XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Genre: Turn Based Strategy
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: 10/09/2012
The XCOM franchise has been dormant for over a decade at this point, but its mark on the industry has been pretty apparent. Games that try to do what the series did pop up every now and again on the PC (and, occasionally, on handheld platforms), such as UFO: Aftermath and Laser Squad Nemesis on the PC and Rebelstar: Tactical Command on the GBA, but none of them really quite captured the essence of the experience. When 2K Games announced another title in the series, simply titled XCOM, a couple years back, fans were ecstatic up until the moment when the phrase, “… and it’s a first person shooter!”Â was uttered. Well, it turns out that 2K wasn’t planning on rebooting the series with just an FPS, as they tapped the talents of Firaxis Games to get a more traditional turn based strategy game out onto the market. Dubbed XCOM: Enemy Unknown, in a callback to the title of the original, the game is something of a reimagining of the franchise that brings XCOM into the modern era, while still staying true to the roots of the series. Firaxis is certainly no stranger to this concept, as they’ve been working on the Civilization series for over a decade now, and have pushed out some amazing strategy titles, including Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and Sid Meyer’s Pirates! so they’re certainly one of the best teams that could take on the project. As the demo showed, though, there were some concerns about the direction relative to how it diverged from the roots of the series. The final product, however, shows that there weren’t any reasons for concern; XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a true successor to the series, and one of the best games released this year, period.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is similar in concept to its predecessors, so the plot shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone familiar with those games. Basically, we have made first contact with an alien race in the worst way possible, as they arrive unannounced and start wrecking everything for no apparent reason. In response, the governing bodies of the world go all in on a project called “XCOM”Â, an elite black ops military organization dedicated to ending the alien threat and protecting the Earth at all costs. The game starts off (if you play the tutorial) basically from the moment of first contact, showing your first team of field operatives and their exploits, and builds the experience from there, as both XCOM and the alien forces burn forward in an escalating arms race to attempt to take control of Earth. If you choose to play the tutorial, the plot takes up a good bit of the first hour or so of play, but after the plot heavy introduction it scales back a bit, only introducing plot points when important discoveries are made in the battle against the alien forces. As such, the plot is a lot more effective than it might have otherwise been, as the game makes a good effort to slowly introduce new elements to the plot, giving you plenty of hopeful moments alongside moments of dread as the aliens introduce their own more powerful toys. The game also makes it a point to introduce characters who provide persistent names and faces to invest the player, without making those characters the focal point of the plot over the player. In simple terms: the plot of XCOM does a lot to engage the player, makes the player the most important person in the game and doesn’t spend too much time bogging the game down, and because of this, it works.
On the visual front, the game looks stellar across the board. Whether in your base or in battle, the character models and environments are artistically interesting and technically sound, and the game features excellent special effects and lighting that make the experience shine. The various in-game menus you navigate are also very clean and well designed, giving you the information you need without any clutter or mess. The game also makes great use of dynamic camera angles, popping in for close-range views when your squad makes a killing shot (and when the aliens do so) to make the combat more dynamic and interesting. There are some collision detection issues where characters pop through pieces of the environment that come up during the zoomed-in scenes, unfortunately, but these don’t take away from the experience much. Aurally, the soundtrack consists of a combination of orchestral and electronic compositions (mostly the latter) that are impressive and compliments the experience well, giving the game a feel that is both futuristic and imposing. The music also fades between softer ambient tracks and more powerful, swelling scores when in battle as enemies pop into and out of view, to underscore the tension associated, and it works very well. There’s a solid amount of voice acting in the game as well, between your advisors and your soldiers, and the voice work is very well done. There are some very nice touches here, in fact, such as a fairly wide variety of squad voices to choose from so that your team doesn’t sound too similar, to the little lines of dialogue your squad shout during battle and beyond that give the game real personality. The sound effects are also fantastic, between the futuristic effects that permeate the game, the powerful sounds of combat and the different noises the aliens make to announce their presence and exit from this mortal coil, and they add a lot to the game throughout.
While XCOM is a game that lends itself well to keyboard and mouse style gameplay, it also works quite well on the 360, thanks to a streamlined interface and easy to understand mechanics. You’ll spend your time swapping back and forth between your base and the battlefield, and the controls work more or less seamlessly for each. When in your base, the left stick and D-pad can be used to move through the menus, the A button confirms selections, the B button cancels selections and, the Y button usually defaults to the command center, and the other buttons act as context-sensitive actions if needed, such as when you need to swap through squad members or something similar. In battle, the left stick moves your cursor around the map, the right stick moves the camera around, and the D-Pad turns the camera and raises or lowers the elevation of the map when needed. The A button confirms actions, the B button cancels out of menus, Y kicks on the Overwatch feature instantly, and X swaps between the primary and secondary weapons for that character. The Right Trigger flips to your action panel for the chosen character, the bumpers swap between your squad members, the Left Trigger zooms out if needed, L3 brings up a detailed listing of the character when needed if you want more battlefield information than is on display, and the Back button allows you to end your turn instantly if you don’t want to perform any more actions. The game explains the majority of this in the tutorials at the beginning for those who have no experience with turn based strategy games, but fans should be able to figure this out relatively quickly, as the controls are fairly intuitive and make sense in context.
At the beginning of the game, you’ll choose a location for your home base from one of five countries (or if you turn on the tutorial, one of two), each with its own perks for building a base there, such as cheaper research, instant interrogations and autopsies, funding increases and so on. In the original XCOM games you could build bases wherever you wanted on the map as you saw fit, but here you have one universal home base, and instead monitor the world via other means. From your home base you’ll be able to access all of the options you need to work toward alien elimination, assuming you have the resources to do so. Your base comes equipped with a Research facility for reviewing new acquisitions and developing new technology, an Engineering facility for upgrading designs and manufacturing equipment, a Barracks for hiring, training, outfitting and reviewing troopers, a Hangar for reviewing and outfitting ships, and a Situation Room for reviewing global panic and council requests. You can also jump to Mission Control at any point to scan the globe for alien activity, which elapses time in the game, allowing for projects to complete while you wait for more aliens to show up. Time elapses in something similar to real time when you’re not monitoring global activity, so it’s unlikely that you’ll miss out on anything time-sensitive when you’re not monitoring for activity, fortunately, as this allows you plenty of time to perform routine functional operations as needed.
Each facility, as noted, offers different options to you that allow you to both increase the readiness of your troops and advance the storyline of the game. The Research department, headed by Dr. Vahlen, allows you to research new tech, whether it be recovered from the aliens or developed through further additional research, as well as perform autopsies and interrogations of dead and living aliens, respectively. As you perform research, you’ll earn credits toward additional research, and you can expedite research by bringing in more scientists and building more labs to speed things up a bit. The Engineering department, headed by Dr. Shen, allows you to manufacture weapons, gear and interception ships, and once you have a Foundry it also allows you to research new weapons and upgrades. Engineering can perform multiple jobs at one time so long as you have the engineers to do so, and the more workshops you have, the cheaper it is to make your tools and such. The Barracks allows you to review your existing field crew to see how they’re doing, their functional roles, and how far along they are in their development, as well as allowing you to customize their names and appearance and outfit them with new gear. You can also visit the Training School from here to buy new improvements for your troops, to increase the experience they earn on missions, reduce recovery time, improve their chances of surviving lethal injuries and more, as well as hire new troops and view a memorial of your deceased troops. Once you unlock the Psi Labs you can also use this facility to test and see if your troopers have latent psionic abilities as needed. The Hangar allows you to rearm fighter craft and transfer interceptor ships between the six five continental groups as needed. Finally, the Situation Room allows you to see what the overall state of panic in each funding country is and launch satellites over countries to help monitor activity, which reduces panic, adds to your funding, adds to your scientists and engineers every month, and confers country bonuses once you’ve covered an entire continent with satellites. You can also visit the Gray Market to sell off alien tech and accept council requests here if a country asks you to provide them with specific gear for profit. You’ll spend a good amount of your time managing your finances against your needs in this part of the game, as you did in the originals, so you won’t just be flexing your strategy in battle.
Eventually, however, you’ll have to head out and do battle with “X-rays”Â, as your squad affectionately (well maybe not) in a few different ways. Generally, as you’re scanning the map, you’ll receive a sudden notification of one of five types of events. When the game notifies you of an airborne UFO, you’ll have to scramble an interception craft to shoot it down (assuming you have one in the area) and hope that the ship can manage this. Early on you have access to Interceptors with Avalanche launchers, which are fine for smaller UFO’s but become quickly outdated, but researching alien tech allows you access to new ships and weapons to give you a fighting chance against the more brutal alien attack ships. You can also build items that allow your ships to dodge, bring up force fields and more to give them more of an edge in battle through Engineering if you wish. The remaining mission types all revolve around deploying squads of soldiers to take on aliens on the battlefield. Abduction Missions generally pop up simultaneously in three locations, and you’ll have to choose which mission to pick based on how panicked the area is and what rewards are offered, as the two locations you don’t visit become more panicked as a result, giving these missions a risk/reward design that’s interesting. Terror Missions only spawn one at a time, generally, and are similar to Abduction Missions with a twist: civilians are in the area of operations, and you’ll have to save as many civilians as possible while taking out aliens. UFO raids are either done against UFO’s that have been shot down or that have been discovered as already on the ground, and are similar to Abduction Missions, save that they mostly take place in and around UFO’s (usually out in the middle of the woods) rather than in cities. Finally, Council Missions are missions specifically handed out by the council, and usually have odd completion requirements, such as defusing bombs, escorting civilians to safety and other things. There are also some odd plot-important missions that pop up, such as assaulting an alien base, but these are few and far between.
Once your squad is on the ground, that’s when things get hectic. You’ll start out with a maximum squad count of four, all of whom will be basic assault rifle wielding rookies, but you can expand both the size and abilities of your squad as you progress. Movement is handled with the left stick, as you can move a cursor around the battlefield and, once you have a movement location in mind, press A to direct your active soldier there. Soldiers have two actions in them, allowing them a few different options for how to act. For instance, each character will have a blue move range which takes one of the two actions available, and a yellow move range which burns both actions as the character dashes to the location. Alternatively, you can move the character within their blue move radius and perform an action, such as taking a shot at an enemy, going into Overwatch (watching for enemy movement and firing on available targets), hunkering down to increase defense, using a carried item, and more. Once you’ve committed a character to an action, their turn ends and the next character is selected, though you can also choose to switch characters manually if you wish. Once all of your team takes their turn, your turn ends and the aliens get their turn, which continues until one side or the other is defeated.
The game works off of fog of war rules, meaning that you can’t see the enemy, and vice-versa, until they move into the range of sight of a character. Once you can see the aliens and vice versa, that’s when things go from mildly suspenseful to full-out ballistic. With a few exceptions (generally when dealing with enemies that have massive health bars) your opponents will attempt to take cover and fire on you from that position, which is a strategy you can (and should) also employ. Most anything elevated can be used as cover, and moving the cursor near it will helpfully snap the cursor to it, as well as show you a cover shield that comes in two displays and three colors. A half full shield indicates that the cover is “half cover”Â, while a full shield indicates “full cover”Â, which partially and significantly reduce the odds an opponent has to hit you, respectively, when firing. Cover that shows as blue is meant to be safe cover, while yellow means an enemy has a solid shot on you, and red means that you’re flanked and can be hit by someone with no cover benefit. When taking a shot, the camera snaps behind your chosen trooper to show the basic angle of the shot (so you can judge visually why a shot has the chance to hit that it does) and a percentage to hit pops up on the screen indicating the chances you have of hitting the shot. The percentage is modified by a number of factors, including how much (or little) cover the opponent has, your weapon, and any conditional modifiers at play. That said, any shot can hit or miss unless you have a one hundred percent chance at a hit, so you’ll be taking a risk no matter what the number is. The aliens play by the same rules, though, so you’re both in the same boat.
In the beginning, your characters are all rookies with no discernible skills, but as they make kills in battle they level up to higher ranks. Their first rank automatically assigns them a discipline (though you won’t know what until they rank up) from a group of four: Heavy, Support, Assault and Sniper. Heavy troopers wield machine guns and carry rocket launchers as secondary weapons, and can gain skills that allow added targeting for allies, suppression fire, and extra explosives. Support troopers wield light machine guns and carry smoke grenades for added accuracy reduction, and can gain skills that allow them to more effectively use medpacks, move greater distances and confer stat bonuses by using smoke grenades. Assault troopers can wield light machine guns or shotguns and can gain skills that allow them to make full movement and take a shot, shoot twice in one burst, and gain instant reaction shots when an enemy moves within four squares of them. Snipers wield sniper rifles (which don’t on their own allow the unit to move and shoot in the same round) and can gain skills that allow them to target anything a squadmate can see, toss targeting trackers to view enemies outside of normal range, and fire twice in one round. While you’ll likely end up finding a class in the mix that you like best, all of the classes are highly useful in battle and have different benefits that come up, so you’ll likely end up fielding mixed groups for the best results. Later in the game you’ll also be able to train some troopers in psionic abilities that allow you to deal instant damage to enemies or even take control of their mind and use them as allies for a few turns, though your enemies can do the same, so keep that in mind. Also keep in mind that you’ll want to keep allies healed up and in cover, as injured characters are unusable for several days until they heal up, and dead characters are gone for good, which could leave huge holes in your offensive line up.
Your first playthrough of XCOM will generally take between twenty to thirty hours, depending on how well you adjust to the tech trees, your difficulty level, and how quickly you try to blow through the main plot (mine took about thirty one hours, though I was trying to research everything so that’s part of it). Completing the game once is by no means the end of the experience, however. The game offers four different difficulty levels, as well as “Ironman Mode”Â which overwrites your save every combat turn to keep you from saving and reloading after a bad decision, so you can progressively challenge yourself more and more. Further, each starting continent group has different bonuses and each session can progress quite differently depending on how your starting troops pan out and your actions, so every session might begin and end the same, but the road to get there can be a completely different experience every time. There’s also a competitive online multiplayer mode that pits two teams against one another, where you can build a team up to a set point value, so you can have a bunch of low level weenies or a couple super powerful troopers, and your goal will be to take out your opponents before they do the same to you. The game also features a wide variety of Achievements that will test your skills (including one that tasks you to beat the game on one of the two hardest difficulties with Ironman Mode active) and the promise of DLC at some point down the line, you can get a lot of mileage out of XCOM out of the box and beyond.
For all that it does right, XCOM does have some issues that make it less pleasant than it could be. Fans of the original will likely find the streamlined approach to be mostly solid, but will likely miss some of the elements from those games, such as the ability to sell anything not in use (you can only sell alien equipment in this game), XCOM base invasions and the ability to have multiple functioning bases at once. Nostalgic desires aside, the game also has some mild technical hiccups, such as characters performing reaction shots through walls and characters occasionally being tagged as able to see aliens when none are in view. Also, while it’s nice to be able to customize the name and appearance of your troopers, being able to decide their job class instead of having it forced upon you would have made building an ideal squad less random (though it is nice that gender is not a factor in combat role at least). The game also skews toward being more difficult in the early stages of the game, due to the lack of financial resources and advancements you’ll have available, as the first few months in-game will be a battle to keep member nations loyal and advance technologically while working with the minimal amount of finances you have available. Experienced strategy gamers should find this less onerous, as will franchise fans, but newcomers may find it problematic to adjust for a few months. Finally, while the game largely plays perfectly fine on the console, there can be times where the cursor doesn’t quite snap where you’d want it to, and while this isn’t frequent, you’ll sporadically find yourself not moving exactly where you wanted.
To be honest, though, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a mostly triumphant return for the series, and while there are some very minor flaws in the experience, this is basically one of the best possible ways to bring the series back to life. There’s an actual plot to the game beyond “aliens are killing us, kill them first”Â and it’s actually a pretty good one, the game looks and sounds excellent and is technically sound, and the gameplay is easy to adjust to but quite in-depth in what it offers. Expanding your facilities and tools in-between heading out to shut the aliens down face-to-face all comes together naturally, and you’ll find the game to be complex, lengthy and quite enjoyable across multiple playthroughs, as well as online. Further, the experience has been streamlined from the original games to a point where this game feels like it took the lessons from the prior titles and expanded upon them in a way that’s fresh and exciting, giving the player more options without sacrificing the core of the originals. The game lacks some of the more useful and interesting options from the original games, does show off the odd glitch here and there (though nothing game breaking, thankfully), and lacks some customization options that would seem sensible. It’s also a little challenging for newcomers at the start, and there can be the occasional issue getting the cursor to snap to where you’d like it to be. What flaws do exist in the game are, frankly, quite minor in comparison to the whole product, however, and the end result is that XCOM is a game that anyone who likes strategy games even a tiny bit has no reason not to buy and love as soon as it’s humanly possible for them to do so.
FINAL SCORE: INCREDIBLE GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is exactly how a developer should bring a classic franchise into the modern era, as it takes the core elements of the originals, expands upon them and creates a final product that is respectful and enjoyable, if not perfect. The plot to the game is surprisingly solid and manages to be motivational without becoming overbearing, the game is both technically and artistically solid in its visuals and audio, and the gameplay works well on the 360 to a level that newcomers and fans alike should be able to learn it quickly. The base management and turn based squad combat from the originals has been streamlined and tweaked for this series reboot in ways that keep to the spirit of the originals while expanding the depth and substance of the game, and between the lengthy playtime for a single campaign, the varied difficulty options, the online play and the promise of DLC down the road, there’s a lot to bring players back for more. Some elements from the original games will be missed in this update, unfortunately, and some mild technical glitches show their faces now and again, though nothing is especially game breaking. The game could also stand with some additional customization options, can be a bit more challenging in the early going than newcomers might be expecting, and can have some mild issues getting the cursor in place when using the controller as well. The final product more than justifies its flaws, however, as XCOM: Enemy Unknown is basically one of the best games released this year, in its genre and otherwise, and anyone who likes strategy games even a little bit is doing themselves a disservice if they don’t pick it up.
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