Review: ‘XCOM: Enemy Uknown’

Oh man, it’s 2012 and we’ve got a new XCOM game and it still really feels like XCOM. For fans of the classic PC alien-hunting strategy games, Firaxis’ Enemy Unknown will kick off memories of playing the original until the late hours, managing your squad and trying complete each mission with minimal casualties and maximum extraterrestrial killing.

The series reboot rebuilds the franchise for consoles and PCs, feeling familiar without feeling like a simple redo or antiquated in any way. Add to that, the fact that it’s still a nervy and tense blast hunting aliens in the dark, and you might be willing to forgive some interface and minor performance issues on the console versions of the game.

Taking place in the far-flung future of 2015, an alien invasion has sent world governments scrambling for a solution to push back to the little gray guys abducting or killing the locals. You are a member of the XCOM project, an initiative overseen by a global council made up of the world’s nations. Keep their skies free of invaders, and they’ll provide your base with resources and cash to keep the lights on and keep your team stocked up. Ignore their requests for help, and they might potentially leave the Council and lower your end of month performance rating with the group’s shadowy leader.

The gameplay is split between asset and resource management and combat, with the bulk of your time spent doing the latter–this isn’t Civ, after all. But like that other Firaxis title, things like where you place your base and the amount of time that your units spend in combat are important, affording you bonuses out in the field that might just help your team survive contact with the enemy.

Combat removes the ever-present grid from the original XCOM for the illusion of a more free form-style battlefield with an emphasis on finding cover. Your soldiers each begin with two moves (later modified with new abilities that can extend their turns or better locate the enemy). Find cover (indicated by either an empty, half, or full shield icon where you drag your cursor), post up, and take aim at the invaders when you find them, and then try to kill or capture them all to complete the mission.

Back at HQ, you can increase the size of your squad and add other beneficial effects back at HQ once you send them through the Training Academy, and outfit them in the barracks with the new weapons and items like health packs and grenades (although the eggheads back at your base will remind you endlessly that they can’t research an alien or its weapons once they’ve been blown to bits).

In the combat after action, squad members might be up for promotion, allowing you to dump points into their skill tree, along what seem to be preselected specialties (Assault, Sniper, Heavy, etc, plus later, dramatic changes to your squad as you get deeper into the alien research). The management aspect isn’t so deep as to be imposing, and it provides enough variability to make each of your units play a little differently out in the field.

Shooting at the enemies will remind you of Fallout 3’s V.A.T.S. system, as you pick your target (once you can find them), see the probability of your shot landing, and then heading into a brief animation where your hit lands or flies wide. It gets a little confusing when a shot with a 75% chance of landing doesn’t hit, but some of that is owed to their level of cover as well as obstructions between you and the enemy (which, now that I think about it, should probably be factored into the chance to hit). Snipers are the most confounding class, with a host of abilities to enhance their skill at making the important shot, while consistently shooting wide at crucial points.

To keep things from getting monotonous with the same old “kill all invaders” scenarios, there are also escort missions (not nearly as bad as you would think!) and rescue missions, as well as responding to downed alien vessels that you may have shot out of the sky earlier with your Skyrangers.

Back at HQ, you’ll choose your current research in the Lab which can then be turned into new tech in Engineering, or create new facilities on your base. All of these efforts require ever-precious resources like research materials, energy from generators, engineers and scientists to make the vital gear, and money to keep the base and all of its moving pieces maintained. Then it’s off to Mission Control to let time play out over a couple of days before your next advance is discovered or you get your next group of requests from Council members. Come to think of it, XCOM is very Civ-like, but feels like a narrower slice of that addictive strategy game.

Multiplayer is a little baffling and asymmetrical to start: you begin with an initial outlay of funds which you can dump into a potentially mixed squad of humans and aliens. The combat is structured just like missions, with you picking your way through cover points until making contact with the enemy (and then trying to kill them). In my experience, I encountered players with larger cash supplies to start, meaning their units went into the match with more health, weapons, etc., meaning that I got my butt whipped each time.

Performance-wise, XCOM is problematic, with lots of texture drawn at the last moment, and some not-great character designs in cutscenes. Enemy Unknown has some story-focused bits, thus warranting the cutscenes, I guess, but all of the VO and meaningful asides to talk about the aliens’ motivations might have been better handled by a static talking head in your base overview screen. Navigating in the field isn’t the smoothest experience on the console, particularly with some of the awkwardness in rotating the battlefield to get a better field of view a snap-to feature for the cursor that might sometimes snap to a position on the opposite side of a wall. If you can play XCOM: Enemy Unknown on a PC, you really should.

But these are small-ish gripes that don’t overall hurt the game, just make it quirkier to play than it really should be. The thrill is there, the sheer pleasure of stalking the enemy (or being stalked by them) is fully intact.

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