XCOM Boasts a great premise and executes it with incredible finesse.
- Incredible atmosphere
- Irresistibly fun concept handled well
- Streamlined combat and interface
- Doesn't sacrifice difficulty or strategic depth
- Action is intense, rewarding, and sometimes harrowing and scary
- Kill cams are satisfying
- Some great Alien designs
- Animations are well done
- Colourful style
- Incredible replay value
- You get weirdly attached to good soldiers
- Flexible difficulty settings and optional tutorials
- Incredibly hard to put down...
- ...to the point of angering wives and the gods of sleep
- Outside of aliens & colours, art design is bland
- Similarly, graphics are only servicable
- Some bugs, particularly with action camera
- Cannot free aim on all weapons
- No base defense missions
- Soldiers have limited, repetitive voice packs
- Maps repeat sometimes
- I wish there was more to shooting down UFOs
- Can only get important supplies from rare UFO landings/crash missions
The Bottom Line
I'll admit, I'm not as familiar with the X-COM series as I should be. I have played them, in fact I remember Chie & I getting quite addicted to X-COM: Apocalypse
back in the day. But considering its place in the hearts of PC gamers everywhere and my love of turn based and squad based strategy, you'd think I'd have more experience with the series. Regardless of it having long since faded from my memory - when I first saw this remake demoed, I knew I wanted it - and now that I have it, I can't leave it alone.
This is one damn fine game, pure and simple. I played a lot of great games in 2012, from FarCry 3
yet no game captivated or drained as many hours from me as XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and I can easily state that it is unquestionably my favourite game of 2012.
For those unfamiliar with the series in general, here's the basic gist: In the not too distant future, we finally learn that we are not alone in the universe when extra-terrestrial warships appear on our horizon and begin reigning death and chaos upon the planet. The world governments in a desperate panic pool their resources together in order to form the Extraterrestrial Combat Project - or XCOM, that aims to protect the Earth from the monstrous aliens invading our planet while studying their technology and species in order to learn more and gain the upper-hand in the war against the aliens.
Now let me say right now: That is one of the greatest premises you could have for a video game. It's just a downright cool idea, you cannot tell me that there isn't appeal in the idea of running a Men In Black style clandestine operation in order to kick alien arse while taking their technology and using it against them. And XCOM: Enemy Unknown executes the premise with style and bravado.
Needless to say, gamers love to be immersed in a world and this is just about as immersive as it gets. The atmosphere in XCOM is so thick that you can cut it with a knife. It kicks in literally in the first few minutes, starting with a famous and still chilling comment by famed Sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke: "There are two possibilities, either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying." It is used perfectly right before the Aliens begin reigning havoc, I'll even state that it is worth playing the tutorial even if you dislike tutorials or are an XCOM Veteran simply because of how brilliantly scripted and directed the tutorial is, which does more than just establish the games controls but instead establishes the atmosphere in what amounts to a genuinely frightening and tense scene that should tickle any sci-fi horror fan pink.
The gameplay itself is divided into two primary segments, managing XCOM and Action Events. In the former, your base is presented to you like an ant farm and here is where you will manage XCOM's finances, dirty dealings, research, engineering, soldier upgrades and so on. Research is always one of the most exciting aspects here, you are given a list of possible research options and you often can't wait for the research to finish and get your results - whether said results are a shiny new caste of plasma weapons, an Alien autopsy, or a brand new and improved fighter craft.
Something that is important to managing XCOM is your relationship with the world. After all, even if all the majour world governments are pitching in you can't expect them to all form some grand union that will always support you. Each country that is funding your XCOM operation has a "Panic Meter," and their panic will rise or fall depending on whether or not they have satellite coverage (Which is required to detect UFOs in their airspace and makes abduction sites and terror attacks more visible.) as well as depending on how well you protect them; some missions, often abductions, will force you to pick one country or another and regardless of which one you pick - panic will rise in the others, while panic will reduce in the one you chose.
It is also of note that the higher the panic in the country you pick, the more difficult the mission - but it is often worth taking the extra risk because if panic goes unchecked for too long, you will lose support from the panicked countries which leads you closer to an endgame situation as well as reduces your overall funding and grade at the end of each month at the council report. This becomes a game of strategy in and of itself, which helps make the management portion feel like a genuine part of the game - while it is still seperate from the "action" sequences, they feel like they mesh together and both are important for each other even if the action sequences are still the meat of the game.
Said action sequences take the form of a turn and squad based tactical strategy game wherein up to 6 soldiers are sent on missions to eliminate Alien threats in varying situations from stopping alien abductions, escorting a VIP out of a hostile infested zone (This missions aren't that annoying, amazingly enough. Yes, the escort missions are fun! That's pretty rare.), exploring crashed or landed UFOs, protecting/retrieving assets, and stopping massive Alien terror attacks amongst other things.
You take control of each soldier and each soldier is given two actions per turn, and can move within a grid based system and are allotted a certain space in which to move and still make an offensive or defensive move or they can "Dash" to further distances but they will not be allowed to move again until their next turn.
All soldiers start as rookies that can use assault rifles, but they are soon ranked up and assigned a class. Although there are abilities all classes have such as basic firing, dashing, throwing grenades and overwatch duty each class has their own unique abilities that can be chosen from an expanding skill tree that lets you customize each soldiers skill set. There are 4 classes in total, Heavy, Support, Assault, and Sniper.
There is also a great variety of enemy aliens, and all are nicely designed and memorable - in fact they are arguably the most intriguing visual asset in the game, although the visuals are crisp and have superb lighting - they often feel artistically limp with the exception of a few inspired aliens. My favourites in design are easily the Thin Men, tall, slender reptillian aliens that attempt to imitate men in black (lol) and the Chrysalid, a horrific drooling insectoid monster covered in slime and strange glowing pustules. The Chrysalid are easily some of the scariest enemies in the game, and I don't just mean in design - they do insane melee damage, and they can poison dead bodies and bring them back as zombies. Oh, and they dessicate corpses, shed their bodies and nest inside the corpses in order to reproduce. Cute!
Each alien requires a different strategic approach, and there can be many combinations of alien that shake up the strategic elements. One of the most deadly combinations are Cyberdiscs and the aforementioned Chrysalids, Cyberdiscs are tough floating discs that lob incredibly dangerous explosives (PROTIP: Keep soldiers as far apart as possible when a Cyberdisc is around) and are often surrounded by probes that heal them inbetween turns, and when they accompany a pack of Chrysalids - you have a hard time taking priority since the cyberdisc and its repair droids must be taken individually, but trying to attack them allows the chrysalids to come closer and they can destroy even your toughest soldier in an instant - and the zombies they create are pretty tough too, and woe be the player who sees one of their soldiers come back from the grave wearing their fancy power armour.
And that is something else to note, XCOM is a very difficult game. Your wits must be about you every second, and battles are unbelievably tense and suspenseful. Yet their sometimes insane difficulty only adds to the reward, it is so incredibly satisfying to scrape past a dangerous situation by the skin of your teeth or finally take down a bothersome foe with a gloriously satisfying death cam. It also helps that as the game pulls you in, you grow attached to your soldiers - and losing them becomes almost a tragedy, just don't get too attached to a small group of soldiers - you need to train up as many as possible, otherwise you are extremely brittle and the endgame will begin to appear on the horizon, and it won't be a good one. Woe to the player whom only trains 6 select soldiers, finds half of them dead or injured, and has to take 4 rookies on an alien terror mission.
However, don't let the games difficulty scare you off if you are not huge into strategy games or have not played an XCOM game because the difficulty is extremely flexible. There are multiple difficulties, the option for a tutorial, and the interface and combat are quite streamlined and easy to get a grasp of, even if course it takes quite some time to truly master it. And for those hardcore players, there is a "Classic" difficulty as well as an "Impossible" one and if you want to make it an even bigger challenge - IronMan mode means you get one save, and the game makes it for you .
At the end of the day, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a superb game with superb atmosphere, superb execution, and should be played by everyone. There are some features from past games I miss, most notably base defense missions where Aliens would actually assault your base, but oft these things are nitpicks at best. If you have yet to play this gem, now is as good a time as any!