You can almost hear the collective forehead slap when gamers hear “re-imagining” tied to a seminal game like X-COM: UFO Defense. Actually, we did with the XCOM first-person shooter announcement in 2010. That changed when Firaxis Games later revealed XCOM: Enemy Unknown to be the true spiritual successor to the original tactical-strategy game –– and it was worth the wait.
What is that thing?
XCOM: Enemy Unknown drops players into the beginnings of an alien invasion. As commander of XCOM, it’s your job to make all the big strategic decisions like how to expand your base, what weapons or equipment to research, how to placate different countries, and what missions to send your troops on. This strategic layer has many parts to juggle as you try to derive the best ways to manage your men, money, and support. That strategic layer plays out in real time, but there’s also a tactical layer when your troops go on missions. Here, your decision-making mettle is truly tested to see if you have what it takes to succeed and keep your soldiers alive.
Soldiers start as rookies but get promoted and automatically assigned one of four classes (Heavy, Sniper, Assault and Support), each with their own skill trees and weapons. The battlefield promotes caution and wisely moving your soldiers from cover to cover. Make one bad call and that Heavy you’ve cultivated over six missions could be permanently lost in a cinematic death that leaves you looking at the ceiling screaming, “NOOOoooooo!” Scoring kills and surviving depends on the right equipment, your decisions, and lots of prayer to the gods of probability.
Normal difficulty provides a solid challenge the deeper you get in the game, while Classic will make X-COM vets feel at home as aliens aggressively pursue your soldiers on the battlefield and managing the strategic layer becomes even more important for success. Ironman mode returns as well, which prevents you from reverting to a previous save.
There’s something out there
The overarching XCOM plot is told through limited cutscenes as your secret organization makes its way through the alien hierarchy to take down the “big bad” and save Earth. The plot doesn’t matter much, though, because you create your own story every time you play. Customizing and training your own squad of soldiers, deciding how to advance through the game, and each of the varied mission types essentially lets you write your own tale. It won’t atypical for you to immediately want to go tell a friend or a co-worker about the time you pulled a mission off after losing Fonzi, Richie, Potsie, and Joanie because of a bad decision and were down to just Ralph and Chachi surrounded by two Mutons, a Thin Man, and a Sectoid.
Yes, that actually can happen, and yes, I just made a Happy Days reference.
Commander to mission control
Graphically, XCOM is a gorgeous game to look at. While it’s mostly dark to help with the pucker factor, it also makes the colors of the characters, aliens, and weaponry pop off the screen. There are a few camera issues during cinematic moments in battle, but nothing that breaks the game. Meanwhile, fans of Deus Ex: Human Revolution should find the score familiar, as this game shares the same composer.
XCOM controls surprisingly well on consoles for a strategy turn-based game. Firaxis obviously went through many different ideas before finding an interface that intuitively communicates information to the player without overload. Without even reading a manual I knew that the little bars above character’s heads represented health and that a wall with only half a shield does not offer as much protection as one a full shield. The controls are streamlined to the point that players can focus more on strategy and less on micro-management.
The mouse and keyboard controls function just as well, though I found using the mouse to pick my grenade target went a little wonky if I stretched too far. While the PC does have better graphics than consoles, the other enhancement is a grid that can be optionally layered over the battlefield. I personally found the bright yellow lines distracting, however, as it broke my sense of immersion.
Yes, XCOM has a multiplayer component, too. Firaxis literally opens up its box of toys and dumps its contents on the table to let you decide which pieces you want to play with like a bleary-eyed kid on Christmas morning. Multiplayer is its own separate game that allows you to choose from both the human and alien menageries. The customization options are limited solely to the human characters, but you can also change the aliens’ names.
Up to six characters can be placed in your multiplayer squad, but you are limited to 10,000 points to spend in ranked matches (unranked custom matches go up to 20,000). Sectoids are only 500 points, for example, while the much deadlier Chrysalid is 3,000 and the Cyberdisc 5,000. There are even more expensive units then that, forcing you to choose between power or numbers.
The in-match experience provides the same kind of tension as the single-player due to the fact that you don’t know what your opponent is throwing at you until each side literally runs into each other. The decision to limit turns to 90 seconds also rewards those that can think quickly. I’m glad I held off on my review until I got several matches in after the game launched, as watching everyone’s tactics evolve is another one of those great storytelling moments. I quickly went from wanting to brag about pulling off a win with a grenade that blew up two cars and the enemy soldiers hiding behind them to lamenting a loss to a human armed with a plasma sniper rifle that used a perk that allowed him to fire on targets outside of his range of sight!
The downside to multiplayer is that it is very barebones. You get one gametype, a few maps, ranked matches, custom matches, a leaderboard, and that’s it. Another big drawback is that you can only edit one squad at a time, which makes it frustrating to experiment with different squad combinations.
X-COM veterans will immediately notice a number of changes in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but they’re largely for the better. XCOM is a true re-imagining that captures the spirit and essence of the 20-year old original and modifies it for the current generation. If you have even a passing interest in sci-fi or strategy games, it definitely deserves a look. XCOM: Enemy Unknown makes it hard to resist playing just one more mission.
- Release date: October 9, 2012
- Genre: Strategy
- Platform: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC (Steam)
- Developer: Firaxis Games
- Publisher: 2K Games
- Rating: M
- MSRP: $59.99
Our score: 4.5/5
Review Statement: This review is based on a retail copy for the Xbox 360 and a code for the PC version provided by 2K Games.