The timing of this review essentially negates its need among established XCOM fans. If you fall into that group, then you’ve probably been playing Enemy Unknown for some time now. There are, however, a lot of people out there who never played the original XCOM games; or X-COM as it was called back then. The series debuted in the mid-nineties, but had largely petered out by 2001. Despite this, the franchise has the aforementioned rabid fan base predominantly made up of hardcore strategy players; the type of gamers who like their strategy games to have razor sharp teeth. Consequently, XCOM: Enemy Unknown might seem a little daunting to those who are new to the series, but it needn’t be. While the game is certainly tough, it’s also undeniably compelling and a hell of a lot of fun to play.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown has this tenacious charm to it – enough to crack any misconceptions of inaccessibility that might flit around the periphery of the title, threatening to ward off newcomers. Therefore, take this review as one for the newcomers, or for those of you who are still undecided about whether to pick this up.
Aliens have invaded Earth, but exactly why they have is part of what drives the game narrative forward so no need to divulge reasons. Luckily, clever people have developed the XCOM Project, of which you are in command. XCOM is a paramilitary organisation that’s been funded by a collection of Earth’s governments. It’ll be up to you to guide the XCOM Project and turn it into Earth’s last stand against the alien invasion. To do that, you’ll have to juggle XCOM base management and control an elite squad of up to six members on a turn-based battlefield. Together, the base management and turn-based missions form the core gameplay of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
The XCOM base is something like an overworld for the rest of the game. It’s somewhat similar to the overworld portions of the Total War series, albeit much more focused. Your XCOM base is like a dollhouse broken up into different partitions that you can zoom in and out of to see what your staff are up to. You’ll likely spend the first fifteen minutes zooming around and ogling the detail, but once the novelty wears off you’ll be using the tabs along the top of the screen instead of manually moving the camera.
The XCOM base has a fixed number of areas that can have base expansion modules built into them. The more important modules are your Research Labs and Engineering. The Research Labs are where you’ll order your scientists to dissect the various alien corpses or dismantle recovered tech. This then opens up new equipment and base modules for your Engineering crew to build. The Situation Room allows you to monitor the overall global crisis levels and launch satellites to monitor for alien activity. Each country represented in the Situation Room is a country that contributes towards the XCOM Program. If they lose hope in your ability to run the program, they’ll pull their support. As the game progresses, different countries will request different things from you, like pieces of researched equipment or rescuing a VIP target.
Game progression is where things are a little different. The time between turn-based missions (spent in the XCOM base) can be progressed when you want it to. This allows you to line up a number of research or building projects before pushing time forward by scanning for alien activity in the Mission Control module. The turn-based missions are triggered at random during this time, and can be anything from civilian abductions to raiding downed UFOs for new technology. There are, however, story missions of sorts that serve to pull the game forward, but they are less numerous than the random encounters.
Once alien activity has been detected, it’s off to the barracks to equip your squad for whichever mission has appeared. You’ll initially start with just four soldiers, but you’ll eventually be able to have a total of six. Your squad members are where XCOM truly shines; you will grow attached to them and when some of them inevitably die during a mission, you’ll be hard-pressed not to throw your hands up in despair. I found myself saving and loading a lot in order to prevent the deaths of my more cherished squad members, but many stalwart XCOM fans will likely denounce this approach. Your squad members gain experience depending on their actions during missions, and they can then unlock further skills based on their class. There are four classes that squad members will have assigned to them: Assault, Support, Heavy and Sniper. Striking the right balance between these four classes often dictates whether a mission is a success or failure.
Each squad member has two action allowances per turn, so you could choose to move them twice, or move them once and then fire on the enemy. Once squad members have acquired new skills, those skills can be activated during the battle at a cost of one action allowance. Another option is putting your troops into Overwatch, which basically ends their turn and has them keep their eyes open for aliens. If an alien target comes within range, the unit on Overwatch will take a free shot at it. Overwatch saved my backside on numerous occasions.
The turn-based missions are tremendous amounts of fun, and as your squad’s skills grow you’ll have more tactics at your disposal. The varied mission types and numerous environments ensure that the frequent missions remain exciting. On top of being exciting, however, they’re very often nerve-wracking. There’ll be moments when you’ll literally hold your breath as your squad takes a shot at a target, and the percentage chance to hit is lower than you’d like. And then there are the Chryssalids – oh God, those Chryssalids were responsible for more squad member deaths than I care to elaborate. There’s this sometimes overwhelming sense of permanence that pervades XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and those of you who are prone to ensuring that you get things 100% correct in your games will likely become somewhat obsessive in your decision making, both on the battlefield and in the XCOM base.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an excellent game – slightly stressful at times, but a fantastic experience. That being said the game isn’t without some hiccups, the primary one being the in-game camera. On one occasion I encountered a mission breaking bug thanks to the camera sticking on an objective target during a cut-scene. No matter what I did, I couldn’t select my units and I couldn’t progress. In the end I had to force a mission failure by hurling a grenade (the only action I could do) at a rescue target. If I had been playing in Ironman Mode (a game mode that makes all actions and decisions permanent by giving you one auto-save slot) then this could have been an unmitigated disaster that would have had far reaching repercussions in my game. Fortunately the auto-save feature (which is disabled by default so you might want to enable it before starting a new game) allowed me to reload an earlier part of the mission once I’d killed the rescue target.
Then there are the bizarre clipping issues and numerous occasions when massive pieces of terrain obscure your view thanks to rigid camera angles. On one occasion I even had an alien shoot through the second floor of a building to kill a civilian target on the other side of the street. So yes, XCOM definitely has some nasty bugs.
Despite these issues I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend XCOM: Enemy Unknown to anyone. Even if you’ve got no experience with this series, even if you’re totally new to turn-based strategy games or management mechanics, even if you don’t know your macro from your micro, XCOM is still absolutely worth picking up.
A note on multiplayer
XCOM: Enemy Unknown includes a 1-on-1 multiplayer mode. Matches are played out like the turn-based missions found in the single-player campaign. The difference is that you get to mix alien units with human XCOM units to develop your own hybrid squad. Each unit in the game has a points value based on their power. For example: the alien Sectoid creatures are the weakest but cost the least, whereas a a standard XCOM soldier costs twice as much. You can set how many points players are allowed to spend prior to the match starting. Once you’ve tested your mettle in the single-player campaign, you can hop into multiplayer where you’re bound to find somebody who can destroy you in seconds – likely a member of that aforementioned, established (and rabid) XCOM fan base.