Game Review: XCOM Enemy Unknown
Strategy games are typically reserved for the PC gaming crowd and the XCOM franchise is one of the best. Unfortunately, console gamers have rarely been exposed to deep and difficult turn based games (Playstation did manage to get a few XCOM offerings). Thankfully, the classic XCOM UFO Defense game from the mid nineties became a project of love by the strategy lovers at Firaxis. The result was a reboot that will certainly go down in the history books as one of the best strategy has to offer.
XCOM in a nutshell is like a more militarized Men In Black. The catch is that instead of playing as Will Smith, you play as the old guy back at the base handing out all of the orders. You control the research choices, the base upgrades, the air patrol, and even the teams when they are on the ground. You issue your orders and you must watch the results play out.
The original game, UFO Defense, was legendary for its emphasis on tactics and strategy along with the randomized missions. Its unforgiving difficulty and light RPG elements (field troop level progression) made for a unique and exhilarating experience. In a few short words, XCOM is a serious version of Men In Black. Difference is that the agents are soldiers tasked with elimination and capture since the aliens are invading rather than trying to live with us.
Firaxis Games had a tall order on there hands in trying to update a game that has such an intense focus on strategy and tactics rarely seen on consoles. The key would be how well the turn based controls would work as well as how well balanced the gameplay and difficulty was. Thankfully, for all of the fans of the classic, Firaxis absolutely nailed all of the above with only slight changes to the content.
In a way, Firaxis managed to simplify the game in comparison to its predecessor. Rather than managing resources between multiple bases, you are confined to one underground fortress. Rather than multiple transport planes, you are confined to one. From the first mission throughout the rest of the game, you are given commentary from the various scientists, engineers, and agents within the base. They tell you what objectives are a PRIORITY (or which ones drive the main story along) as well as providing an explanation of what research does and unlocks. Rarely is there a moment when you don’t know what something will do for you or what you should do next. Instead, you feel like there are more things to do than you have time or money to handle. This push and pull of decisions is where all of the decision making and strategy are pushed to the forefront.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of the few games that forces you value the troops that you are sending out. Getting experienced soldiers that perform is a rare thing and XCOM is difficult enough that you’ll actually need almost every one of them. With the randomized classes of soldiers that you have no control over, XCOM is forever a roll of the dice. Whether it is small chance that your soldier will make a shot that will save a civilian’s life or a chance that an alien will control the mind of your best sniper, XCOM has that kind of tension.
Needless to say, this game will have you saving and reloading over and over again. At times, you’ll find yourself regretting to begin research on one thing when you realize that it doesn’t help you defeat those devastating flying discs. You’ll cringe whenever you see or hear those creepy zombie making Chryssalid’s. Just when you think you have the upper hand against them, they either throw in missions where you race to disarm bombs or you race to save civilians. Either way, you will regularly find yourself tactically off balance most times. Either too little money or not enough time and often times both.
At certain points in the game’s progression you will have the opportunity to outfit your soldiers with alien based tech like plasma rifles, laser sniper rifles, and optical camoflage armor. You can even unlock the ability for some of your best soldiers to use psyonics! Each soldier is customizable from their appearance to their name and as you progress, clear favorites will emerge. Picking soldiers and their necessary equipment is important since there is are such a variety of different aliens that will attempt to wipe your ‘away team’. You have Assault (close range specialists), Heavy (damage absorbing bullet slingers who specialize in ‘spray and pray’), Support (medics and repair specialists), and Snipers(stealth and long range specialists) that fill out your teams. With a max of 6 soldiers per team you’ll juggle different configurations of these troops as each have two different skill trees that customize what they can do best and how they can support the team. As you put your soldiers through the fire, they will come out with evolving skills and expertise. This will build a sort of attachment to certain soldiers that just seem to perform because of or even in spite of their abilities. Some soldiers will chronically miss point blank shots while others will surprisingly beat the odds on shots that seem to be sheer luck. With that said, the difficulty of the game will always keep you weighing the decision to break in that new rookie you commissioned or to give that veteran more experience in the field.
The catch is that if they are wounded, they can’t go on another mission and must wait days before they are available again. This can make some unexpected missions difficult if all of your sharpshooters and vets are injured. If a soldier dies, there’s no bringing them back short of reloading that game at a previous save point. The game won’t end if you fail a mission and lose your entire away team but it will make things more difficult when your financial supporters grade your XCOM team’s performance at the end of the simulated month. Aspects like these can dial the intensity of a mission up high, especially if there are alien types you’ve never encounter before!
The alien AI in this game can swing drastically from mission to mission when you play. One moment, your encounters are simple with plasma pistol weilding scouts. The next moment you are running away from hulking beserkers with rifles and thick armor! While the old school original had character movement feel like moving pieces on a board game, Firaxis managed to make that turn base strategy motion feel a bit more free. All the while, the line of site for each soldier is explained beautifully with clear text describing the percentage chance each troop has to succeed with each action and skill. Each side (alien and human) gets a turn to move and attack with each soldier. None of your foes are shown on the map until your soldiers have clear line of sight. You’ll be able to hear them and what they are doing but not where or what necessarily.
Other aspects of the game seem a bit lackluster though. Repelling UFOs detected by satellites initiate an unsatisfying video that shows the encounter between your attack vessel and the UFO. The only control you have is to tell your vessel to retreat or to initiate certain special attacks. It is almost like watching a simulation play out but you have little control over the outcome. Here is where Firaxis could have thrown in a little mini game or something that improved upon the original game from so long ago. Instead, this throwback part of the old game returns. Unfortunately, it isn’t necessarily a welcome return. Thankfully it doesn’t spoil the experience.
Strategy fans, whether on PC or console, are going to love this reboot. On the flip side, if you are looking for an action packed shooter where your skill and reflexes are tested, look elsewhere. Decision making and resource management are king in the world of XCOM. You aren’t faced with decisions that change the story since the plot is simple…STOP THE ALIEN INVASION! This irresistible and addictive formula made it an award winning effort that strategy fans (and even newbies) should not miss.[Rated M for Mature: Strong Language, Violence, Blood and Gore – The content here shouldn’t be something that teenagers can’t handle. The language is typical of most military style movies in the heat of battle. The blood and gore is more on the side of watching kill shots in slow motion with spewing blood.]
Available for – PC, Xbox 360, PS3, iOS