XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review
Publisher: 2k Games
Genre: Turn Based Strategy
Platform: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
There aren’t many games on shelves, physical or digital, that can instill the same brand of emotional tumult as Firaxis’ and 2K Games’ revival of XCOM does with so little effort. One moment, your crack squad of extraterrestrial face-booters are ankle deep in what happens after they run out of bubble gum. Then the next turn, a lowly private is the only one left to recount the tale of his battle brothers’ swift and resounding defeat. As it does really nothing else all that impressively, XCOM is a clinic on how to create a thinking man’s game by rewarding care and tactics with the elevating sense of accomplishment, and how to punish carelessness with the stalwart sting of defeat.
It’s attempt at a narrative is light, and any story told is usually just a tool to introduce some sort of game mechanic. The important information given to you is that aliens not only exist, but have found Earth and its inhabitants extremely offensive, and have very little issue with eliminating every living human being from its craggy surface. In response, some of the planets top nations form the Voltron of extraterrestrial defense: the XCOM project, and make you its acting Commander.
Blips of story show up here and there, usually through animated cutscenes sprinkled with stereotypical foreign accents telling you to create certain items or capture/kill certain enemies for generic purposes. At best, they serve as flagpoles to warn players that the game is about to become harder, because new things are about to be introduced. It’s probably better that, in a strategy title, the story is light, because in general the genre is far better suited for game playing than storytelling, much like fighting games.
And oh does this game play.
As soon as you are anointed as the new last hope for the planet, you begin to realize just how bleak things really are. Scarcity is the name of the game; there are many different types of resources you can acquire by means of creation or collection, but there are so many hands outstretched to receive them that it forces you to be frugal. What that means for the development of the XCOM project and the future of the fight against the invaders makes every decision incredibly important. Do you use the limited amount of credits you receive per month from your faceless multinational benefactors to build satellites to watch for incoming UFOs, or for R&D to develop gear to better arm your ground troops? If you choose to make satellites, over whose nation do you launch them into orbit, allowing them to rest easier at the expense of others? Not to mention the construction and the launch both take time; precious days that you can rest assured that the alien menace won’t be waiting around for you to deliberate over.
Time becomes the most important resource you can manage in this game, because absolutely everything you do costs days of waiting. Recruiting new soldiers, developing new gear, buying new facilities, even waiting for the next attack all involving watching days tick away until next thing happens. It’s in these moments, staring quizzically at your base, crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s, that you spend your most cerebral moments. You can’t take any choice back, and as the disembodied council voice will remind you every chance he gets, everyone is watching. Foul up too bad in a particular country’s eyes, and they will leave the project, removing its funds and investments from your reach, leaving you with even less to work with. Without even firing a laser gun, Enemy Unknown manages to make you fear your next decision in a way that Dead Space or Dark Souls had to throw waves of grotesque creatures down your throat to do.
And when you finally do get that ping on the radar – of abductions in multiple places across the globe, incoming enemy aircraft, etc. – you get to put all your choices to the test against the threat directly. The enemy not only outnumbers you, but for the major majority of the game, out matches and out equips you on a man-to-man basis in almost laughable fashion. They are also very smart – the AI never moves into a bad position unless it’s forced to. It also doesn’t give many second chances, and will try its best to put you into unfavorable spots. Sometimes, it almost feels like its cheating, but you soon realize that you are subject to the set of rules and freedoms as it is, and sometimes watching them decimate you can be an education in new ways to take the fight into your own hands.
Once your boots are on the ground, you see the intuitive console friendly strategy controls at work, something Firaxis proved it could do well in games like Civilization: Revolution. When selecting and moving units or choosing actions, you never have that nagging feeling of “man, this would be better with a keyboard and mouse.” The camera provides all the angles you need to see the many details of the maps, and the various things that can hide in its nooks and crannies. Menus are clear and concise, not taking up too much space on the screen when not necessary. All in all, another mechanical feather in the cap of console-based strategy design.
Your army consists of a squad ranging between four and six men and women, across four classes. Heavies wield big guns and are your go to explosionists. Snipers control the crowd from high spots and from distances. Assault troopers are shotgunners and like to get up close and messy. Supports are healers and general purpose fighters. When particular individuals grow past Rookie status and move into one of these previously mentioned roles, they grow at a steady pace. Every rank they move up gives them the option to choose one of a pair of skills. Plus, with the option to gain psychic ability later on in the game, squads can become very diverse.
Your units have two actions per turn to do almost everything available to them. Every class can spend an action to move within a highlighted area, or both actions to “sprint” into an extended version of that matrix. Most attacks and other skills cost an action and usually end your turn immediately following taking said action. Cover comes in multiple forms as well; lower walls and objects provide half cover, while taller walls or sides of semis provide full cover, both making it harder for the attacker to hit targets in them. Not using cover is the easiest way to get absolutely murdered. Moving units from hiding spot to hiding spot Gears of War style is really the only way fly during your average encounter, especially because of combat’s most potentially devastating feature: overwatch. You can spend an action to hunker down in your position and fire at whomever enters your firing range and line of sight. A lot of tense battles tend to come down to whose team is moving under a better overwatch umbrella.
Don’t get too comfortable in your delusions of safety, though, as doing the battlefield changes dramatically and without warning. Walls of buildings can be blown out, rendering whomever was planted behind them far less secure in their decision-making skills. New waves of enemies are often dropped in from flanking positions or cutting off the route to objectives or escapes, keeping your wits active every step of the way. There are not many steps the enemy won’t take to destroy you, and besides keeping you honest, it also keeps you coming back for more. Using clever maneuvers and taking big risks to beat such a competent opponent is such a rewarding feeling, and is the main ingredient in the formula that keeps you playing “just one more mission” well into the wee hours of the morning.
It isn’t perfect, though. Some very weird glitches occur during play that can span simple cosmetic interaction and game breaking blunders. During overwatch, I’ve found plenty of times that my Snipers (who benefit from a skill that allows them you use team members vision as their own) shoot and kill targets through multiple sets of walls. As I accepted the casualty as a win, it removes the relevance of walls, my heavy has to blow a wall up first before he and shoot at the soft bits inside it, normally. Plenty of times, as well, have the maps just loaded with black screens and nothing else, forcing hard resets. It doesn’t happen super often, but it will, and that’s a very unfortunate quality of an otherwise technically sound game.
Visuals and sounds are examples of mislaid executions, as well, as they are both shockingly average. Soldiers look generically human, their facial features and body types almost comical. Map details are standard, but not exceptionally rendered. Very often textures will take their time loading, if they do at all. The alien designs themselves are actually a pretty interesting mix of classically inspired and newly interpreted, lending itself well to the cartoonish direction.
Cameras swoop in over the shoulder when action happens, either following charging and sprinting infantry, or following bullets as they cinematically separate ETs from existence. These moments really enhance the action of the game, sometimes making you feel like you are playing something more active than what is essentially a turn-based board game.
Growls and snarls creep from the distance every so often, revealing to one or more of your units that enemies lurk in a particular piece of the Fog of War. This is probably one of the best uses of sound in the game, the music being somewhat generic and all of the other requisite sounds (footsteps, gunshots, v/o, etc.) being pretty run-of-the-mill.
But some books don’t need pretty covers. When you sit and read them closely, you discover their inherent charm. XCOM is no exception. Though it lacks generation pushing graphical or sound achievements, it achieves at creating a refreshingly beautiful game that doesn’t hold hands or pull punches. Even with its technical and graphical blemishes, it’s still one of the best strategy games in years.