Also On: PS3, PC
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Firaxis Games
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a stressful game, perhaps one of the more stressful video games I’ve had the pleasure of playing in quite some time. Despite the fact that you’ll be biting your nails with every roll of the invisible dice, and tossing your controller in disgust when a shot with 97% chance to hit misses, it’s also incredibly hard to turn away from, and the single player campaign alone is sure to eat up a significant portion of your free time.
The original XCOM is sort of a holy grail for PC gamers that spent time with it during, and even after its original release. It’s not a game that I had any special affinity towards when I was younger, but revisiting it as an adult and opting to figure out it’s tough as nails mechanics made way for a really rewarding, and incredibly unique real time strategy experience.
While Enemy Unknown isn’t helmed by the original developers, the team behind this revival certainly knows a thing or two about strategy. Firaxis Games is a studio that is literally synonymous with strategy game design, and is a development studio that even casual RTS fans will most likely be familiar with. And they’ve really brought that knowledge to bear with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, managing to deliver that feeling of just one more turn that often marks the best of the best when it comes to strategy games.
The story concept powering Enemy Unknown is simple enough. Aliens are invading Earth, in force, and you’re a part of the last ditch effort to save the human race. You’ll command a task force of scientists, engineers, and soldiers, dividing your time between your base of operations and actual deployment in the field. While in your base you’ll dictate what types of weapons or technological advances to research, layout the types of facilities to build, and take on a handful of story objectives and side missions in order to keep the rest of the world happy.
From the beginning of the game you’ll pick a beginning country to ally yourself with, which will bestow some sort of bonus to you at the start. However, you’ll also need to keep every other nation involved with XCOM happy, which can often be a grueling process full of failure and challenging decisions throughout the course of the campaign. Each nation has a small meter which dictates their overall panic level. As the game progresses and random events occur, like alien terror attacks, kidnappings, UFO sightings, etc., you’ll be notified and have to make the decision to step in and help a nation or not. Oftentimes these choices are difficult to make simply because there will be different nations vying for your attention all at once. If you opt to step in and save Canada, while Mexico is also begging for help, you’ll run the risk of causing panic to go out of control in Mexico, which can in turn lead to them leaving the XCOM project all together.
But why struggle to keep these nations happy and working together? Well, it all comes down to the thing that really makes XCOM go around, which is pretty much cold, hard cash. See, the more nations participating mean you’ll get a bigger paycheck at the end of the month, and those funds are absolutely vital when it comes to keeping your house in order. Just about everything in XCOM costs something, whether its outfitting new gear for your soldiers, recruiting rookies to replace dead veterans, building aircraft to take on invading UFO’s, or launching satellites to patrol the skies above friendly nations. And money is often hard to come by outside of your month to month salary, so much so that you’ll need to participate in a Grey Market storefront that allows you to sell goods found on missions, including alien corpses and stolen tech, which can also be used to retrofit into new tech for your soldiers.
There’s a level of balance between all the systems present in XCOM that isn’t really matched by any other console game that I can really think of. Seriously, there are so many hard decisions going on here that you’ll rarely find a way to play through the game the same way twice. Each decision made seems to impact another aspect of the game, sometimes in unexpected ways due to the random nature of missions and combat, but there’s also an underlying level of pure excitement in making those decisions, which comes from making every single choice made in XCOM count for something.
And this is just the administrative side of XCOM that we’re talking about here. There’s a whole different style of gameplay that’ll be a bit more familiar to general strategy game fans in the way Enemy Unknown handles its field combat. When you opt to go on a mission, whether it’s story or side, you’ll be dumped into a randomly generated map with four to six soldiers. You can select which soldiers go on any give mission, and adjust their loadouts prior to the start, allowing you to swap out weapons, armor, secondary weapons, and a general gear slot that ranges from med kits to EMP style weapons to knock out and capture aliens alive.
Once deployed, you’ll take turns moving your team around the map, often trying to stick to cover in order to either keep hidden from alien threats for as long as possible, or to at least deflect some gunfire when they do inevitably spot you. The maps are filled with a “fog of war” effect, so while each map may stretch out for a number of unseen tiles, your overall view of the field starts off pretty limited. Once you’ve exhausted the turns for all of your team, it’s the CPU’s turn to move the alien combatants around, and you’ll go back and forth like this for a couple of turns before actually getting down to the fight.
Combat is based around line of sight, and hidden dice rolls that’ll determine your likelihood to hit a target or not. This is where cover comes into play in a big way, and you’ll often need to reposition your team as the enemy will try to smartly flank your characters if you opt to stand too still. Also, cover is often destructible, so you can only stay in one position so long before needing to move. Rushing through a map, or ignoring cover means certain death for your team, and with the use of permadeath for every single soldier, you’ll really feel the hurt when you lose a man or woman to an insanely stupid decision on your part.
That’s right; XCOM incorporates permanent death for every single soldier at your disposal. And considering soldiers level up, learn skills, gain nicknames along with their randomly generated names, and in general just get better from more accomplished missions, it can be a really painful event to lose even one of them. It’s an incredibly interesting way of forcing the player to adapt and pace themselves while in combat, and makes you less likely to rush in or play around with resources. Sometimes chances need to be taken, but you’ll often pay hard for just screwing around or not paying attention.
Despite some of the tough love that XCOM: Enemy Unknown dishes out, it’s a game that definitely, absolutely should not be missed. Strategy games on consoles have suffered from some pretty middling, to downright awful attempts at bringing what is long thought a PC only genre to the television screen. But XCOM manages to keep both sides of the fence happy, offering up a full-fledged turn based strategy game that works, and works well, on the Xbox 360 and PS3. If you have the choice of going with the PC version, then by all means do so, but the console version of the game hardly feels hindered in any way. Regardless of your choice, you’ll be in for a treat when you sit down to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown.