Fans of the old X-COM games were undoubtedly excited when they heard that the series was slated to be revived for the current console generation. Of course, many of those fans had their hearts ripped out when they found out this new game would be a first-person shooter that took place in the 1950s. (Wait, what?) But fans were consoled once again with the announcement of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a title that is very much not a FPS, and one that returns the more strategic elements that we loved about the original series. Just in case that last sentence wasn’t completely clear, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is indeed a strategy game.
Now, to call Enemy Unknown a sequel would be a bit misleading. You see, it’s more of a spiritual successor to the old series, set in a completely new universe that’s only loosely based on the old one. However, just like in 1994’s UFO: Enemy Unknown (see what they did there?), XCOM is still the name of a secret organization that’s building an army to eradicate the new threat posed by invading extraterrestrials (only this time the hyphen is missing). XCOM: Enemy Unknown puts that organization in your hands, allowing you to build it to its alien-mashing apex or drive it into the ground like a crashed UFO.
Let’s not kid ourselves here; the plot does indeed jump the shark. The writers found an excuse to add zombies, and this is a fact that even the characters seem uncomfortable with. (The first time zombies are mentioned, the character who does so says something along the lines of, “As unprofessional as this sounds, we’re looking at zombies here.”)
Then again, the storyline isn’t really all that important. Sure, games like StarCraft II have proven that sci-fi strategy games can have intriguing plots, but XCOM isn’t that sort of game. It sets up the simple premise of “Aliens are bad; shoot them to death,” and sends you on your way. Which is totally fine, because for all the shallowness of the plot, the gameplay systems have a wealth of depth to them that will keep you engaged.
Enemy Unknown is a game in which you’re asked to make tough choices. In fact, this is emphasized at the very beginning of the game when you’re asked to choose between two missions, each one with benefits for completion and severe consequences for being ignored. No matter which mission you choose, there will be negative consequences.
And then there are missions themselves: You control a squad of up to six soldiers who are given a set of objectives. Most of the time, these objectives are simply “murder all the aliens,” but there are some defensive objectives thrown into the mix, as well as some missions that task you with doing things like capturing a live alien so it can be interrogated and studied.
You play these missions on a strategic “game board” (there’s no visual grid here, but the combat is obviously an evolution of that of grid-based strategy titles.) Combat is turn-based, and you’ll spend your turn moving your soldiers about on the field and issuing commands. Interestingly enough, there is cover scattered across the battlefield, and a great deal of your time will be spent moving your troops from one piece of cover to the next. Standing out in the open, after all, greatly increases your chances of getting picked off by the enemy.
I played Enemy Unknown on Xbox 360, so I was forced to use a standard controller rather than a mouse-and-keyboard setup, but the gameplay is still quite smooth for the most part. However, there’s no option to undo your actions in case you accidentally move a troop to the wrong location. This can be frustrating, but it does encourage you to slow down and think about every move before you finalize it. Still, I would have preferred there to be at least a tiny bit of wiggle room here. I tend to screw up a lot.
Your troops will gain experience and rise through the ranks as they tackle missions. But there’s a caveat to this: Death is permanent. It’s not uncommon to have leveled up a soldier to the cap, only to have him fall in the next battle, forcing you to start over with a new recruit. In fact, it’s wise to shuffle your soldiers around frequently and to not rely on a core group of six fighters. You will lose soldiers over the course of the game, and you’ll have to plan for that.
In between missions, you’ll return to XCOM’s underground base, where you’ll micromanage the various aspects of the facility. You can expand the facility, recruit soldiers, manage the loadouts of each individual soldier, assign research projects, have your engineers upgrade your weapons, and so on. Additionally, your actions are monitored by the XCOM Counsel, which has representatives from major countries around the world. If you piss any of these countries off (either by ignoring them or by failing to protect their VIPs), the country’s “Panic Rating” goes up. If a country’s Panic Rating hits 5, the country will withdraw from the Counsel. If too many countries withdraw, XCOM is forced to shut down and it’s game over. So yeah, don’t piss these people off.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, you’ll constantly be playing with a precarious balance, often asked to choose between defending three different countries, all of which are close to abandoning you. It can be stressful, especially for people determined to play a “perfect” game. Also, it’s absolutely possible to get yourself trapped in a corner, unable to advance until you level up more troops, but unable to find missions that are easy enough for your rookie soldiers without having to risk some major country dropping off the Counsel. So you’ll want to save often, and keep a plethora of back-up saves.
As far as aesthetic, Enemy Unknown has a couple weird things going on. While the battlefields look great, displaying an obvious attention to detail, the cutscenes will leave you unimpressed. There are choppy animations, awkward facial movements, poor character models, and flat textures. Additionally, there are times in combat when the camera will zoom in to highlight a specific moment, and these moments are quite often awkward. For instance, the camera will zoom in on a character who is making a kill, only to reveal that the character is pointing his gun in a completely different direction than the enemy. Also, when zooming in on characters who are dashing, the camera goes all over the place. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be a shaky-cam-type effect or if it’s just an animation glitch that never got sorted. Either way, it happens frequently and it’s tough to look at.
Ultimately, though, you’re going to be playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown for its unforgiving strategic gameplay. If you can ignore the lame story and the sub-par visuals, there’s a lot here to enjoy.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 2.5 Graphics
Some neat detail, but whenever the camera zooms in on something, you get to see just how bad it actually looks. 4.5 Control
There’s a learning curve here, especially if you play the game on consoles, but it’s still smooth and ultimately intuitive. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Some cheesy voice acting, but everything else sounds decent enough. 4.8 Play Value
Over 70 missions here, and your choices have such decisive consequences that you might want to replay the game a few times to see the impact of your actions made manifest in a variety of different ways. 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|