If you’ve not been paying attention to the assorted media that has been released for XCOM: Enemy Unknown, then good news everyone, as there’s still time to get excited for what may be one of the cult hits of the year.
You see, the strategy genre is a mixed bag. It’s hard to stand out and be noticed, because on PC there are simply so many of them released and they all have to live within Starcraft II’s shadow, but Enemy Unknown is turn-based, rather than another real time strategy title, and manages to retain the nuances of the genre whilst adding a big budget-feel to proceedings.
There’s simply so much to do in Enemy Unknown, so it’s handy that the title has a lengthy tutorial. Sure, a lot of the time you’ll just be shooting at aliens, but there are also aspects that feel more in common with a third person shooter at times. You are constantly encouraged to get into cover, because you’re a sitting duck in the open, as you’d expect. Manoeuvring around the area is easy as pie, with either a long distance “dash” turn which allows you extra distance to cover, or a singular move followed by an attack, being the order of the day. As you progress, you can mix up these skills using a variety of unlocks and both passive and active abilities, which is vital, because at times you’ll need certain skills to make missions easier.
Once you feel you’re in a position to attack, the action-cam draws behind the selected unit, allowing you to see the enemy in a third person view, where you can analyse the chances of executing a kill, or choose one of the many other skills your unit may have. As mentioned, every soldier unit you can use is unique. The more you use them, the more kills they get, which allows you to upgrade them. Whichever class type the soldier is, they will have new abilities that unlock, giving you an advantage on the battlefield. It’s odd, but you’ll grow strangely attached to your soldiers; you’ll want to keep them alive and feel annoyed when a bad move by you (their commander) ultimately ends in the death of your veteran soldier, especially if it was your only remaining sniper.
Aside from getting killed in action, they can also collect injuries that put them out of the line of duty for a period of time. This is another important aspect to manage in Enemy Unknown; time. Using the research lab and engineering room of the home area will allow you to create accessories, weapons, armour and the like, which allows the player to further customise every single unit you have control over. Time passes as you scan the globe for missions, all while the 30 day countdown to your monthly council assessment growing nearer. It’s incredibly deep, and as silly as it sounds when talking about a strategy game, really does mean you can approach every single encounter with unprecedented tactical planning.
I touched upon it briefly, but the main hub area of the gameplay is where you’ll spend a lot of time doing this planning, upgrading and generally making sure you’re ready for battle. At first it almost seems overwhelming, there’s just so much you can do, it’s all very impressive, but that’s hardly surprising given the pedigree of the wonderful Firaxis. First up you’ll have to choose your location for the XCOM HQ. Where you choose will give you a different base-bonus, meaning from the very get-go you can start planning how you’ll play the game.
The XCOM team is a worldwide Earth defence group, trying to stave off the alien incursion. Being global, you’ll travel from Europe to Asia, to North America and everything in between. This throws up some unique dilemmas, but also some interesting mechanics. Panic will spread if you ignore certain countries, so you’ll have to balance out what you do, and rationalise why you do it. One of the early missions gave me the choice to help the Americans or the Chinese. Both have their rewards: If you help the Americans you will gain new Scientists in your lab; more Scientists means quicker research. Help the Chinese and you’ll get a big pay off instead; cash money to make new tech.
My internal logic was to get new Scientists, as that seemed more sensible in the grand scheme of things. Unfortunately, by ignoring the alien threat to the Chinese, they were panicked very quickly and if I ignore them a second time, I may lose my funding from the committee, which would be bad. So it’s a balancing act then, but a very fun one. You can scan the planet with satellites, finding new missions all the time, but you’ll also be given special missions from the committee who fund XCOM, with varying objectives and rewards.
This is just one early example of the thought process required when playing Enemy Unknown, a genuinely interesting title with plenty of depth to it. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is full of these little stories, personalised by the player’s decision to help one country or another. Whatever the choice though, you’ll have to live with it; as well as whatever consequences come from it.
Of course, none of this matters if it isn’t fun to play. Thankfully, the action is superbly fun and my only complaint would be the grenade aiming which – in this build – felt overly twitchy with a mouse, but as the atmospheric tension ramps up while you try to escape the area, the sound of more aliens approaching, their awkward yet scary chatter purveying the soundscape, grenade aiming is the least of your problems, and the smallest of complaints in regards to an otherwise superb game.
Given that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is coming to consoles as well as PC, a wired Xbox 360 controller works extremely well. In fact, it removes the awkward grenade aiming and although it’s rare you’ll hear this, I actually felt the controls were better with the controller than the mouse and keyboard. That isn’t to say that the game feels more of a console game than a PC one, you don’t gain anything by choosing any particular method, it’s just worth noting that Firaxis have really made the controls feel comfortable for all players; however you choose to play it.
The scope of Enemy Unknown is huge, I wouldn’t even like to guess at how many hours it’d take to see everything on offer, and the execution is beautiful too. The genre may be crowded, but you really ought to be paying attention to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as it really does feel like something rather special. Only time will tell if it can break through on home consoles, but it is already shaping up to be a superb title. The Daddy of strategy games is back and it is incredibly addictive.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is due to be released for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC in North America on October 9, with the European release following shortly after on October 12.