XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review
Genre: Turn-based strategy
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: October 9, 2012
Most of my formative years were spent playing turn-based strategy games on PC. Master of Magic, Heroes of Might and Magic, and Master of Orion were all very important to my development as a gamer, but it was X-COM which holds an especially dear place in my heart. When Firaxis confirmed they were bringing back XCOM: Enemy Unknown (the title as homage to the first game in the series), I was elated. Somewhere around the StarCraft days we seemed to abandon turn-based for real-time, and I’m always on the hunt for a good turn-based affair. So does XCOM: Enemy Unknown take us back to the glory days, or is it a failed attempt fueled by nostalgia?
As a person who loves turn-based strategy, this game is like slipping into your favorite pair of shoes. Somehow, Firaxis has managed to pull off the impossible and bring back all of the wonderful “good old days” while making a game that feels modern and rewarding. The gameplay is a punishing, unforgiving affair that very much relies on your use of strategy and planning–they weren’t lying when they said it was possible to play for 10 hours only to lose the game, and it is glorious.
The story of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is inherently simple: aliens have invaded earth and since they have decided to be hostile, they need to be dealt with. To deal with this threat, many nations have banded together to fund XCOM (extraterrestrial combat–it’s not a very good name…), a branch of the military specially equipped to not only fight, but gather alien technology and learn from it. Like most good strategy games, you don’t show up for the riveting plot.
This is why it’s good that gameplay is so solid. Gamers are presented with a series of missions which are essentially a series of choices. Your main goal is to keep the panic level of the world relatively low, which can be difficult as you weigh your options. For instance, one of the mission types is an abduction mission, in which you are given three points of alien abduction sightings across the globe. You must then choose which point you help, risking a high panic level in the other areas. If a nation is too panicked, they will leave XCOM, meaning you lose that country’s support. If you lose too many countries, the game is over.
Missions consist of you choosing a squad to deal with with the threat. There are four basic, familiar classes: assault troops, which are your up close and personal; support troops, which specialize in cover and healing; snipers, who are long-ranged elimination specialists; and heavies, who are your basic machine gun people. You are able to name and customize your troops but did we mention that once your teammates are killed they are killed? Like, permanently? You can always load a previous save to try to save this person, unless of course you’re playing on Ironman mode, which has a single save file. The stakes are high in XCOM.
Each class has their own skill tree that will give you access to progressively stronger talents, and I cannot recommend focusing on survivability enough. As you continue to complete missions, your troops will level and become more powerful and skilled, something that will be invaluable toward the end of the game. If you find yourself in endgame with nothing but rookies, you will go home crying.
The most delightful aspect of this game is its reliance upon strategy and patience. There is zero twitch-gameplay in this game, which makes it one of the most refreshing throw backs we’ve seen in awhile. Each move of your squad requires planning and weighing your options, all while looking for tactical advantages such as finding higher ground. If you leave your squad mate out of cover for a turn…I hope you have a letter prepped for his wife. Sloppiness is punished severely.
I have to admit I approached the Xbox 360 version of this game with extreme caution. The last strategy experience I had on console was Tropico 4, and what a nightmare that was. Granted that is a real-time game, and that doesn’t seem to lend well to console, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s controls are very solid and natural. PC gaming fans may prefer it on PC, but as a console fan, I can safely recommend the 360 version. Also, special mention to an enjoyable soundtrack!
My only real complaint is that while the game is not necessarily short, but it does feel brief. There aren’t a ton of missions variations and you may find yourself wanting “more.” Replayability is decent as you may want to go back through on increasing difficulty, but more variety would have gone a long way.
It goes without saying that this won’t be everyone’s cup of alien tea. You need to have more than a passing interest in turn-based strategy, and looking for an experience that will provide a very real challenge–a challenge that may end in dismal failure. It’s not elitist to say if you get frustrated easily, or like the hand-holding in most games, this will not be a game for you. But Firaxis has made a bold choice to make a game that is so clearly a love letter to turn-based strategy fans and for that, it’s hard to not want to support them.