XCOM: Enemy Unknown screenshot
XCOM: Enemy Unknown screenshot

To get the most enjoyment from XCOM: Enemy Unknown, name your squad. Whether you opt for philosophers, authors, members of your favourite band, or even your Twitter pals, it's the best way to heighten that sense of attachment Firaxis is so keen to foster. Name them, and they're your team. Name them, and you've got one more reason to keep them alive. Name them, and it's that much more devastating when you lose them. That's when, not if.

It also helps to forget the original. Enemy Unknown is respectful of Julian Gollop's 1994 turn-based strategy classic, but it's not reverential. Forget gargantuan squads. Forget Action Points. Instead, you've got a tightly-knit cabal of four to six members as your last line of defence against an alien invasion that has the whole world in panic. It's still XCOM in most recognisable respects. It's as challenging now as it was then, particularly if you want everyone to return home in one piece. It shares the same struggle to manage limited resources, the same tough choices to make when deciding who to help and who to ignore, and the same management dilemmas as you work out whether to assign researchers to an alien autopsy or to developing new weapons or armour. Vitally, this modern reboot is also packed full of the same brutal tension when you're pinned down by superior numbers and are desperately hoping the next headshot is a direct hit.

And goodness, Firaxis has been brave here. It would almost certainly have been easier to toss out a direct remake with shinier graphics; the kind of thing to keep the purists sweet. Instead, it's opted for something slicker, more accessible - a little more mainstream, even - and done so without ever pandering to the lowest common denominator. Partially this has been achieved with the close-up action: during one playthrough I was reminded of the original Mass Effect from a tight third-person camera that gives you a closer view of your actions than the regular overhead viewpoint. At another point, as I witnessed my rookie recruit sprint into position behind an overturned van, I thought of the Gears of War roadie run and briefly pondered the idea of a turn-based game starring Marcus Fenix. That's not to say it ever feels like a third-person shooter, only that it's taken a few presentational cues from them.

The Unreal Engine is hardly creaking under the strain, and XCOM's characters and environments are never quite as charismatic as in the original, but the game does the job with enough style to get away with it. There's some satisfying splatter as aliens meet their end, their deaths made all the more agreeable by the way your myriad foes tend to scuttle about in a particularly unnerving manner. The most disturbing animations, however, are reserved for the deaths of your troops, their bloodied corpses slumping to the floor, though the nastiest and most gruesome fate is delivered by one particularly vicious type of alien. Death, as before, is permanent, and a wail of bagpipes marks their appearance on your memorial wall.

Losing a valued marine is a genuinely sombre moment, enough in many instances to prompt a complete restart. You might be prepared to sacrifice the odd rookie, but it's a good deal harder to carry on when you're saying goodbye to a leader of several missions' standing. Much of that is down to how continued survival tends to massively boost your characters' stats: promotions occur frequently, with each new rank offering a choice of two special abilities. You might increase your sniper's range, perhaps, or give your assault class the ability to fire after taking their two allotted moves per turn.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown screenshot

Instead of spending Action Points - like in the XCOM of old - each squad member now has the opportunity to perform two actions per turn: move and fire, or to simply move twice. Spending both of your actions in one go to dash long distances can be useful, which in turn lessens the chance of being hit by an enemy, but at the same time greatly increases the chances of you alerting a previously unseen foe.

It's an intuitive and flexible system, and it benefits from a smart user interface (on both PC and console) that gives you enough information without cluttering the screen with menus and numbers. Each map is made up of tiles that disappear until it's your time to move, while shield icons highlight areas of cover, their colour and design instantly telling you whether the position is flanked or destructible, and how much protection it offers. This is one of many examples of Firaxis getting the boring bits right, with design choices you don't necessarily think about while you're playing but which underpin the fun stuff beautifully.

Away from the battlefield you've got plenty more to worry about. Cash supplies deplete alarmingly between missions, and you never seem to have enough coin to build that new satellite uplink you need to give you greater global coverage, or the interceptors that need scrambling to assault the UFOs that periodically show up. The alien detritus that you pick up on each mission can be sold on the grey market, but your scientists aren't exactly thrilled about you letting artefacts go without scrutinising them first, even if you do need a quick buck to fund your next research project.

It's a fine balancing act, in other words, but in its way, the time you spend back at base is as entertaining as kicking ET's ass - and, if anything, even more important. The rhythm of play has been accelerated from the original, with shorter missions ensuring you return home more frequently and get a better sense of the results - and costs - of your decisions. There's always that rising sense of dread as the game forces you to consider just a little bit more than your brain will find comfortable, such as which territory to protect when several invasions occur simultaneously. Leave one area too long and they'll withdraw financial support for your squad of alien hunters, but spreading your forces out too thinly could prove catastrophic - besides, a delay before responding might allow one of your wounded soldiers time to recover from their injuries; a potentially crucial factor if it's a veteran. XCOM is not a game for the indecisive.

There are plenty of plates, then, and you'll need to keep them spinning for quite a while: Enemy Unknown's campaign is uncommonly substantial, and though missions are no longer randomised you won't get all the same ones each time and in the same order. It's hard to imagine anyone would feel short-changed from the campaign, but there's also a multiplayer deathmatch mode that gives you a certain number of points to build a team from alien and human units, with a time limit on each turn. This will undoubtedly have its fans, but for me it was a fleeting diversion from the single-player game. It's still a fine showcase of some wonderful tactical systems, of course, but the outcome of a battle can be determined worryingly early: such is the handicap of losing a single team member that it seems whoever gets the first kill is almost certain to win. And shorn of the narrative context of the single-player game, it lacks that sense of urgency that I found so exhilarating playing solo.

Perhaps that's because XCOM works best as a panic management simulator. It's about controlling the terror levels of the countries you need money from, calming the alarm of your squad members as their leader is killed and their behaviour grows erratic and your own fears as you try to remain level-headed in the face of a terrified populace, a concerned council, and the sharp, poisonous appendages of a trio of chittering creatures advancing towards your wounded sergeant. After all, remaining calm under such overwhelming pressure isn't so easy when the person in mortal danger is named after your partner or best friend.

Version Tested: PC

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Joey_Bananas's Avatar

Joey_Bananas

I really enjoyed this game. It had me hooked for at least 20 hours I reckon, in which it took me to complete it. The game play is a lot of fun, as are the upgrades you can give to your soldiers and watching them rank up.

As the review said, you will lose your soldiers no matter what. I had a Sniper who was a Colonel, and a veteran of 58 missions and had 98 kills. He was then killed in a mission, and I was devastated. But the beauty of the game is that it is easy to move on and rank up more soldiers, and then your lost heroes are but a distant memory.

I had a few problems with the game, though. Research/Engineering towards the end of the game is almost non-existent because if you're a savvy player and utilise your income/day cycles effectively - you can have all of your Research/Engineering projects done before you move on to the final mission.

Another problem I had is that the maps are very limited, and there must be about 6-10 maps and over the course of the game they are re-used a lot. There's also only maybe between 4-6 different mission types (civilian rescue, search downed UFOs, escort missions, search & destroy alien occupations, etc) and they get quite repetitive. I also thought they could've done more with the UFO "Interceptor" missions. As it stands, all you do is send a fighter jet to intercept a UFO and have minimal input. It would've been cool to have a kind of 3D, High-Res, Alien Invaders kind of scenario.

One of the other downfalls of the game is the interrogation procedures of captured Aliens, and the information you learn about them is not very interesting. And it seems like other than unlocking new research, it doesn't really affect how the game plays. Interrogating a live specimen of an alien species I thought would've increased my unit’s effectiveness against it - but it doesn't. Just a minor problem, but it would've been nice to have research into captured specimen give better results.

My last point is that the story isn't very good. It was interesting to start with, but it's very loose and generic. The ending was rushed and easy to see coming as well. XCOM is in the category of those "it's the journey not the destination" games though, and it didn't affect my enjoyment but it would've been nicer to see a more robust story to compliment the great game play.
Posted 13:12 on 24 October 2012
rbevanx's Avatar

rbevanx@ Wido

YouTube Video

This game is really tempting me!
Posted 15:56 on 20 October 2012
Wido's Avatar

Wido

Yup I now have XCOM. See you on the battlefield! Already going to let France go unless they prey and beg on their knees... Well if they offer good resources ;)
Posted 15:34 on 20 October 2012
Clockpunk's Avatar

Clockpunk

Ah, I caved and purchased the title with HMV credit this afternoon (to hell with Doom 3: BFG Edition - quite literally! :p), and I must confess, it is a fantastic title. Really enjoying it thus far, much more so than Dishonored.

If only Firaxis had kept the frog-like alien discussed on the podcast, that would have been an ace addition. That, and I would have liked to see a little more degree of customisation for the base (as well as include a few funny animations - perhaps with an achievement - for the vigilant player spying on the troops between missions!)
Posted 22:16 on 15 October 2012
SelfSuicide's Avatar

SelfSuicide

Gave the demo a spin and thought it's definitely worth a purchase; reminded me alot of Valkyria Chronicles but in a more interesting environment. Just gotta weigh up the PC and PS3 demo's now.
Posted 13:11 on 11 October 2012
Clockpunk's Avatar

Clockpunk

It is a shame the dialogue and acting is rather ham-n-cheese laden, but I still found the demo really rather enjoyable! While I can't justify another day one game purchase at the moment, come birthday time this will certainly be on the old 'wish list' ;)
Posted 21:30 on 10 October 2012
FantasyMeister's Avatar

FantasyMeister

My birthday is around the corner too but I'm hoping for cash instead. This game just doesn't push any buttons for me. Whilst the overall concept sounds great the actual meat of the game, i.e. what players will be spending the most time doing, just isn't my idea of fun.
Posted 22:43 on 08 October 2012
altaranga's Avatar

altaranga

Birthday around the corner. This is on the list.
Posted 22:10 on 08 October 2012
mydeaddog's Avatar

mydeaddog

My advice for anyone picking this up: Play with Iron Man enabled. It does make the game a fair bit harder, because unfortunate accidents become permanent obstacles to deal with, but it makes the whole experience a hell of a lot tenser.

Also, you get those hilarious moments where you think you're winning, and then a surprise grenade wipes out all your veterans in one swoop.
Posted 16:05 on 08 October 2012
dazzadavie's Avatar

dazzadavie

If I could I would love to get this, could sink my teeth into this when my gold runs out.

Great review relay enjoyed reading it!
Posted 14:52 on 08 October 2012

Game Stats

9
Out of 10
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
  • Rich atmosphere
  • Terrific soundtrack
  • Tense and tactical missions
  • Occasional line-of-sight issues
Agree? Disagree? Get Involved!
Release Date: 12/10/2012
Platforms: PS3 , Xbox 360 , PC , iPhone
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Genre: Turn-based strategy
Rating: TBC
Site Rank: 531 66
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