Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
By Liam Lambert
I watched, aghast, as my best friend perished before my eyes. The burning hot plasma had surged through his body, leaving nothing to rescue, despite the best efforts of our commanding officer: Captain Upcott. A burning rage seeped out of every pore in my body. It was time to do my part.
I lifted my laser rifle with an adrenaline fuelled ease, focusing my sights on the grey blotch in the distance. The vile “sectoid” responsible for my comrade’s death. It was unlikely I would make the shot, but I was past caring.
A stream of red cascaded out of the weapon. The “sectoid’s” grey matter now covered the exterior of a nearby train carriage, a sticky mess clinging to the rusted metal. It was over. We had defeated these mysterious creatures and gained valuable resources for the XCOM project. But at what cost?
I then put down the controller and realised I was playing a videogame.
When I tell you that XCOM is the kind of game that makes you want to piss yourself, scream like a girl, and fist bump the burliest men you know, I mean it as a term of endearment.
I must admit, I never played any of the original UFO/XCOM series, but I am a big fan of strategy games. Be they turn based or real time, there’s something incredibly rewarding about planning attacks, managing resources and achieving victory beyond that of petty skirmishes. It’s the global scale of things that usually attracts me to strategy games; the almost God-like feeling of controlling tiny virtual minions.
That being said, I’m generally quite terrible at strategy games. Often because of my inherent impatience or my lack of forethought, I tend to enjoy games like Rome: Total War and Advance Wars but find it to hard to branch out from the easier difficulty modes.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis Game’s attempt to reboot the XCOM franchise, manages to be both fair and punishing at the same time.
Enemy Unknown is an action/sci-fi turn based strategy game that follows the efforts of the “XCOM Project”, a top-secret government initiative dedicated to the research, and eventual extermination of hostile alien life. You play as “The Commander”, the person responsible for controlling a team of specially trained soldiers, their weapons and abilities, the project’s research efforts, the project’s engineering efforts, managing XCOM’s budget/funding, and keeping the wold’s sovereign nations happy while their citizens are being devoured by bloodthirsty invaders.
Such a list of duties may seem daunting, but XCOM helps you manage these tasks through its “ant farm” base of operations. This base includes: research, engineering, a squad barracks and other buildings devoted to managing the XCOM initiative. The player can research new weapons; armour and buildings, and then have the engineering team build said items, in the hope that they will ultimately provide an advantage over the technologically superior invading aliens.
These managerial duties can actually feel quite tense. Such tasks can often feel tedious in some strategy games, but when random alien attacks can occur at any time, and nations pull support from the XCOM initiative if their needs are not met, the management duties and combat duties mix together well, and the possibility of impending failure is always looming.
Oh yeah. You can lose XCOM: Enemy Unknown. If enough nations pull support from the project, the Earth will eventually succumb to the invading aliens, resulting in GAME OVER. The possibility of failure helps to raise the stakes of XCOM’s powerful campaign. This isn’t just about colonization or cultural expansion; this is about survival.
XCOM’s ground battles take place inside small 3-D environments, from an isometric perspective. The player controls a squad of six soldiers, tasked with eliminating all aliens in the area, and/or completing certain escort or retrieval objectives. Combat occurs when a member of the player’s squad sees an enemy in their sights. The player can then enter a combat system similar to Fallout 3’s “V.A.T.S” system; one that relies on line of sight, range, player accuracy and other stats to provide a “chance-to-hit” percentage. Fog of war means you really never know what is round the corner, and the chance that you might not even hit what you shoot at makes the game even tenser. Never have guts, faith, and blind luck been so important in a strategy game.
The game feels great to play with a controller too. Characters can be moved easily to new locations with the right analogue stick; their path and cover options highlighted by helpful blue icons. All of this culminates in an experience that is solid and unnerving; unpredictable, yet fair.
Where the game really excels though, is in the personal touches it provides. Players can customize their squad members by re-naming them, changing their appearance and giving them nicknames. Such a small feature might not seem important, but picturing the squad member as friends, family or colleagues makes you want to succeed that much more. The stakes felt much higher sending my girlfriend off into battle than sending Space Marine #4 off into battle.
Soldiers are divided into 4 different classes after their first promotion: Support (all round troops equipped for suppression and healing), Heavy (LMG toting juggernauts for damage soaking), Assault (fast, nimble shot-gunners), and Snipers (they snipe things). These classes are assigned based on character stats and performance, and help the player use a variety of tactics on the battlefield. The more soldiers level up, the more abilities they unlock, some of which can be vital in certain situations.
That’s another thing about Enemy Unknown: perma-death. If a soldier dies in battle, they are gone forever. They do not respawn, they do not have extra lives; they’re just gone. Throughout XCOM’s meaty, 20 hour campaign, only three members of my original squad survived to the end of the game. I began creating scenarios in my mind: these men and women had been physically and emotionally battered by this war, friends had been lost, relationships broken. The game never even tries to personalize what are essentially walking tin cans, you do it all yourself.
The game offers harder difficulty modes for experienced strategy players, but even on Normal difficulty I found some of the battles gloriously unforgiving. XCOM is a difficult game, but not unfairly so.
XCOM’s story is your average alien invasion affair. Littered with clichés, stereotypes and classic sci-fi tropes, it provides some context for the in-game battles, but doesn’t get in the way of the players’ enjoyment of said battles. The narrative is generally delivered through three characters: the passive, overly curious German scientist, the gruff, gung-ho military leader and the engineer who says very little and agrees with whatever anyone else might be saying at the time.
None of this is a problem though. In fact, XCOM’s cliché ridden story works well with its flat textured, almost action figure aesthetic. Soldiers look like the toys you used to play with as a kid, while enemies look frightening enough to feel threatening, but silly enough to avoid looking like aliens from grim/gritty/realistic shooters. In fact, many of the aliens look more like something out of a movie Steven Spielberg would make than anything seen in games recently.
The games soundtrack is as you would expect. Deep, calming 80s synth for the more laid back sections of the game, punctuated by loud, epic orchestral pieces for the more action orientated sections. In particular, the ridiculously loud orchestral drumming before each mission had me punching holes in my knees with excitement. Shades of Mass Effect and Deus Ex: Human Revolution are hard to ignore, but not unwelcome.
There are minor visual bugs involving collision detection, animations and camera angles (occasionally I struggled to move soldiers because I was constantly being directed to the floor above me), but none of this really detracted from my overall enjoyment of the game.
After finishing EU’s robust campaign, players can jump into multiplayer. Then immediately jump back out again. Multiplayer consists of one-on-one battles between two players, and each player can customize their squad by spending a limited amount of points. This points system makes multiplayer severely imbalanced, and allows players to win or lose too easily based on what weapons/armour/units they deployed, rather than any kind of strategic prowess. Really, you’re better off just replaying the stellar campaign instead.
The game may have a few minor problems, but at the end of the day, no other game this year has made me feel the way XCOM made me feel. Management feels deep but not tedious, controls are solid and accessible, and the games ground battles are some of the most intense experiences I’ve had all year.
The Verdict: 9/10 – Outstanding. With deep, rich yet accessible controls, EU is playable by hardcore strategy veterans as well as strategy rookies. Ground combat is intense and satisfying, and the games customization options allow for effortlessly heart-breaking moments achieved by so few strategy titles. XCOM will make you want to tear your hair out and cry to your mother, and you will love it for those very reasons.