Xcom: Enemy Unknown is a turn based sci-fi strategy game from Firaxis games, the studio that brought us Civilization. Utilizing a style of game play that may be seen as outdated in the modern video game scene, is Xcom relevant, and more importantly, is it any good? I will answer these questions in the opening paragraph; Yes and hell yes.
The name Xcom probably rings familiar to PC vets who may be familiar with the 1994 strategy game of the same name. Xcom: Enemy Unknown is a re-imagining of the cult classic strategy game and in many ways it remains, at its core, the same.
Just as before there is not much of a plot, but rather a premise. The Earth is under attack by invading aliens, and as the commanding officer of the X-COM project, you are tasked with combating the unknown force. As earths last line of defence you will take the aliens head on with a squad of soldiers that you are in direct control of. On top of that, as the head of the Extraterrestrial Combat program, you have access to the most advanced research and engineering team the earth’s unified council could spare. After a successful skirmish against the evil abductors you can salvage their technology and use them to further your own research. Through your efforts you will gradually understand the aliens more and more, while also becoming more like them in nature as you adopt their technology for survival. How far will you go to ensure the survival of the human race?
Half of the game is spent at your base where you run the place from top to bottom. Managing resources for your forces while researching new technology for development is the key to survival. Your funding comes primarily from the monthly funding of your supporting council countries. Keep them happy and you will have a good time. Your choices directly influence how the game plays out. Poor resource management will leave you with lesser equipment leaving you behind the curve once the aliens ramp up their invasion. Whenever you are unable to deal with the threat, the council will slowly loose faith in the Xcom project, and one by one the countries will withdraw their funding as panic spreads through the continents. With every country that leaves, your doomsday meter will fill up. Loose eight countries and it is game over.
There are so many research options to pursue that striking a balance between; outfitting your troops, keeping your base operational, and keeping the council happy can be quite the challenge. You can never satisfy all countries and you will often have to make the choice of whom to save. This ensures that each play through of the game is unique. Even your very first choice is to pick a continent to place your base in. This whole management business may sound boring, however that couldn’t be farther from the truth. An incredibly streamlined interface makes it surprisingly convenient to keep track of everything, and easily lets you dip your finger wherever intervention is needed. The feedback the game provides as you progress makes it positively satisfying. Visual changes on your troops and base will be instantly recognizable as you upgrade your tech. Furthermore, with each scientific breakthroughs you will be presented with a cut-scene showing your teams cheering for you, as well as showing you your head research people (call them main characters if you wish) discussing the next priority. It’s the kind of feeling you get after finishing a project all on your own, sitting back, hands behind your head as you proudly announce “I did that”.
Which finally bring brings me to the combat. Whenever there is an alien abduction, a crashed UFO or a council request that needs to be dealt with, you will have to send in your clean-up squad to deal with the threat. This is what I consider the meat of the game. The culmination of your resource management comes down to this, and it will determine your readiness during these encounters.
The term “Turn-based strategy” is often used to describe this style of game play - in which you and your enemy take turns moving troops in an effort to outwit the opposition. Taking the terrain into account when making your move will be crucial to survival. Taking cover and flanking the enemy remains the fundamental aspect of game play, and it works incredibly well. Each soldier is given two moves, which provide a lot of flexibility for each turn. The enemy works within the same restrictions and therefore predicting their actions is a meta-game within itself, made more complex by the sheer number of enemy types you will face.
The game play here is wonderfully smooth and streamlined with the same care as the base interface. You will rarely find yourself wrestling with the controls. Though the game play is very faithful to the original games, the added polish makes it easy to do what you want and it is much more tactical than ever before. Now, cover is everything. Good cover is the threshold that separates successful operation from complete disaster and dead men.
The way the game handles death is an achievement on its own, and it may very well be what takes this game from being a good game to being an amazing game. Each soldier is unique. They gain more abilities as they become more experienced and you get to choose between two abilities on each promotion. Add on top of this a variety of different classes, each with their own abilities to choose from, and you have a system that effectively carves out each soldier to be a special little snowflake. Just as a snowflake melts, these men can easily be killed and never come back. As it is you that command them, each death is on you. Becoming attached to your soldiers is inevitable, especially if you take your time to name and customize your favourite ones.
Playing this game with the appropriately named Ironman setting will make all these features even more engaging. In an Ironman game you are not allowed to manually save, the game handles that for you, and the game saves after every move. Therefore there is no going back once a move is made, no retries. This weight behind every choice makes the game very intense. Knowing that one mistake can potentially get one of your comrades permanently killed. This mode is intensely gratifying and it’s an experience worth trying. With each successful mission, I would pump my fist into the air with righteous energy as I announce: “We did it”!
If by some chance you would like to play as the aliens to kill some human scum, then you can take your rage over to the included multiplayer mode. Here two players can duke it out in a one on one skirmish where you get to customize your own team of up to 6 units. There is a budget on how much stuff you can put on your team, therefore you will need to evaluate what to take with you into the field. It works the same as the single player, except now you are combating a thinking human being with equal forces, and of course, you can use aliens as your main force. Each player gets 90 seconds to act, and overall it's pretty much what you would expect from a multiplayer mode within a turn-based strategy game. It offers a rounded experience that requires a bit of patience, however I personally find the single player campaign to completely eclipse the multiplayer mode.
There really isn’t much to complain about when it comes to Xcom: Enemy unknown. If anything it’s the presentation that may drag it down ever so slightly. While it looks nice and clean, the graphics will probably not amaze you. Sometimes your view will be obscured by buildings or structures, especially inside enemy bases, though a quick turn of the camera remedies the problem. Occasionally your soldiers will clip through walls and other terrain as they open fire, it may look a bit jarring. All of this is small potatoes. If anything, this simply isn’t a game about graphics. It makes up for any shortcomings with very well executed atmosphere, and it definitively doesn’t lack style. The game is accompanied by an amazing score done by Michael McCann, the composer of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s soundtrack. The soundtrack rounds out the package, perfectly highlighting the intense moments the game has to offer.
Xcom seems like that kind of game that could easily be overlooked in the modern video game industry where the contemporary genre is action-adventure and first person shooters. It has all the makings of an obscure gem. Make no mistake though; this game is definitively worth playing. Its difficulty may shy away a lot of players, but those who muscle through it will experience something truly unique. I recommend playing on the normal difficulty setting for first time players. I played the Xbox360 version of the game. Strategy games are a rare sight on consoles and yet now, the current gen consoles can offer one of the best. An infinitively repayable game worth experiencing, Xcom: Enemy Unknown gets a recommendation.
|We liked The Gratifying gameplay, challenging difficulty & great soundtrack|
|We disliked Minor graphical annoyances|