XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review
Game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Available On: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC
Reviewed On: Xbox 360 (PC version also tested)
The tactical turn-based strategy genre isn’t exactly the kind of video game that you’d see littering the charts. In fact, being noticed for something different is becoming more and more difficult these days. Not that it’s always a bad thing, indeed there are some marvellous examples of design in the multitude of First Person Shooters or sports games that are iterated upon, year after year.
We can’t complain though, because when something different is released, it is rarely rewarded with sales to match the hyperbole that is attached to the title. You’ll often find me commenting on a game like Enslaved, which didn’t receive a sequel because it simply wasn’t rewarded by the game-playing public. So it’s actually rather brave of 2K to not only delay the First Person version of their XCOM title, but put out the Firaxis developed strategy game not just for PCs, but consoles too. The fan-base is aching to play Enemy Unknown, but the vociferous potential customers need not worry, because Firaxis have delivered on this remake with one of the best strategy games I can remember playing in a long, long time.
STORY: A cursory glance at the box of Enemy Unknown is all you’d really need to work out that the Earth is under attack from an unknown alien force. You play out the role of the XCOM Commander, an elite organization that is Earth’s last defence. You have a shadowy organisation above you, requiring their needs be met, which even require a monthly meeting to assess your performance, adding pressure to the job.
Even though it sounds simple, the story is delivered well, with so much more narrative being included through the attention to detail. Every individual soldier can be given a nickname, adding personality and depth to the simplest of mechanics. You’ll grown fond of them, and as they perish you’ll feel as though you’ve let them down; which is why it’s nice that there is a wall of remembrance to honour the dead. Your non playable crew have interesting personalities too, with the scientist more interested in capturing aliens alive to study them, and the engineer just wanting everything he can get his hands on to develop more advanced technology to counter the threat you face.
Xenophobes be damned, you’re fighting a global war and Firaxis have done a superb job of bringing that feeling home to the player. As you wage your war on all fronts, you have to keep every major nation on-board the XCOM funding committee, so you can keep upgrading and gaining new technology to aid your war. This creates interesting moral dilemmas, as you’ll find random missions which offer differing rewards. You could choose to help the French, who’ll reward you with an extra 2000 space credits, but if you help the Asian contingent, they’ll send you four new scientists. However, the choice doesn’t just come down to rewards; because even if (in this example) you want to help the French, this may cause the opposing nation to panic. That may sound bad, and it is, because if a nation gets too panicked, they will withdraw from the XCOM project, meaning your monthly income drops.
GRAPHICS: Both the console and PC version of Enemy Unknown look great, but then, a strategy title is never going to be the most graphically taxing of video games in the visuals department. Instead, user interface is of paramount importance. So it’s great that Firaxis have catered for PC users and console users separately. Plugging an Xbox 360 controller into your PC will – for all intents and purposes – turn the PC version into the console version, but it’s important to note that this isn’t some dumbed down version of a strategy game; instead firaxis should be praised for creating a ui that is welcoming to everyone.
But the game does look gorgeous, almost feeling as though it was made for Steam’s Big Picture mode. Hook the PC version up to your huge HDTV, crank the settings up and enjoy every single moment, or sit there on the sofa with an Xbox 360 controller; either way you’ll fall in love with how Enemy Unknown looks because, whilst maps do repeat (they are rarely exactly the same, we’re talking general environments here) they always look superb and are interesting to explore. An action-cam is present in Enemy Unknown too, showing crucial moments, but you can turn that off if you want to.
SOUND: Just as you can customize your soldiers with nicknames, you can also select how their battle-cries sound from a pre-defined bank of voices, most of which appear to be American. It’s a tiny complaint really, but given that the XCOM project is fighting on a global battlefield, it’s a very small oversight that all the soldiers appear to be of American origin.
Otherwise, the alien noises are suitably creepy, so much so that certain enemies will create an almost Pavlovian response from the player when they appear on the battlefield, causing potential panic and stress to the player, maybe even ending up with mistakes being made, and soldiers lost. The voice acting is solid too, but after the first few hours you’ll hear less of it, due to spending so much more time in XCOM HQ and generally having numerous irons in the fire. Main characters will sporadically chime in as you navigate menus to let you know what is going on, and the shadowy overlords will never stop sounding mysterious and creepy.
GAMEPLAY: After playing through an on-rails tutorial which will gently introduce most of the core gameplay mechanics, you’ll be set loose on XCOM HQ as the Commander, with control over everything which that entails. You’ll spend as much time involved with battles as you will actually strategizing in your HQ, because there are simply so many options available to you.
Every Soldier that becomes available to you is an individual, with their own skill tree too, and you can make them even more unique by changing their ethnicity, hair style and colour; even their facial hair. A record is kept of each soldier’s performance, so you can see how many battles they have survived, or how many kills they’ve gotten. The more you use a soldier (and the more succesful they are) the quicker they’ll level up, which will give you the opportunity to assign new skills to them. After the first level, there is usually two skills to choose from, allowing you to really go down whichever path you want for each particular soldier. They are also of varying classes: Heavy, Support, that kind of thing, meaning there’s a lot of customization involved, and each soldier really does feel like an individual.
Further to this, as you progress through the Research available to you, each soldier can be customized even more by changing their weapons, armour and even which secondary weapon they use. Maybe you want your heavy to use grenades, or perhaps to have medic packs, or even the ability to capture an Alien alive, whichever way you go, it’s your choice. In the officer training school, you can also purchase permanent buffs for the soldiers, such as experience gained, or even just increase the squad size from 4, to a maximum of 6.
The Science Lab plays host to the research available to you, and any objects or Aliens you bring back (dead or alive) offers a new line to research into. Far from pointless, this becomes an important choices as everything in XCOM: Enemy Unknown takes time, as well as requiring funding and power to use the facilities. Researching one area may bring you golden opportunities to enhance your soliders with extra armour, or perhaps allow you to give them Alien-technology based weapons, like a laser-Sniper Rifle. It’s all designed to give you the edge in battle. There’s yet another chance to make decisions here, because you can in fact sell items you find on-mission on the grey market to make a fast buck, but if you don’t have any items, you can’t research; it’s a balancing act.
But everything takes time, money, power and manpower (another reason the mission choices are vital, money or manpower, it’s up to you), so it’s important that you try to keep a balanced level of irons in the fire at any one time. If you decide to excavate multiple areas at once and build a plethora of facilities, you’ll quickly run out of money, then you’ll need more power to run the facilities, and before you know it you are in a bare-bones situation, struggling to make ends meet and thus your defence of the Earth becomes more difficult. Get it right, however, and you can increase the speed of research (with multiple laboratories, for example) or gain other bonuses through adjacency bonuses.
In the Engineering department, you can build the things devised in the Research Labs. Again everything costs money and requires workers to build, and it’s important to remember that if you only build one unit, then you only have one unit. It seems almost obvious to say it, but the soldiers are unique, so don’t expect to build one medi-pack and then equip it to your entire barracks, because that’s not how Enemy Unknown works. The Workshop adds 5 engineers to your staff when built, and acts as an alternative type of Engineering Department, with more advanced items available to build, as well.
The situation room is the overview area, allowing you to see the level of support from all of the involved nations, as well as your monthly income. This is also where you can access the grey market, too – but there’s still more. The Hangar shows you where your airborne vehicles are located, as even they take time to travel from one location to the other, and it’s important you vary where they are located, as that way you can intercept more UFOs which, in turn, gives you access to more missions.
All of this is completely separate from the in-mission gameplay, which is incredibly satisfying to experience too. More traditional strategy tropes are evident during missions, with the player able to make either a move and an attack, or one extended move, in this case called dash, per turn. As you progress and level up your soldiers, you can assign abilities that extend how far they can travel or, with the sniper soldier type (for example), you can upgrade so that the sniper can take a move and a shot in one turn, whereas normally it’s one or the other. Overwatch allows you to stay in place, but take a reaction shot at any enemy that makes a move, but you can do so, so much more than that.
Smoke grenades make it harder for your enemy to attack you, lowering their chance of hitting you when targeted. Every time you take aim, you will get a percentage chance that the attack will hit, so you can take the chance at 50%, or you can manoeuvre your soldier into a better position and try again on the next turn. You can swing the camera around the battle-zone using the D-Pad, but also zoom way out with the left trigger. The bumper buttons allow you to switch soldiers, so if one of your posse is in trouble because they are in cover against a burning car, you can move them straight away because, yes, the burning car will explode and take you with it.
Cover is a vital factor in Enemy Unknown, and even in the tutorial you’ll be informed that you are a sitting duck if you don’t get behind something quickly. The system is simple, yet effective, with a shield icon appearing in the direction you could potentially take damage from. A half-shield indicates that you are in cover, but vulnerable, whereas a full shield lets you know that you aren’t going to take fire any time soon. The enemy A.I. is smart, so won’t just constantly attack you. They’ll decide to take cover too, buff one another and work as a hive-mind team, giving you a challenge that means run-and-gun style players might need to step back and pause for thought; Enemy Unknown is a thinking person’s game.
MULTIPLAYER: As you’d expect with any game worth its salt these days, Enemy Unknown comes with a fully featured multiplayer mode. You can arrange your (6-man) squad offline, choose specific sub-classes to take into battle, along with their weapons, armour and items. You can mix alien and human soldiers too, making for some truly unique match-ups on the multiplayer playground. However, you can’t just throw the best soldiers going into the mix; in fact you’ll have a set amount of points that you cannot exceed if you wish to play a ranked match, though there are less restrictions on unranked matches.
From there, you’ve got a set amount of time (default is 120 seconds) to make your turn, but the best thing about the multiplayer is the balance. Due to the points given to work with, you really are forced to think about who you take into battle with you. You can easily fill out your roster with rookies, but you’ll get beaten if your opponent has a well balanced squad ready to send you into oblivion. If you want to just have a laugh with friends, you can create a custom match which allows you to choose the points limit, map and time limit, so you could – in theory – just play this way, to see all the ultra soldiers. The multiplayer is a lot of fun and offers something truly different in the multiplayer arena, and also adds yet more for the player to completely immerse themselves in.
LONGEVITY: With four difficulty settings (Easy, Normal, Classic and Impossible) offering distinct challenges, you’ll easily get your moneys worth out of Enemy Unknown. Even on Normal the game doesn’t mess about, offering a good challenge for a player who has dipped in and out of strategy games prior to this one. There’s a ridiculous amount of content on offer here, enough to get absolutely lost and hopelessly addicted in the process.
With some variance in missions, and the huge amount of choices that change how things play out, there can be absolutely no complaints whatsoever with XCOM’s longevity, and with an added multiplayer component you’ll keep coming back time and time again, though it’s safe to assume that the Windows PC version will probably end up playing host to most of the multiplayer play further down the line; such is the nature of the “on to the next one” culture that pervades console gaming multiplayer these days.
VERDICT: XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the kind of title that will take people by surprise, but it really shouldn’t, because Firaxis have been quietly going about their business of becoming one of the best strategy developers around. People who thought Enemy Unknown would be good are wrong, because it’s actually one of the best video games released so far in 2012. The level of depth, combined with numerous other factors such as the sheer volume of content on offer, mean that this is not only a unique experience, but also an ideal starting point for newcomers, whilst keeping veterans happy.
Don’t skip this one, or write it off because it’s a strategy game on console; this is a phenomenal achievement and one that deserves to sell extremely well; but that outcome is up to you, commanders, so make it happen.