Review - XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I remember trying to play the original XCOMs for the first time. I wasn't familiar with turn-based strategy and the game’s developer, Microprose, wasn't doing me any favors. Overwhelmed is probably the best way to describe that initial experience. Upon hearing that 2K Games and Firaxis were working on a new XCOM in the vein of the originals, my excitement was non-existent. Then, I got ahold of it.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a remake of Sid Meier's landmark PC game that puts players in control of XCOM, the only organization standing between humanity and a full-blown alien invasion. Players aren't just given a squad to command from mission to mission, but rather control of the entire organization -- and it would be very easy to drown them in a wave of information. With that, XCOM's tutorials are vital, especially for the people on consoles which have historically minimal interaction with strategy games, especially turn-based ones. Enemy Unknown ably guides XCOM rookies through getting their troops home in one piece, as well as managing research, base construction, and generally keeping the world from freaking the hell out.
After that, it's up to you to decide the direction of Earth's secret heroes. Things like which countries you're putting satellites over, who you're giving alien technology to, how many planes are going in the sky, and which distress calls you respond to, will all shape your Enemy Unknown experience. With only a basic story, you'll be facing conflicts and making decisions in new locations each play-through. If you thought you would load an earlier save to prepare for a previously (and horrendously) failed mission, you might not even encounter it your next go ‘round. Even when you do fail a mission, XCOM: Enemy Unknown keeps moving right along. I went to Canada to save some UN forces and their general took three lasers to the chest. That meant Canada didn't calm down and I wasn't getting those four new engineers. In turn, I couldn't expand my base and build new weapons as quickly as I'd like, which meant risking China pulling their support of XCOM if I couldn't get eyes on their skies in 10 days.
With seemingly random event generation, it's likely that few other players will know exactly what I went through. One universal pain all XCOM players share, however, is the loss of a good soldier. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you're responsible for bringing in new troops, getting them field experience and leveling them up. The more missions a soldier goes on and the more they accomplish in a mission, the quicker the leveling and more skills that soldier learns. It's up to you to rotate soldiers and form squads with a healthy mix of experience and roles to create a strong army. Why? Because when your lieutenant returns from a mission in critical condition, the last thing you want to do is replace him with a rookie. Nor do you want to go out with six guys with Light Machine Guns. Yeah it sounds cool, but you're really screwed in the LMG department if you lose all of them. Same if you load your squad with your best guys then get decimated in Argentina, because it's a long flight back to base to think about what you've done. With Enemy Unknown's mission gameplay being really easy to pick up, hopefully you can avoid any serious introspection.
A simple explanation of turn-based strategy games is that they're like Chess. Each side takes turns moving their pieces on the field of play, trying to best position them to take the pieces of the other player. Enemy Unknown doesn't lay down a tile system like older TBS games, but instead gives players a general field of movement and marked spots where soldiers will have cover from enemy fire. Each member of your squad is generally afforded two actions in their turn, with their role (sniper, support, heavy, assault) or abilities like Run n' Gun extending, ending, or being unavailable at certain points in their turn. Leaving squad members without cover after their turn is practically signing their death warrant. At least when a soldier is in cover, the aliens have to gain the high ground or work to flank them to gain a distinct advantage.
There are a variety of missions, like capturing crashed UFOs, saving civilians from being turned into mindless hordes, or keeping bombs from detonating. Each has its own quirks, but all missions will begin with, and generally consist of, pushing through the fog of war until you trigger the aliens on the map. Then you dig in and begin a battle of attrition. However the map looked when you first landed, it won't appear that way when you leave. As fights wear on, the environment and any cover it provided will wear down, exposing troops--or in the case of exploding vehicles, take troops with them. After going through this a couple times, players are left with a great sense of tension in every future battle. Your next move could be your Assault unit's last. Charging in with a shotgun just to find out that large robot will survive everything your guy can throw at him, then kill that corporal on the next turn, can be humbling.
This tension carries over to your base at well. The clock is always ticking toward the next report to your bosses or the next alien attack. In that time, you've got to conduct the proper research and create the appropriate weapons, or be caught out when a large alien spacecraft appears. It feels like those little grey men and big robots constantly have you on your heels, and it's genius. For whatever drama is left out by the absence of a genuine story, the risk of losing your best units to the infirmary or the cemetery will have you thinking twice about your next move. I did all of this on a controller though, back at PAX Prime, some gripes were raised about playing XCOM on anything other than a keyboard. Navigating the field of combat is super easy with two sticks and a D-pad. The pad rotates the camera, the right stick moves the camera freely, and the left directs soldiers through the level. There are no complicated button patterns either, making troop direction a piece of cake.
Firaxis has managed to translate a keyboard's worth of commands to the console, just as they've successfully brought XCOM: Enemy Unknown into the current generation. The new Enemy Unknown plays to its strengths and is more approachable than its predecessor. Strategy games have been plugging away on PC all these years and now PC gamers have another great one. Strategy games don't have a great history on home consoles, but console gamers should broaden their horizons with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. You never know what you'll find in the fog.
9/10 - Excellent
9 - Excellent: 9s represent excellence. Any issues it may have are minor or easily forgiven for what is a fantastic experience.