XCOM: Enemy Unknown|
Iíve been writing reviews here at GCM for over eight years now. My first review was for a game called Full Spectrum Warrior, an authentic military tactical sim that blurred the lines of casual gaming and real-world military training. Since then Iíve reviewed dozens of games ranging from FPS to RTS, and Iíve never hidden the fact that my favorites almost always involve four-man tactical squads Ė games like Ghost Recon or Rainbow Six. 2K Games and Firaxis have managed to create a game that not only surpasses many of my favorite similar games released over the last decade, it casts caution to the wind and dares to create a game that is brutally hard in a genre that has been overlooked for far too long.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the long awaited successor to the original UFO Defense game from 1994. Regrettably, that was two years before I started playing video games so I never had a chance to play it, but no one including the game is requiring any type of prior knowledge of the franchise or its unique style of turn-based strategy. Enemy Unknown eases you into its brand with an engaging tutorial that is hard to distinguish from actual campaign play. In fact, if you bump up the difficulty or toggle the training checkbox, you can eliminate the tutorial entirely, but I recommend you complete your training at least once. There is a lot of ground to cover.
Iíve served in the Army for 30+ years now and have trained for all sorts of possible incursions and conflicts; even viral outbreaks that might have some using the Z-word, but until now, alien invasion has never been part of the curriculum. XCOM is set a few years in the future and aliens have just started their invasion. You play as the commander of an elite force of multi-national soldiers, headquartered in a massive underground complex that look remarkably similar to the lair in that recent GI Joe movie.
Your job is to protect the world, but limited resources means you canít always be everywhere at once, so often youíll have to make the tough call on who gets your aid and who is left to panic. If you ignore a country for too long they will pull out of your little Black Ops UN, taking their cash and resource contributions with them. Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the entire game is the fact that you are always having to make tough decisions, not only in where to send your troops but also in the everyday micromanagement of your headquarters. Between missions youíll navigate your lair, visiting Science, Engineering, the Situation Room, the Barracks, and other key locations, choosing what to research, what to build, and what gear your team will have available. Youíll build and launch satellites then use them to scan the world for alien intruders, or perhaps launch an Interceptor strike to shoot down a UFO.
The beauty of the design lies in its complexity of content versus the simplicity of use. Playing the game is a breeze compared to playing it well. Almost every choice is a tough one. Do you research new weapons or body armor or maybe order up an alien autopsy to learn more about your enemyís weaknesses? And then you have the ongoing base expansion; where to dig, and what new modules to add to your base, keeping in mind that all this overhead has a real-time cost associated with it and you must keep your countries happy so the operational revenue exceeds your expenses. And these are just the decisions you make before you ever go out into the field.
The real game starts once you leave your base and head to your chosen mission location, which will have you exploring all sorts of terrain, rural, urban, indoors and out. You have set mission objectives with the occasional secondary requests, but the standing order of the day is to ďstay aliveĒ. Death in XCOM is permanent, so when that favorite sniper youíve been nurturing along for the past 8-10 hours of gameplay goes down in the battlefield you take it personally; especially if you have gone to the effort to really customize and name that soldier. Thatís not to say you canít abuse the gameís generous save and load anywhere/anytime feature to cheat the reaper, but youíll only be cheating yourself if you do.
Enemy Unknown is a turn-based strategy that takes place in real-time. Back in your base everything has a time value associated with it so an injured man might take days to heal while a research project might take hours to complete. Itís all monitored by the calendar/clock at the bottom, so when you spin the globe scanning for aliens, other things are simultaneously taking place on their own schedule. Pop-up alerts will inform you as assignments are completed and allow you to setup new tasks.
On the battlefield this style of play transforms into something that a lot of tabletop gamers will instantly recognize, especially if you are a fan of the Avalon Hill hex-based strategy games or even conducting your battles with miniatures. Each member of your team has unique variables, many of which can be upgraded with gear or training certain skills as they are promoted through the various ranks. The game is broken down into turns and phases. Youíll cycle to each character on your team moving them across the terrain using a rubber band-style marker to drag and designate their next waypoint; the interconnecting line shows the path they will take to get there, even if it means climbing over an obstacle, kicking down a door, or crashing through a window. Your ultimate goal in movement is to always have your men in some sort of cover at the end of their movement phase.
It wonít be long before the aliens show up and that is when things get tactically interesting and the game turns into some futuristic variant of chess. Youíll start to position your squad, not only to get a line-of-sight on the enemy, but also stay in protective cover. Your turn consists of two phases, allowing you to move twice, or move and perform a secondary action. Depending on your character, you might not be allowed to move and fire in the same turn. Other actions include reloading, tossing a grenade, using a secondary weapon, or going into Overwatch mode. Overwatch is useful in that it puts your character into a heightened sense of awareness so they will automatically fire on the enemy during their turn if spotted, but enemies can also go into Overwatch as well. And finally, you will always want to work as a coordinated team. Leaving one man hung out to dry halfway across the map almost always results in somebody going home in a body bag, and the Memoriam Wall back at base complete with somber bagpipe music fills up fast enough as it is.
XCOM ultimately boils down to a cover-shooter of sorts, but the world is fragile and alien lasers will splinter wood, crumble marble, and turn parked and abandoned cars into fiery deathtraps. This destructibility means the battlefield is constantly evolving, so you can just park yourself and take your time with the enemy, plus those pesky ETís are always on the move trying to flank your position. It is immensely satisfying when you finally find yourself with that perfect shot on the alien youíve been playing cat-and-mouse with for the past ten minutes.
There is an ever-present sense of urgency on every mission, and these missions can last anywhere from 15 minutes to well over an hour. Your men can only take a few hits before they are dead and injured members wonít be able to join the next mission if they arenít given the required time to heal. While most missions are basically about exterminating ET, you might find yourself on a rescue mission or even tasked with capturing a live alien to bring back to base. During every mission you will collect valuable resources that your scientists and engineers can use back at base. Plan on 30+ hours of intense strategy, both in the field and back home trying to balance the books to keep your planet safe.
With such a satisfying solo game I really didnít require a multiplayer component to make XCOM a winner in my book, but Firaxis decided to stick one in there just the same. Donít expect any elaborate four-player squad co-op like Ghost Recon. This is merely a one-on-one tactical battle that turns the world of XCOM into some sort of demented chess game with hybrid squads of human and alien pawns. I only played a few online matches, and while the concept works, you really need a likeminded tactical gamer for the best experience. I'm still looking...
Actually playing the game is quite satisfying with fantastic controls whether you opt for keyboard and mouse or plug in the controller. Since the game was designed for both console and PC, a gamepad works surprisingly well, and the menus and various pop-up and overall interface is as attractive as it is intuitive. The movement interface has a snap to lock feature and shield icons show your available cover at each possible waypoint. Entering attack mode gives you easy access to secondary offensive commands using keyboard or a gamepad.
Enemy Unknown looks incredible with a very unique art and design style that blurs the lines of realism and graphic novel. Characters look great, both in the base and out on the battlefield. I really enjoyed panning around the cutaway view of my base and watching all the activity going on; scientists working in the lab, engineers building stuff in their shop, soldiers using exercise equipment in the barracks, etc. The mission environments are quite striking as well with an overdose of vibrant colors that might not be realistic, but certainly adds to the overall style. Animation, lighting, particle effectsÖitís all here and it looks great. You can zoom the camera, pan around in 90-degree angles, and even enjoy the close-up shoulder camera when engaged in combat. The final movement phase on any given turn is also usually shown via some slick action camera.
The audio component is just as good with plenty of dialogue, both in the base to keep you on top of things as well as your typical battlefield radio chatter. The bald mystery man who seems to be the ultimate boss definitely adds an air of mystery. The lengthy tutorial missions subtly instruct without getting to preachy. Sound effects are excellent and include cool weapon effects and environmental sounds, and the soundtrack is equally impressive with a Hollywood-ready score that really ramps up the tension.
XCOM is massively complex with all sorts of working parts that have to be balanced and managed at all times. I really appreciated the ongoing tutorial that acts as a set of training wheels, subtly teaching you the varied nuances of gameplay then slowly backing away until that one mission when you realize you are riding solo for the very first time. And when you go back and replay this game on the harder difficulty levels, nothing can prepare you for the challenges you'll face.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a brilliant tactical strategy game that will appeal to sci-fi enthusiasts as much as military guys like me. If Firaxis would use this engine to create a more traditional war game I could easily get most of my friends to stop playing Battlefield and Modern Warfare, as they are always looking for something that requires more thought than reflexes. But with strategy this brilliantly executed, who knowsÖI may be able to talk them into killing a few aliens in their spare time.