XCOM: Enemy Unknown crashes to Earth and is about to rock your world…
Reviewed on the Xbox 360 by Ben Chalk
XCOM: Enemy Unknown has a tough reputation to live up to, its 1994 predecessor of the same name was a beloved title by many, quoted by some as one of the pinnacles of videogame creation and generating waves of adoration amongst its hardcore fans. The responsibility to recreate the love and devotion of the original falls upon the shoulders of Firaxis Games and they have not disappointed…
The setting of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a near-future Earth ravaged by the sudden onslaught of an extra-terrestrial army whose motives are unclear. Charged with leading the fightback against this alien invasion, the player assumes control of XCOM (eXtra-terrestrial COMbat for those of you wondering!), an elite joint-world military unit tasked with defending humanity’s existence against better equipped and more technologically advanced foes. At the start of the game, the future of Earth looks bleak and it is down to you, as Commander of XCOM and humanity’s only hope, to change that.
Players who think this is a glorified action game will however quickly come unstuck. Gameplay is a sophisticated combination of balls-out combat and strategy, resource management and political maneuvering. Combat and battleplay takes on the guise of isometric 3D strategy gaming, tasking you as the Commander of the merry band of alien exterminators to order your soldiers around the battlefield one troop at a time to extinguish the extra-terrestrial threat. Forcing your troops forward from cover to cover is thrilling, attempting to outflank and out-think your enemies feels precise as your strategy to deliver devastation to the enemy unfolds before your eyes. Each soldier has a function to perform, and has a set of deadly skills that when combined in glorious tactical synchronicity with their fellow warriors leaves you with a real sense of accomplishment. Firaxis have absolutely nailed the combat UI, with the range of movement and quality of cover easily identified and exploited and choices made in firefights playing out in heart-pounding cutscenes.
Your ability to destroy your enemy in a firefight is a cold and clinical numbers game, each time you attempt to shoot at your enemy you are given a % chance of the shot hitting, forcing you to make snap-decisions as to how best to utilise your soldiers. Whether it is placing your XCOM allies into Overwatch (shooting at enemies when they try to move) or manoeuvring closer to the enemy to increase the chances of inflicting a lethal shot on the alien invaders but exposing your troops to greater danger, each decision carries both weight and consequence. The precision with which the UI conveys information and choice should, in theory, prevent any false moves or reckless tactics being needlessly carried out and at that gut-wrenching moment in the game when one of your troops is wiped out, it truly feels as if it is down to your own foolhardy strategy and not imbalance in the game.
XCOM expects you to use your head outside of combat as well, with a vital component of the game taking place whilst nestled safely back at XCOM HQ. Resource management in researching, developing and building new weapons and infrastructure to keep your team able to go toe-to-toe with their technologically superior counterparts is essential and neglecting this part of the game will see you failing hard when tackling later enemies. Keeping track of the various demands and needs of the different countries around the world feels like a thankless task for much of the game, fail to keep the rising panic down across the globe and certain countries may pull their support for the XCOM project, taking with them vital resources and funding. A ‘Doom Meter’ tracks your worldwide support, filling up as more governments lose faith in your ability to keep them safe. Once the Doom Meter is full, it’s game over for the XCOM team and for you as Commander.
Juggling the finances and political interests of the XCOM project adds a completely different layer to XCOM: Enemy Unknown and elevates it from well-thought out strategy game to an all-encompassing sophisticated survival saga. Keeping Earth’s many governments content whilst trying to continually push forward the development of the XCOM project feels like a mammoth thankless task. The pressure outside of combat feels as great as when firing away at the extra-terrestrial foes, knowing that one unsound investment or misplaced decision could result in disaster forces you into an unrelenting state of panic. This is a genius act of game design by Firaxis, thrusting you into the world of constant paranoia and disorder of XCOM allows you to feel fully immersed in the story. The notion of the squabbling governments’ around the globe vying for the attentions of XCOM and threatening to withdraw support if they don’t get what they want grounds the fantastical world of UFO invasion in reality and prevents the game from lurching into the farcical.
Navigating the XCOM HQ through its dynamic UI at first felt a little overwhelming upon being presented with it, departments range from the Research Lab, Engineering and Situation Room all need equal attention to counteract the alien antagonists. I felt the UI, although gloriously detailed with minor characters going about their departments’ everyday UFO-exterminating business, felt a little bolted on and unnecessarily confusing. As my only real criticism of the game it is a slight one, however I felt that although the game’s tutorial briefs you on the importance and function of each department, when trying to take on the vast reams of information at the beginning of the game, many points got lost along the way. After playing through the game for several hours you begin to pick these points back up but it can feel that you’ve lost valuable time and ground in the fight against the UFO horde in trying to decipher the many actions you are supposed to perform at XCOM HQ.
The personal nature of the game is how XCOM: Enemy Unknown sets the benchmark for other games and further elevates itself from good to great. Allowing you to rename the characters of your squad to those of your nearest and dearest adds extra spice to the game when it comes to the drama of the battlefield. I lost count of the number of times I shouted expletives at my childhood friends, now turned expert dealer of death, as they missed a seemingly unmissable shot and took me to the brink of disaster. The depth of emotion that you invest in XCOM only becomes apparent when this resentment spills over into your everyday life as you refuse to respond to the text message of a friend due to their virtual poor performance! (True story, sadly)
The personal edge that this lends to the game only makes the death of your characters more savage. See one of your XCOM team-mates wiped out in combat and he is gone for good, never gracing your squad again. The bleak reality of war is XCOM’s finest hour, the guilt of your decisions overwhelm you as you progress, a lump entering you throat at your latest tactical blunder and loss of Dan ‘Smudge’ Harris (Sorry buddy!). Training new units is the only way to replenish your squad, forcing you to continue the story with rookie members, developing their skills as either Assault, Heavy, Support or Sniper all over again and causing future battles to become that much harder.
The storyline of XCOM is delivered at a wondrously measured pace, new enemies (beautifully crafted by Art Director Greg Foertsch and brought to life by the Unreal 3 engine) spring forth just as you feel that you have the measure of the invading force. Constantly keeping you feeling off-balance and struggling to keep your head above water, the campaign delivers a challenging adventure that punishes any examples of over-confidence or foolishness. Losing my whole team of embattled veterans in one mission just as I began to feel that I’d conquered the gameplay of XCOM was an altogether too common occurrence!
Locking horns with friends/strangers is encouraged via the Multiplayer options supported in the game, through Ranked matches or just competing against a friend. Multiplayer provides the novel aspect of allowing you to put together a combination of 6 aliens and human characters to form a deadly alien/human military force. This is done by spending a pre-defined points budget on character types and equipment, allowing you to form squads of heavily armed soldiers to act as a battering ram against your target or fast-paced run ‘n’ gun units for lightning speed assaults. The setup and gameplay easily translates to multiplayer and quickly allows you to cross swords with your equally tactically inept friends with generally hilarious results.
An early contender for Game of the Year, Firaxis’ reimagining of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is thrilling to play and deserves a place in every gamers’ collection. Forcing you to use brain over brawn, the well-measured storyline and devilishly detailed gameplay will provides hours of replay value as you continue to wage war against the alien antagonists. Multiplayer will be a big hit for those who love to out-think their friends and the mindgames and tactics necessary to persevere should provide hours of enjoyment whether alone or with friends.
Do yourselves a favour Earthlings, buy XCOM: Enemy Unknown…it’s out of this world!