[Review] XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Normally with reviews I start out with an opening paragraph kind of leading into my review of the game. Usually I end that paragraph with a cheeky line that basically reads: “so does the game live up to the hype?” Well, I’m not going to do that with XCOM. Not because I couldn’t think of a clever intro paragraph, but because I’m going to give you the TL:DR version of the review right now: go buy XCOM: Enemy Unknown because it’s flipping fantastic.

If I was going to label XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I think it’s fair to call it a strategy game based on how much strategy is required to complete a campaign. You are a commander of the XCOM unit, a specialized military branch designed to research and combat an immediate alien threat. As commander, you are responsible for managing the base of operations as well as giving commands to your squad in combat.

For this review, I am playing the PC version of the game through Steam with an Xbox 360 controller. I have played the demo version on PS3 and can say that both controller schemes work fantastically for this game. The button layouts make sense and everything controls excellently. I actually have not tried playing with the mouse & keyboard, but considering how well it controls I haven’t felt it necessary to switch.

The game is split up into to main parts: combat and managing XCOM. In the base, you are responsible for making many important decisions that will affect how your game plays out. You instruct your scientists what to research and the Engineering team what to build. You manage your roster of soldiers and aircraft. You are also responsible for keeping the governments of various world powers happy so that they continue to dump money into your campaign. Keeping them happy is also necessary to continue playing, if enough countries drop support it’s game over.

Planning and foresight is very important. During your campaign there are going to be many alien abduction alerts, UFO sightings and special requests from other countries asking you to complete special missions for them. You need to be prepared to go into combat at a moments notice. You won’t always have the luxury of waiting for a new weapon or other technology to finish development before aliens start abducting people in 3 separate places simultaneously. Ignoring these cries for help will cause the country’s panic meter to skyrocket. If the country gets too panicky, they will deem XCOM a waste of resources and pull out of your campaign, reducing your income and increasing the panic of neighboring countries. Therefore it is necessary to make sure your Science and Engineering teams are constantly working on new technologies to aid in your cause.

Time is a very important component of XCOM. It takes time to complete just about any action you make. Recruiting soldiers, researching new armor, building a power plant, launching a satellite; all of these actions require time to complete. The issue is, every day you spend developing new tech, the aliens are doing the exact same thing. In the beginning of the game, you will be facing very basic alien units. They are intelligent and will use strategy, but they are using primitive (primitive by alien standards, anyway) weaponry. As the game goes on, the aliens will be conducting their own research and will be upgrading their units accordingly. So while you can take your time and work on development over getting into combat, you are giving the aliens that much free time to do their own research. Also, considering how crafty the enemy AI is on Normal difficulty, you don’t want to be under-equipped to face their more… elite units.

Fuck these things, by the way.

None of the R&D stuff can be done without having the proper materials. It’s kind of hard to craft a new alien weapon without parts to do so. So how do you acquire these materials? You take them. After choosing which tech to research, it’s time to scan the globe for any potential threats. Doing so causes time to speed by rapidly, so your R&D efforts can be felt quickly. However you also might be scanning and find multiple alien abduction reports. Now it’s time to decide which country you believe needs more immediate help and roll out the troops.

The aforementioned “troops”

After selecting which abduction site you will be visiting, you are brought to the troop management screen. Here you will see the four soldiers you will be sending into combat. You are able to switch out the soldiers with other soldiers in your roster assuming they’re in good health. Here you can also edit their weapon/armor/accessory load-outs to your liking. Once your troops are set, you are deployed onto the field. The field is covered in a “fog of war” so you aren’t quite sure where the enemies are at.

The combat portions of this game are incredible. During my play-through I decided to play with “Ironman Mode”. In this mode, you cannot select an earlier save, so any decision you make you have to stick with. This means that any soldiers that die on the field are dead and they’re not coming back. One bad placement and your best sniper is gone forever. So when you first land in the combat zone, and you have no idea what you are facing or where they are, things get pretty nerve-racking.

Those waves are both great and terrible.

I fully believe that if you’re not playing XCOM on “Ironman Mode” then you’re doing it wrong. I don’t care about which difficulty you pick, but you are missing out on a truly fulfilling experience if the life of your troops is not on the line. If you’re playing in the normal mode, then it doesn’t matter if you lose half of your A-team. You can just boot up the save from before you entered battle and try again. With Ironman Mode, you feel a connection to your squad and you genuinely feel horrid if you get one of your squad killed. You get legitimately angry if one of your rookies panics and blows your high-ranked support’s head off. There were multiple occasions where I would yell “FUCK YES, NICE SHOT!” at my squad, even though they’re just pixels and can’t actually hear how happy I am with them. (I wish they could though, that would be amazing.) Anyway, it creates this emotional connection between you and the game that most games cannot develop, and I LOVE it.

On the field, you take turns moving your squad along, taking cover as much as possible so that you’re not sitting out in the open when you finally stumble upon the alien threat. Once the aliens are located, you then use a menu system to decide how you’re going to handle things. You can take a shot at them, use one of your class abilities like a smoke grenade or Medkit, reload your gun or stand in “overwatch”, which lets you take a shot at an enemy if they move into your line of sight. Strategy is key when engaging the enemies; playing balls to the walls works occasionally but will probably get your troops killed more often than not.

So between great combat and deep base management, there has to be something wrong with it right? Honestly, aside from some minor quirks, its pretty damn fantastic. The minor things aren’t really anything game-breaking either, just funny things that happen on occasion that usually have to do with how the character models interact with the environment. One time I had a soldier take a shot at an enemy alien, but instead of aiming at the alien, she turned around and aimed at the camera/me and fired. The laser blast went through her model and hit the enemy in the background, but she was still facing the opposite direction of the alien she hit. There was also an instance where one of my soldiers was inside a moving truck that had been blown open. I ordered him to move out of the truck, and instead he teleported on top of the truck and climbed down off of it and moved to his post. Strange graphical glitches like that aren’t uncommon, and they often add some humor to an otherwise dark game.

I’ve been live-streaming my campaign and there was some strange behavior that occurred. For some reason during one battle my troops couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. They were regularly between 75%-95% chance to hit and were missing left and right. I don’t know if there was another factor that was lowering it behind the scenes, or if the odds were just really pissed off at me, but I was having a hell of a hard time hitting things. That being said, one of my rookies went up with an Arc Thrower, a stun gun used to capture aliens, and stunned a giant Berserker alien with a 24% chance to stun. So who knows. The only reason I mention the fact I’ve been live-streaming is that the people who were watching me were all going nuts when I couldn’t hit ANYTHING, and they can attest to how random it was. So I guess my only real complaint here is that if the chance to hit numbers are being affected behind the scenes, I’d like to be able to see the actual hit % and clearly see what is decreasing my chances.

Other than that, I can’t find much wrong with it. The story continues at the player’s pace, though I found out the hard way it’s better to do story missions fairly frequently so you aren’t behind in certain technology. The visuals are great: I love how we have stereotypical aliens in addition to some very unique designs. The maps are varied and are fun to play; even if you get a repeat map setting a few times it will still play out differently than any time you played it before. The sound combined with the fog of war and iron man mode makes for an experience that really stands out. Some of the aliens make horrid screeching noises, and the distorted snorts and growls under cover of fog really get to you. Like I mentioned before, that fact that you get so connected to your troops is awesome; when you lose one of your best men it really hurts, not only because you’re now down a high-level unit, but because it was YOUR fault. Their digital blood is on your hands.

Overall, if you’re into strategy games even a little bit you need to play this. Strategy games of this caliber are few and far between. It’s simple enough that anyone can pick it up, but gets progressively more difficult that strategy veterans have a real challenge. I really hope that Firaxis/2K do well enough that they can work on a sequel that expands on this idea and irons out some of the bugs. This game easily became a “Game of the Year” contender in my book.

[+Engaging Gameplay] [+Fun Combat] [+Ironman Mode Adds a Lot of Depth] [+Tons of Fun Equipment to Research & Manufacture] [+Alien AI is Damn Good] [+Excellent Atmosphere & Sound] [-Hit % Seems Off] [-Goofy Graphical Glitches]

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