XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a refreshing change of pace to the genre of turn-based action, strategy games, and it excels on all counts. XCOM: EU is Firaxis Games’ reimagining of the much loved classic X-COM which first debuted in 1993. The series hasn’t been seen since 2001 with the release of X-COM: Enforcer.
In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you are commander of a world-funded organization, XCOM, that has been formed to protect the world from the invading alien horde. As commander you are responsible for researching the invading threat, developing new ways to combat them, and dispatching a team of soldiers to various parts of the world to prevent human abductions and to maintain the panic levels of the world’s countries. XCOM: EU’s story really does not go beyond this simple plotline. It serves only as a means to give reason to what you are doing.
XCOM’s command base is located in a continent of your choosing and each gives you a unique bonus based on that region’s specialty or resources. At the start of the game, your base is operating at the bare minimum. With funding received from various nations and the successful completion of missions, resources are made available to you, allowing you to further develop and expand your base of operations. The base consists of six viewable locations; research department, engineering department, hangar, barracks, situation room, and mission control.
The research department is, oddly enough, where research is done. Throughout the game you will recruit scientists to improve upon current technologies, examine alien technologies, and examine the aliens themselves. Once research projects are complete new items will become available to build in engineering. Engineers will also be recruited throughout the game, and more engineers equals faster build times and more toys that XCOM will have access to. The hangar allows you to improve and relocate ships to various parts of the world to better respond to UFO sightings.
The barracks allows you to view and edit the soldiers at your disposal, improve squad size and abilities, hire soldiers, and view a memorial of your fallen comrades. All soldiers can be customized to a degree. There is a limited selection of choices where you can change a soldiers race, voice, head, skin color, hair, hair color, and (if male) facial hair. One great addition is that you are given the freedom to rename soldiers and give nicknames. As simple as it is, being able to name the soldiers in your squad after your friends or various celebrities is a lot of fun and greatly appreciated. Naming your soldiers provides a more personal attachment troops and can make it all the more upsetting when a soldier is killed-in-action, and in XCOM:EU, soldiers really are disposable. As mentioned before, there is a memorial with the names of every soldier KIA during your campaign, meaning that once someone dies they’re gone for good. One of your most seasoned soldiers can be gone in an instant due to a poor choice or slip-up. With the constant threat of each mission being a soldier’s last, XCOM is able to house up to 99 soldiers and for a price there are always more waiting to be recruited.
The situation room gives reports regarding the panic level and status of various countries and shows time remaining on the doomsday clock, which can be remedied with the deployment of satellites. It also displays current objectives, XCOM’s finances, and national requests. The situation room also provides access to the “Gray Market,” where you can sell-off excess materials at a fixed price when money runs low (which happens a lot).
Master Control is where you scan for alien activity, where transmissions are received, and where soldiers are deployed. Scanning for activity causes days to pass by in seconds and ends only when a project is completed, a request is made, or alien activity is found. When aliens are found, troops are deployed and the fun begins. Abduction reports occur in groups of three and have varying difficulties. A higher difficulty means stronger enemies and more of them. Each abduction site also has a unique reward if successfully completed; such as additional scientists, engineers, soldiers, or money.
After playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, one of the first words that come to mind is satisfying. Shooting down an enemy rarely ever feels this good, and nailing several aliens in a single turn will bring a smile to your face. Firaxis Games proves once again that when it comes to strategy games they stand at the top. XCOM: Enemy Unknown will make you think, and then think some more. Normal difficulty will provide more than enough of a challenge for most gamers, but for the brave and hardcore XCOM fans there are the “Classic” and “Impossible” difficulty settings to gratify you.
The next word I think of is unforgiving. One small slip up on your part can spell disaster for the entire squad. There also is no restarting a mission. For better or worse, you live with your decisions and the consequences that follow. If a mission goes south you can abort the mission at any time, but squad members not in the drop-zone will be left to die. The threat of the world ending is also very real, leaving a lingering sense of despair. Difficult choices will need to be made because you can’t save everyone. You will slowly see entire countries become engulfed by the alien forces.
The gameplay and character animations in XCOM: EU is polished and refined. As the commander of XCOM, you sequentially move your squad members to your desired position, progressing forward until enemies appear. When they do, each member of your team gets a chance to move/attack/hold position. Once each squad member has finished, the aliens get their turn. As expected, this pattern continues until one side is no longer standing. How you dispose of the aliens is up to you. Explosives are fairly effective, but destroy the bodies completely. Using regular weapons will dispose of your enemies while leaving their bodies intact, allowing them to be gathered and studied back at XCOM. A third option is made available a few hours into the campaign that lets you capture enemies alive, which is the most dangerous method but also the most beneficial to XCOM.
The simplicity of this formula along with the large variety of enemies makes every operation unpredictable. There is never a guarantee that your whole team will survive, no matter how well prepared you think you are, especially with new recruits. During fight sequences, inexperienced soldiers can become panicked, causing them to act randomly, sometimes even resulting in the death of an ally.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is not visual porn by any means. The graphics are fitting for the caricatured character builds and environment style, but clearly was not the focus in designing the game. The visuals overall are on par with the average PlayStation 3 title, but are consistently interrupted with frame-rate drops throughout the game and some non-rendering textures during cinematic sequences. Frame-rate issues can become a nuisance at times, especially when in the middle of a life and death situation.
Apart from minor responses from soldiers, there are only a handful of characters who speak. The voice-acting for the characters that do speak is fairly cheesy. Whether this was intended or not, it works. It seems to pay homage to all cheesy Hollywood alien films, like Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!,” and does so well. Similarly, the overall music is great and very fitting. The soundtrack gets you pumped before starting a big mission, adds to the tenseness of battle, and commemorates all those who proudly gave their lives with the playing of bagpipes.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a great game that is a refreshing change of pace from the constant barrage of first-person-shooters and third-person action games that seem to have plagued the industry for the last few years. Action/strategy games are rarely found on game consoles and XCOM: EU is a welcome addition. It is a game that you can easily pour dozens of hours into, whether in a single campaign or starting new ones to better manage your resources. There is no real substance to the storyline, which is fairly common among strategy games, but each decision made carries significant weight. The crowning achievement of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the polished battle system mixed with the sheer unpredictability and intelligence of enemies that gives any player a challenge. The visuals and caricatured style are good and very fitting, but consistent frame-rate drops are a nuisance. The music choice is great and very fitting as well, which correctly emphasize specific moments and achieve the desired emotional response.