Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Back in 1994, UFO: Enemy Unknown (known as XCOM: UFO Defense here in Europe) marked a revolution in the strategy genre, creating a following of enthusiasts that still survives to this day. In 2010, 2K Games announced a First Person Shooter remake, and I have to admit that my face met my palm in a rather violent fashion. I’m quite sure I wasn’t alone in this.
At the beginning of this year, 2K restored justice by announcing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a remake of the original that was supposed to remain faithful to the hardcore turn-based strategy concept that made it so popular. Now the game has finally hit the shelves. But, is it really true to the XCOM legacy?
A premise is necessary: I have been a fan of XCOM since the first game, and I continued to play it and its sequels (the only true sequels: Terror from the Deep and Apocalypse – anything else simply did not happen in my world) on and off to this day. This means that, when I finally launched the game for the first time, my expectations were through the proverbial roof. So don’t expect me to be tender. I’m gonna be as ruthless as a Muton Berserker with this baby.
The first thing you’ll notice in XCOM is its rather peculiar art style. Considering that the original game was made during a period in which 256 colors on screen were a luxury, Firaxis had a large degree of freedom in choosing the direction they wanted to give to the game’s visuals. They opted for a cartoon-ish look that somehow reminds me of the G.I. Joe cartoon series. Considering that XCOM troops are basically the alien-hunting version of the Joes of old, I find the choice rather appropriate.
While the game’s style dictates the lack of cutting edge, photorealistic graphics, Firaxis did a very good job on the visuals, with clean and defined character and alien models moving on modular maps that, despite having received a lovely visual tune-up, still strongly resemble the original ones in their feel, enriched by a spectacular and colorful lighting engine that fits and enhances the cartoonish look rather perfectly.
To enhance the turn-based combat of the original game, XCOM zooms into the action when a character dashes or attacks, creating some definitely pleasing mini-cutscenes, bringing us down to the level of our soldiers and making us feel more part of the action. The game is also slightly more story-driven than the original, and the plot is underlined by CG cutscenes that still fit the overall visual style definitely well.
Ultimately, though, a couple hundred pictures tell more than a couple thousands words, so you can check the gallery below to get a better idea of the game’s visuals.
The audio of the game is probably the best aspect of its production values, featuring a range of tunes that goes from the atmospheric to the utterly epic, perfect for pumping up the adrenaline before and after some alien-exterminating action. Voice acting is also up to the task, featuring well delivered lines and a wide range of accents that aptly underlines the international nature of the XCOM team.
The gameplay of XCOM: Enemy Unknown resembles the original very closely. Your role as the commander of the unit is twofold: building and developing the XCOM base and all its features, and leading your elite troops in battle.
Developing the base is quite strategic in itself, as your primary task is to squeeze every inch of the limited underground space to its maximum effect. The deeper you dig, the more costly it gets, and the need for power, satellite coverage and manpower will send you to the fourth (and last) level very quickly if you don’t build carefully. Facilities with the same purpose built adjacent to each other will grant bonuses, so a well planned base will yield much better results.
Space isn’t the only limiting factor to your development, as there are quite a few other elements you have to care for. Of course money is a big issue, and often you’ll find yourself conflicted between selling some of the loot brought back from a mission, or tightening your monetary belt for a while in order to be able to use those items later in your construction and research.
Power is another determining factor, and ties up with the problem of space mentioned above, as you’ll need to build more generators in order to expand your base. Scientists speed up your research, while engineers allow the building of more facilities and advanced equipment.
All those facets of base building come together to create a very complex and deep system that will keep the braincells of the min-maxxers between us quite busy. It’s a really compelling level of strategy within the bigger strategic picture, and the ability to zoom into every facility to see your team at work proves definitely rewarding when you manage to build an advanced and efficient base.
Once you’re done taking care of your base, you can move to the Mission Control room and scan for alien activity. This accelerates the time and normally leads to mission opportunities as enemy UFOs drop on the unsuspecting civilians to conduct abductions or terror missions, while some of their crafts can be intercepted and shot down, or attacked as they land.
This brings up one of the few choices Firaxis made that I really can’t find myself agreeing with. In the original game you could intercept and shoot down every alien craft, including those sent in for abduction and terror missions. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown those crafts are somehow invisible to your satellites and you will receive notice of their presence only when they have already landed and their crew is wreaking havoc.
In addition to that, abduction missions always invariably happen three at a time, limiting your reaction to one, and forcing you to disregard the other two. While I understand that Firaxis tried to introduce difficult choices into the game, having you decide what country to rescue as opposed to those that you’re going leave to their own devices every time, it feels excessively scripted and artificial. Having the chance to shoot down some of the alien crafts before they attacked felt definitely more natural and realistic.
This must have been a point of contention even within Firaxis itself, as the ability to intercept those ships is programmed into the game, and simply deactivated via a bit of code. If you play the game on PC you can actually reactivate it thanks to the already budding modding community. I strongly advise to try it, as in my opinion it simply makes the game even more fun (this mod is a good example, and it also solves a level of difficulty problem that I’ll mention later).
After identifying an alien threat, you get to select a response team and send it into battle, moving to the second main area of the game. Tactical combat between your soldiers and the invaders.
As a definitely interesting addition compared to the original game, XCOM troops actually have specializations. Support soldiers function as field officers, enhancing the abilities of those around them, providing cover with smoke grenades and healing with medpacks. Assault troops are specialized in close combat, and can cause the aliens quite a lot of pain when they get in their face. Heavies are your hard hitters, and their rocket launchers can definitely pull you out of trouble when you spot a large number of enemies bunched out together. Finally you have snipers, and I seriously don’t think I have to explain what they do.
Every soldier can be equipped separately and levels up pretty much like in a strategy RPG, acquiring new skills that can further specialize him within a class-specific skill tree. For instance you can turn a support unit into a field medic, or into a very useful buffer that will turn his squaddies into efficient killing machines, depending on the options you choose while promoting him.
Once you have chosen your strike team you’ll find yourself on the battlefield. Firaxis took a page from the lovely book of Valkyria Chronicles, removing any kind of visible grid and simply giving every soldier a range of movement per turn and the ability to fire once. The concept may appear simple, but thanks to the wide range of abilities, equipment and environmental features, the tactical depth of every battle is very complex and will satisfy even the most hardcore strategy game addicts.
Overwatch is, of course, every turn warrior’s best friend, letting players put soldiers that didn’t fire in a sort of “alert mode”. An alien crossing their line of fire during the enemy turn will be shot at, allowing the squad to predict and prevent nasty surprises, and enhancing the risk versus reward system. It’s often more effective to put a soldier into overwatch, instead of having him take ineffective pot shots at enemies that are too far or behind heavy cover.
I can definitely say that, alongside the aforementioned Valkyria Chronicles, the turn-based tactical battles in XCOM: Enemy Unknown are the best I played in the genre in a long, long time. They can be extremely challenging and unforgiving if you don’t deploy a balanced squad and don’t develop your men evenly, while mistakes and rash actions are often punished with the death of one or more soldiers.
The fact that your men (and women) develop while you use them, combined with the possibility of them being killed permanently creates a sense of fear and tension that you won’t find in games that let you use nameless and replaceable units, or in those where your soldiers simply get knocked out and return at the end of a battle. It’s perfectly appropriate to the setting and definitely prompts the player to ponder every action carefully.
After every battle you can see its consequences on the big picture in the situation room. Alien threats that you didn’t properly counter will raise the panic level in the appropriate countries (and often their neighbors), while those that you successfully defeated give you a breather in the region where the mission was conducted.
When the panic level in a nation raises over a certain threshold, the government will irremediably quit the council and start negotiating with the Aliens. While the game doesn’t tell us what happens within its borders, an eerie maelstrom on the Geoscape globe lets us imagine that things aren’t exactly pretty down there.
Losing the support of a country means less funding for our operations and the loss of the possibility of unlocking one of the five continent-wide bonuses for satellite coverage. Performing badly enough to cause eight or more countries to quit the council means immediate defeat, creating an effective doomsday countdown that only continued success and efforts spread evenly and carefully across each area of the world can stop and ultimately reverse.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is definitely less forgiving than other games. Besides a quick tutorial at the beginning of the game (I advise to do it and then restart the game without it, as it locks out certain initial choices that make the experience more interesting) it doesn’t hold your hand and it doesn’t refrain at all from kicking you in the shins if you make too many mistakes. Your alien opponents are definitely smart and will often avoid charging straight at your soldiers, finding alternate routes of approach that can create some nasty surprises.
That said, I feel that the level of difficulty could have been balanced better. Normal difficulty is quite balanced overall (especially when paired with the sweet ironman mode, that prevents you from reloading to correct a mistake you made), but it has a rather sizable flaw in the fact that every group of aliens will remain stationary until you spot them for the first time.
While the enemies are still deadly, they’re also considerably less aggressive, hampering the pacing and the sense of urgency a little. Terror missions are an exception, as the aliens will wander around slaughtering civilians, forcing you to move quickly to intercept them before they cause too much damage, making them one of the most fun and adrenaline-rich between the challenges provided by the game.
Classic difficulty (that theoretically should reproduce the level of challenge of the original game) is a lot more difficult because the aliens are a lot more aggressive and will continuously move around even when they’re out of sight. It still has a flaw, though, in the fact that the AI cheats.
To artificially raise the level of challenge Firaxis granted Classic level aliens unfair bonuses to their aim and critical chance, often putting you in the situation of getting several men killed even if you did nothing wrong, as supposedly minor aliens take lethal pot shots at them from impossible distances. Luckily the mod I linked above solves the issue, but I can’t help but feeling that the developers should have done a better job on the AI itself here, instead of just giving it unbalancing bonuses. An intermediate level of difficulty between normal and classic, featuring aggressive enemies (that are more fun to play against) without the bonuses would have also worked wonders.
Despite the two relatively minor flaws i mentioned (the slightly unbalanced difficulty and the impossibility of intercepting terror missions and abductions), though, the single player of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of the most fun and exhilarating gaming experiences I had in the last few years. I’m aware that calling “exhilarating” a turn-based strategy game seems a contradiction, but it simply is.
Unfortunately the multiplayer isn’t even near the level of depth and polish that comes with the single player campaign. There is really only one gameplay mode (a squad based deathmatch) over a very limited amount of maps. It can be somewhat fun taken in small doses, but it gets old very fast simply because it lacks most of the managerial and base building elements of the main game. There’s no progression, no leveling, no ranking.
The only real selling point of the multiplayer experience is the ability to play the alien units more extensively (you can already play them in a limited fashion thanks to the mind control ability in the single player campaign), but it’s really not enough to grant the mode any real longevity.
That’s kind of a pity, considering the potential for cooperative (both synchronous and asynchronous) multiplayer that a strategy game like this could offer inside the campaign itself, let alone the dream option of letting one player control the alien faction in a competitive campaign, but I may be asking too much here. Ultimately, if you buy XCOM for its multiplayer, you’re seriously doing it wrong, and considering how good the single player campaign is, Firaxis could have simply refrained from developing a multiplayer mode at all, and I doubt many would have really cared.
At the beginning of this review I promised to be ruthless while judging this game, and I have done my best to keep that stance. Despite that, there simply isn’t much to complain about, and the few flaws I pointed out are simply overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of the overall package.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is probably the most faithful, well crafted and well conceived love song to a timeless classic game I ever played. Firaxis did not fear flying in the face of the modern concepts of gaming, all focused on action and on hand-holding the player to a probably less than deserved victory.
The game is unforgiving, complex, expansive, extremely rewarding and ultimately a massive bundle of fun. Forget E.T., calling home and all that ridiculous alien-hugging hubris. XCOM is back, and the only good alien is a dead alien, possibly on your autopsy table.