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XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

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Platforms: PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes

No-one would have believed, in the last years of the twentieth century, that Mythos Games would create UFO: Enemy Unknown, one of the greatest tactical sci-fi titles of its age. No-one could have dreamed that after almost a decade of lacklustre sequels 2k games would decide, as if from nothing, to try their hand at a reboot. Few men even considered the possibility of a good sequel re-emerging, a game to rival that of the original. And yet, across the gulf of space that is the video games industry, minds immeasurably superior to ours decided that, yes, it was time for a reboot; and slowly, and surely, they drew their plans for XCOM: Enemy Unknown…

*Cue Orchestral Symphony*

Now if that didn’t set up the premise for 2k games’ reboot I don’t know what will but for those of your who haven’t even heard of the UFO series that inspired the latest edition, allow me to fill you in.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn based real-time tactical sci-fi title in which you control the XCOM initiative, building their underground base, hiring new soldiers and securing cupulous amounts of tax payers money by providing protection to the nations of the world. Think of Men in Black meets a mob boss’ international protection racket except all the aliens are baddies and the employees shop at a military surplus store instead of ‘Dapper Suits Limited’. As you’d expect, things have been rather quiet for the XCOM lads and lasses, considering that so far aliens have been confined to being a common talking point among tin foil hat wearing crazies but it’s not long before shit gets real.

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What follows is a globe trotting romp around the world as you answer the cries for help from various nations, interrogate alien captives and perform research to outfit your arsenal in an attempt to drive back those alien sons of bitches once and for all.

But how does it play? Rather well is the short answer. The main interface you’ll be dealing with is the underground base, an upgradeable stronghold that houses your entire team as well as the various facilities you’ll need to beat back the alien menace, from satellite uplinks to interrogation chambers. To combat the aliens you’ll need to build satellites, stationing them above each of the continents to monitor the UFO traffic. Through this you’ll be able to send squadrons of fighter jets (and later on reverse engineered space ships) to intercept the alien craft.

Once shot down, or a landing sight has been discovered, you’ll be able to send in a small squad of up to six operatives to capture or eliminate the aliens and uncover the reason for the sudden invasion of Earth. As soon as they hit the ground the game opens up into an isometric tactical 3D battleground as you command your men in a turn based scenario against the alien threat.

What’s surprising for a genre where you might expect the action to get a little dry after the first few missions is that 2k have tried their hardest to make XCOM feel like an action movie rather than a game of RISK. Every now and then the camera will cut to a third person view of your soldiers as they tumble through windows, kick down doors and pump them extraterrestrial bastards full of lead. Sure there’s still health bars and special abilities but it all feels very fluid.

While this may have you fretting over 2k’s decision to make the game a little more interesting to watch there is never the less still an immense feeling of strategy required to win the day. This isn’t a run and gun affair we’ve come to associate sci-fi games with in the past decade with the likes of Halo and Aliens. No, XCOM is a game of the mind rather than reflex skills, requiring you to think of the bigger picture as well as the smaller details.

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Do you send your assault expert crashing through the double doors leading to what most obviously seems like a trap? Do you blow off the side of the building with a rocket launcher and assault through the breach? How about having the sniper take out their leader to send the rest of the enemies into a panic? XCOM gives you all these options and more as you advance through the research and development, unlocking anything from armoured mini-gun robots to jet packs, forcing you to adapt your tactics to accommodate for both your own and your enemies technological advances.

And this constant battle for technological superiority is just another cog in the XCOM machine. Completing missions awards your scavenged technology, and alien corpses, to advance your research. Alongside this, you’ll need to keep your soldiers stocked up with weapons and armour as well as manage the overall panic of the world’s nations as you choose who to save and who to ignore as abductions and attacks steadily rise around the world. Let the state of panic rise too high and the country may stop funding you, eventually falling to the alien threat.

Unfortunately, even on normal difficulty this is an inevitability for those not well versed in the world of strategy. This makes money management yet another enemy to face as funding will already be rather short even without the lack of another nation’s money. Through this you’ll have to priorities your buildings and resources as extra money won’t be shipped till the end of each month meaning you’ll be stuck for cash until your next pay-day.

Where all the action happens however, is out in the field. While you may be kicking out more technological updates than Apple you’re almost always at a disadvantage to your alien foes. Luckily, each of your soldier’s, after gaining their first promotion, will be assigned a random class each with its own special weapons and abilities.

These abilities range from the heavy weapons expert’s suppression fire that inhibits enemy movement and aiming to the assault who’s able to passively dodge an enemy’s first reaction shot or fire while on the move. But while this all might sound super the execution is far from simple.

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Even from the early missions the game is relentless, giving the aliens the upper hand in most scenarios due to them always moving first once spotted, allowing them to get into cover before you even get a shot off. You’ll find yourself sending your soldiers ducking from cover to cover rather than going on Master Chief style rampages most of the time.

It’s surprising how much overlap there is between the individual missions and the main base management too. Use explosives or damage a UFO control console with too much heavy fire and you’ll see yourself taking home less research material. Most of the time, while explosives are arguably the most effective weapon in the early stages they’re normally reserved for emergency situations only due to the loss of any usable research material in the process. Capturing the aliens alive is always more worthwhile but you’ll constantly have to determine the risk vs reward factor when you’re forced to get up close to knock the bugger out.

Make no mistake however, you will lose soldiers no matter how careful you are. Sure the entire fate of the world may rest on your shoulders but it’s not XCOM’s story that’ll have you in tears, it’s the death of your little squaddies that’ll have you bawling. As the game goes on you’ll find yourself growing more and more attached to your personal army of Khaki minions.

This connection is made even stronger by the ability to customise both the names and appearance of these men and women carrying out your orders. The death of ‘Mr Who-gives-a-damn’ UN commander will be immensely overshadowed by the loss of Charles Xavier, the hyper intelligent psychic soldier, or B.A. Baracus, the black heavy weapons operative with a bad attitude and a lack of compassion for fools and high-tech mumbo-jumbo planes.

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However, it’s this bond that helps build you from a weak willed sucker who doesn’t know the meaning of cover into a battle hardened general who never leaves a man behind. You’ll learn to protect your favourites who will ultimately get promoted into bad ass killing machines who’ll be more valuable to you than any other character you’ll come across in the game. Old ‘Jim McScientist’ is exposed on the battlefield and about to get eaten by that ten-foot alien crab? Screw him! I’m not endangering the lives of the full cast of Friends for this nobody. Joey Tribbiani don’t do rescue missions.

The combat plays out in a turn based fashion with every action that isn’t movement being left to virtual dice rolls where you have a percentage chance to hit an enemy and they have a similar chance to hit you based on their stats. Admittedly it’s a good system, with each action having a random chance to succeed meaning that the same tactics can’t be used every time.

However, while it works in most situations, where cover, movement that turn, weapons used and armour all come into the mix to determine the chance to hit and damage taken it gives way to some frustrating cases. For example, miss a shot at point-blank with a shotgun and no cover in sight and you’re going to be fuming if the enemy miraculously hands your guy’s buckshot filled ass to you on a silver platter next turn.

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Having said that, it’s a rare experience to come across but ultimately something that can, and most likely will, happen at least a couple of times in your first 25 plus hour playthrough, leaving your soldiers a little worse for wear and you wondering what the hell happened.

In the end however, XCOM is a complete and utter gem to the Real Time Tactical genre. The fleeting moments of combat weirdness and occasional glitches are few and far between while the overall gameplay, graphics and sound are nothing less than top-notch. The resulting formula is an amazing mix of micromanagement, tactical planning and edge of your seat action that’ll have you thoroughly hooked into the “Just one more turn” mentality.

The Good:
+ Addictive gameplay throughout
+ An engrossing leveling and customisation system that’ll have you truly caring about those little pixelated soldiers
+ Gorgeous graphics and intricate level design

The Bad:
- Minor weird combat experiences that leave you wondering what went wrong

The Score:

Graphics: 9
Shiny suits of armour, futuristic space craft and scary alien monsters abound in this beautifully rendered landscape of alien destruction.

Sound: 7
All the voice acting is top-notch, if overly Americanised. It would have been nice to hear some native accents for the various different nations that make up the XCOM team instead of having to listen to my French operatives talk like John Wayne.

Story: 7
It’s your usual Independence Day-esque Alien invasion guff. Aliens invade, abduct some people and livestock and before you know it you’ve got a war on your hands. What make the game is your experiences with your personal XCOM army and their escapades around the globe.

Gameplay: 9
Aside from the occasional strange outcomes from the percentage based action system the gameplay is stellar. Sure some extra weapon variants and maybe some large battles with AI allies and vehicles wouldn’t go amiss but hey, there’s always room for a sequel right?

Lifespan: 8
You’re going to be looking at 25 hours plus of gameplay from your first playthrough on Normal difficulty. Add to that how fun the game is and the inclusion of higher difficulties and challenge modes and you’ve got masses of fun to be had.

The Verdict: 9
In a genre that’s not had much love lately XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a shining light in a sea of lacklustre sequels and unfinished indie titles. If you’ve got a hankering for some alien ownage in a strategy setting you can’t get much better than this.

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About Andrew Hallam

Freelance Video Games Journalist and Writer extraordinaire. Quite possibly the most unskilled renaissance man the world has ever seen.

2 comments on “XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

  1. Hey , since i’m a guy that even played the SC2 Campaign with joy, i’m really looking forward to playing this game, just not that much time these days :/ Great review btw!

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