XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords.

To anyone under the age of 20, XCOM is but a meaningless acronym with no intrinsic value or meaning attached whatsoever. For everyone else, in certain circles, it represents one of the quintessentially brilliant PC strategy series of the 90s. XCOM was more than just a game, it was a phenomenon. Many years have passed since its last iteration, then picked up by 2K back in 2007 to much tentative anticipation by long-serving fans and “What’s XCOM?” by everyone else. There’s a chance Firaxis might have gone and done the impossible with XCOM: Enemy Unknown and created a 90’s remake which not only stands up to its predecessors, but is in many ways superior.

A base description of ‘turn-based, squad-based cover shooter’, whilst indicative of some of its core mechanics, its true beauty and brilliance cannot be confined to a simple tagline descriptor. XCOM begins life with as 4-person squad, largely faceless men and women, touting assault rifles and chucking grenades, a slightly underwhelming introduction which simply cannot prepare you for what lies ahead. XCOM’s strength lies in its ability to weave an entirely unique narrative for each playthrough, even with a voiceless gaggle of international marines. Each soldier hails from a randomised nation, with an appropriate name, as each progresses and grows, so does your relationship. Whilst each can be customised to a degree, the magic lies in the ones left untouched, especially when the game forces your hand in order to preserve the greater good.

What XCOM does superbly is that efficiently conveys both close, personal nature of the soldiers and combat, whilst still making the overall ‘global’ threat relevant. In having its cake, eating it and asking for seconds, the gameplay is so delicately poised it creates for some very tense firefights and frantic battles, each casualty means so much more than just a meaningless statistic. Even the soldiers-past are remembered through the XCOM memorial, detailing past exploits and triumphs, each name carries a personal significance and tragic end.

On a larger scale XCOM also feels like a global game, bar for the all-American voice cast. The XCOM base can be located in any continent, each with its own bonuses, with XCOM rookies hailing for all four corners of the earth. Each continent, containing several key countries, has a panic level attached to it, rising with subsequent alien attack and falling when XCOM step in and do their thing. The system comes into its own when the game forces you into a balancing act; three countries are being invaded at once, only one of which can be saved. The higher the panic level, the more difficult each subsequent mission becomes in that area, so once a location is too far gone it becomes almost impossible to reclaim. One an area reaches a panic threshold, they leave the XCOM program and with it goes their funding. Even before the ‘core’ combat, purely in selecting missions its a complex being, and no facet exist simply for the sake of it, everything in XCOM is entirely necessary and is much the better for it.

There’s no denying that XCOM is a difficult game, brutally punishing tactical mistakes with devastating results. Only a couple of poor missions can completely destroy your game, so each move both in combat and micromanagement needs to be thoroughly reasoned before proceeding. Even the ‘standard’ alien enemies are a force to be reckoned with, the tide of battle can easily be turned with but a solitary soldier out of place an entire campaign can be irreparably damaged.

Even from the outset, the tutorial shows that the alien visitors are a force to be reckoned with, all but one of the initial XCOM recruits are shown the door almost immediately, enforcing the notion that XCOM isn’t an elite force straight away. Much like the fledgling United Nations or European Union, XCOM posits an imagined future where nations come together to fight a greater evil, naturally beginning as a turbulent melting pot which may eventually gel together to become a formidable force or fall apart at the seams.

Characters appear to have no real visual style to speak of, but the beauty lies in the environments and enemies. Each location feels unique and very distinct from the next, and even each level based in a similar urban environment is still crafted and carefully designed. Some of the fire and scorched earth textures are marvellously detailed, especially when it comes to burned wood. XCOM’s also brimming with nods and hints towards the retro: fog of war takes an unconventional approach, rendering the undiscovered or unsighted black and white, 50s sci-fi at its very best. The standard ‘sectoid’ aliens exude a similar vibe, with disturbing arachnid eyes and no mouth to speak of, or the Thin Men, like a preying mantis wearing the skin of Yoko Ono. The cinematics also possess a similar retro charm as the sectoids, reminiscent of the poorly-rendered avis of 90s gaming, now rendered in glorious high definition. The AI is not only rather smartly dressed, but also presents as a very aggressive and rather intelligent threat, flanking at any given opportunity and simply cannot wait to make you pay for your crimes.

XCOM is a very sexy, fully-fledged PC strategy game which works seamlessly on the console. In trading platoons for individual soldiers, Firaxis have created but a much more personal, yet at the same time more ‘global’ game with an immense degree of re-playability even before you reach the multiplayer. The only criticism is that occasionally soldiers will inexplicably shoot through cover, but that’s all. XCOM: Enemy Unknown does the series proud and perhaps serves as a very rare example of a 90’s remake being better than the game from which it derives. Intelligent in its punishment, XCOM deliberately doesn’t want you to complete first, second or even third time around, teaching you valuable lessons and forcing you to adapt, and failure to do has catastrophic consequences.

This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.

The Good

Challenging AI, slick presentation, an excellent 'panic' system and seamlessly blended gameplay.

The bad

Some character clipping issues.

There’s a chance Firaxis might have gone and done the impossible with XCOM: Enemy Unknown and created a 90’s remake which not only stands up to its predecessors, but is in many ways superior.


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