XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review (PC, Xbox 360, PS3)
“We will be watching you,” The council warns as you shut down your monthly report and move on with your day, words echoing in your ears as a stark reminder that everything around you is falling to bits.Your squad lay battered and broken and you’re forced into using the Rookies who’re just off the plane for an upcoming mission; countries are threatening to pull their funding and the alien menace is relentless.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown throws a lot at you in a very short amount of time, but in a lot of ways is the most accessible and playable of the franchise to date. Firaxis have built up a lot of expectations over the years with the consistent success of their games (Civilization 5 being the most recent) and now have taken those herculean expectations and transferred them on to a global scale with a singular goal: Saving the human race.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown throws you directly in to the path of oncoming alien onslaught without a care in the world; players are the unnamed commander of the XCOM force – a global initiative built to stop the alien assault on Earth – with a council of countries backing his efforts and subtly guiding his hand.
Your XCOM base is fully staffed with Engineers and Scientists who will consistently research new battle-armour and weapons then build improvements to support your soldiers in the field. The base will take up a lot of your time as you begin cultivating relationships with countries by defending them against UFOs or abductions and keeping their panic level to a minimum.
You will receive monetary rewards for your efforts but once you start manning their skies with satellites that will also increase their monthly contribution to your cause. This could be extra scientists and engineers for Research and Development or it could be a simple boost of funds for you to spend as you please.
These relationships are a key part of your war effort and are worth their weight in gold. Putting the time in simply has a great return on investment and your end game will be made far easier by the continued confidence and support of the countries who you are trying to protect.
From your base screen you will also manage expansions which will enable you to hold aliens for interrogation or a place for your Psi-Ops division which will enable the most gifted of your team to develop offensive abilities outside of simple gunplay.
You can manage your soldiers who, while individually named, will also gain a nickname once they have a few missions under their belt. This is a nice touch and is auto-assigned without your input so draws your interest in their welfare. Your connection to these soldiers, whether you choose to name them yourself or leave default names, will be a tough bond of love and loss as you will inevitably watch them fall at the hands of the enemy.
You can modify soldiers with ease; faces, names and armour colours are all up for grabs if you choose this route and will help to boost that inherent connection with your soldiers and will make you take every care to cultivate them and watch them grow from young rookies to battle-hardened Colonels who lead your squad into the toughest of situations.
The battle screen will fill up the majority of your time with XCOM. This is where the meat of the actual gameplay is and the place you’ll be begging for relief from once you finish a mission. At the start of the game you’ll be able to take four soldiers into battle. Those will be fresh faced youngsters with little skill or hope of making it out alive but under your tutelage can be moulded into the greatest killing machine known to any alien menace who dare threaten their home.
You control individuals through the battle and select actions for the each soldier before moving on to their counterpart. You can select movement or to shoot at the enemy (Or a combination of the two!); as your soldier progresses, they will also be granted special actions and specializations for you to really hone your squad in any way you see fit.
Support characters can move vast distances and be specialized as Medics or Scouts, the Heavy soldier is a bruiser who can commit to shooting twice or movement bonuses. Snipers can be uniquely defined again to the type that can move and shoot in forward positions or hold back and make a kill from long range aided by the vision cones of their allies; Assault troops are the brute force of your army and lie somewhere in between the Heavy and the Support class making them the most versatile unit in the game.
Their keen combat ability and movement area make them the ideal combat unit that can get into trouble and out of it immediately if things get too hot. You will select your troops positions and the game harps on one key point from the beginning: keep everyone in cover. If you leave your guys hanging they aren’t going to be coming home alive and that point persists from the first minute right through to the last.
Your soldiers move forward, and if you’re smart you switch them to overwatch at the end of every turn (If they sight an alien they get a free shot). Unfortunately when your people are moving you can over invest in things and once you spot an enemy – who instantly gets a free move to move into cover – you could have completely placed your squad in the wrong position for this fight, using the wrong side of cover or having the team in a completely wrong position to properly take the fight to the enemy.
This can be an annoyance but very quickly teaches you to be cautious with your movements and not to over invest your troops in unknown areas. Knowing the strength of your troops is key and so selecting the right squad for each mission is more than simple formality, but a necessity built straight into the opening sequence. Your squad is the backbone of your effort to rid the Earth of the alien menace and XCOM: Enemy Unknown never lets you forget it. The minute you do, that’s when things start going downhill.
Staying true to the original game was always going to be hard but Enemy Unknown really steps gingerly on the line of Modern, accessible game with a classic, true to its origins experience and yet still be recognisable as its own product within a franchise known for its brutality.
Enemy Unknown offers you modern pleasantries such as a tutorial, difficulty settings and auto-saves but almost challenges you not to use them. They even provide an Ironman setting where the game will only maintain a single save to work from and so your decisions are locked in place as soon as they have been made.
Unfortunately, as good as having a tutorial is – and it certainly is a necessity – it really doesn’t go deep enough in explaining the numerous mechanics at play outside of the combat. The game wants you straight in the fight and moving, but doesn’t take the time to tell you if you mismanage the countries and ignore warnings then your funding will be pulled.
Money is extremely tight and so that funding is key; lose too many countries and your game is over without them ever having to tell you, you’ll hit a point of no return and the only option is a restart. You’re forced to learn this the hard way, 6-8 hours in realising the early mistakes you made were far too grave for you to ignore and so the best option is to cut your losses and restart with all your knowledge intact.
Although this sounds tedious, that second play through is one of the greatest things you’ll find in Enemy Unknown. You know what’s coming and so can predict a few things here and there and will spend the first hour wrapped in your own bravado as you extend that lead on the aliens before BAM, the game bites that hand and you’re left broken and bruised.
Everything about Enemy Unknown feels like it belongs in a museum that showcases the mid-nineties. The gameplays brutal, unflinching effect on you coupled with the cheesy story and character acting that belongs somewhere in between The X-Files and The Twilight Zone, but it all just works as an entire product. Maybe this is a museum piece but it has been revived and meticulously restored and is vibrant and original.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is punishing in the most deliberate manner and it feels great to not have your hand held through some convoluted story and the flip side of this, is when you’re actually doing well and make it out of a UFO crash site with your entire team in tow you feel like you’re on top of the world.
Much like the original game, Enemy Unknown forces you to play better or lose but also gives you the tools and tricks you’re going to need to succeed this time around. Each playthrough will be different and that’s mainly because your approach will differ as you learn and grow with the game and you’ll never stop being rewarded for the effort and time you put in.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an unmissable experience and a true gem of a game that will no doubt rule the strategy-game genre for a long time to come.XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review (PC, Xbox 360, PS3),