor is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to push a rookie toward one of the four classes. In my first playthrough, I only produced one sniper, which made things more challenging than they should be.
Outside of combat, the XCOM base offers higher level decision making. Your resources are extremely limited. Each new facility has a monthly maintenance cost that decreases the funds available to invest in weapons, armor, interceptor jet upgrades and other gear. Build too much, too early and you’ll find yourself outgunned on the battlefield. Go too far in the opposite direction, and you simply won’t have the research necessary to remain competitive once you start facing some of the bigger, badder aliens.
The story progresses by accomplishing objectives. You’ll need to capture aliens alive (as difficult as it sounds), research technologies and engage in specific missions to move ahead. The pacing is just right, keeping the pressure applied throughout without feeling overwhelming, unless you play recklessly.
Speaking of reckless, what the heck are you doing, Garcia?
In addition to crafting intelligent and compelling gameplay, Firaxis has made some extremely intelligent choices with regard to presentation. Soldiers aren’t paper dolls or rigid figures that only seem to have life when it’s their turn to move. There is a fluidity to the combat that is uncommon and welcome. Encountering enemy troops doesn’t simply reveal their position, rather they react and scramble for safety. Watching cover disintegrate and allies flinch as hot plasma soars inches from their faces creates a level of immersion that many genre titles fail to capture. Tactically detonating a car to take out a group of enemies or blowing out the front of a building with a rocket launcher is everything I ever wanted when playing with G.I. Joe action figures as a kid.
Unfortunately, there are moments where the illusion is broken and it becomes impossible to ignore that everything that happens is a die roll under the hood. Troops will shoot through walls reminding that line of sight is a calculation and the scenery is constructed around it. At the same time, the camera becomes obscured robbing me of the joy of the kill (or disappointment of a blown shot). This is balanced by all the times it works as intended, and watching a Thin Man get perforated by two of my soldiers simultaneously taking free overwatch shots is immensely satisfying. I love the cinematic approach, as it provides a heightened sense of excitement.
Yeah… that’s a little too close.
Once you’ve gotten a feel for the the four different classes (Sniper, Assault, Heavy and Support), and how their upgrade trees work, you can choose to take the fight online. Early on I mentioned my love of board gaming, and the comparison is no greater than when you delve in XCOM’s multiplayer mode. Not only can you customize your squad with humans, but you can take on the role of the aliens or mix and match. Each member of the team you add has a point cost. You’ll need to stay within the match’s budget, but how you get there is your choice.
Whether you beef up one human with a bunch of scrubs for support or spread things out is entirely your choice. Additionally, having the chance to take on the roles of the little gray Sectoids, gaunt Thin Men, Floaters and the other wonderfully designed and animated aliens differentiates the multiplayer and makes it even more valuable. Anyone who has ever wanted to play a tabletop miniature game but was wise enough to keep their wallets closed can get a great taste of the experience thanks to Firaxis.
The detail present in the world is another part of the magic. Each soldier can be tailored in nearly all aspects. Appearance, name, nickname (once he/she has ranked up enough), branching skills with each promotion and more are all available for customization. Members of your team will hail from across the globe, and you can’t change which country each represents. Additionally, while there are a number of voice options, the accents are limited. I think Rk. Ahnahld Swarzenegger met his premature end because he just didn’t sound like himself.
Seeing your wounded soldiers in the medical bay and their healthy comrades paying a visit is just one of the elements of the base view that pulled me in. It’s all psychological, though. The more of these men and women I saw, the more attached I became. Inevitably, there will be casualties when facing off against the invaders. Watching Amelia Pond, a sniper veteran of many conflicts surprised by a pack of floaters was tragic. I had groomed her since she was a rookie, brought her home alive (sometimes just barely) from a number of engagements, and I was powerless to prevent her demise. I could have reloaded, sure. It just wouldn’t have felt right to do so.
The voicing that is there is engaging, and hearing troops on the battlefield further adds to enjoyment. The music is a mix of styles that further enhances the tension and heightens the successes. During cutscenes at the base, I was reminded of the Mass Effect 3 soundtrack. The music played after shooting down my first UFO, as members of mission control celebrated, elated me. The eeriness of exploring that same UFO, now crashed into the wilderness, was amplified by a soundtrack that evokes 50s science fiction films. The sound effects are equally engaging, with meaty shotgun blasts and satisfying explosions contrasted with the screeches and guttural howls of invaders and the distinctly foreign sounds of their weaponry. It all comes together to create a cohesive and compelling soundscape.
In so many ways, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the game I’ve been waiting years for. It instilled in me a level of tension that I never thought I would experience in a strategy title. Firaxis has created a balanced experience that is both difficult and welcoming. The randomness serves to enhance the replay value, but each time out feels complete and satisfying. You can play the single-player once and get your money’s worth out of the 20+ hour campaign, but for many I suspect it will be revisited frequently and for a long time to come. Let’s just hope that the gap between X-COM: UFO Defense and this title doesn’t mean we have to wait 18 years for a sequel.
Here’s the Rundown:
- Accessible gameplay that even players new to the strategy genre should enjoy
- Terrific sense of atmosphere and tension
- Unabashedly challenging
- Fantastic presentation and attractive art style that retains connection to series roots
- Multiplayer is a great representation of tabletop gaming
- Some poor cinematic shots/camera angles break the immersion
- Early strategic mistakes can wreak havoc later
- Little diversity in vocal choices
- Single player campaign runs a little long for a game designed for replay
9 and 9.5 represent the pinnacle of the genre, a game that defines what that genre should be about. These scores are for games that you not only feel would be worth your purchase, but you would actually try to convince your friends to buy them as well.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was developed by Firaxis and published by 2K Games. It was released on October 9, 2012 at the MSRP of $49.99. A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.