XCOM: Enemy Unknown

October 9, 2012, Author: Ray Willmott

Strategy games have rarely been a great fit on home consoles. Sure, we had Halo Wars and that was a bit of fun, but realistically, it wasn’t a patch on the Total War series or anything else of a similar ilk.

Undeterred however, Firaxis are not only rebooting legendary PC franchise, XCOM, but they’re determined to make it an engaging fit for 2012 audiences.

How did they get on?

Either we’re alone in the universe or we’re not
The words of Arthur C Clarke resonate with us during the game’s opening moments. We watch in horror as human life is treated so wastefully by the immediate alien threat. Forced to react, the government commission the XCOM project to fight back against the invasion.

Players will be cast as Commander of the XCOM Project, forced only to take orders from the Council (sound familiar?). However, they will also be able to select missions from different areas around the world, focusing on panic-levels and rewards.

XCOM has a narrative built into its massive campaign, but it’s entirely driven by your choices. You can push the story anyway you see fit, but there will always be priorities for you to attend to.

Click to move
XCOM is a turn-based, combat strategy game, which sees you control a squad on set missions with varying objectives. Sometimes players will simply need to eradicate all alien-life; other times they’ll need to extract VIPs or defuse bombs.

The control scheme works well on 360, and while it’s not the same as having a mouse, it feels perfectly stable and appropriate on an analog. There are some occasions where precision is a problem, but I can categorically say that a strategy game has never felt more of a comfortable fit on a home console. Players move a line of sight with the analog, and tap the A button to move. Depending on how many steps they take, they may get a second turn, which could be used for Overwatch (your unit will automatically attack anyone if they get to close) or to hunch down deeper into cover for further protection. They can even open fire on nearby enemies.

By pressing the right trigger, a targeting system appears and enables you to fire on enemy lifeforms. Your chance to hit is shown by a percentage rating. If your enemy is exposed and not in proper cover and you’re right near them, you’re likely to not only hit them, but kill them almost straight away. If they’re better defended, however, you may catch them with a glancing blow if you’re lucky. The same applies to them when they’re firing back at you.

The big thing with XCOM is that your squad units are extremely vulnerable. They can die very easily. XCOM definitely teaches players the value of life, and so if there’s a unit you’re very particular about and you’ve invested a lot of time in, you need to be very careful about how you use that unit. Once a unit is dead, they are not going to respawn or reappear. They’re gone for good.

This won’t just affect the player, however; it will also affect the squad as a whole. If a veteran of war is killed in action, it will unsettle team mates, causing them to panic, whether they’re screaming for evacuation or firing off crazed shots at thin-air. Units can also be gravely injured in battle, meaning that they are are unavailable for use for a period of days. Once fully recovered, they can go right back out on the battlefield.

Any soldiers that survive the battle are usually eligible for promotions. This is judged on how many enemies they’ve killed, how many times they’ve avoided injury, and their general approach to battle. Every time they’re promoted, their overall stats are improved and they receive additional perks based on the type of class of warrior they are.

XCOM isn’t just about the battlefield, however. After each mission, you’ll return to the command center which helps you prepare for the onslaught. From here, players will be able to research alien technology and create new weapons more competent at eradicating the threat. Equally, you can do autopsies on alien cadavers, build new structures, create weapons, enlist new military personnel, send out satellites to gain better coverage of the wider world, and even sell items on the grey market to the government.

Firaxis have absolutely nailed the detail of the game, and even got the gameplay down just right. This isn’t the same game you would have played in 1994, but it does include many things that set it apart in the first place.

Skitters, they’re not
The lineup of enemies available in XCOM is a real mix of outward silliness and complete creepiness. The Thin Man, as he is affectionately known, is reminiscent of a human-alien. Save for his eyes, he may even pass off as a regular Joe doing his shopping in Tesco. However, with his awkward, back-bent strides and uncanny dexterity (coupled with a rather menacing looking gun), he’s probably not going to infiltrate anything unless he uses force.

Equally, the aliens themselves are an inquisitive bunch that, save for just looking at their enormous eyes, and their rather non-emotive faces, players will still be able to read their reactions and determine if they’re feeling pressure or not.

While serving a top-down view, XCOM is still a beautiful game. Everything from real weather effects, with rain bucketing down on the terrain as you fight across normal city streets; to dramatic, cinematic death-scenes and important plot points happening during the mission. It’s not up to the glorifying standards of Total War Rome 2, admittedly, but the attention to detail and the constant activity within the game will have your eyes everywhere, appreciating everything.

Destination Unknown
The game is fully voice-acted, although this is perhaps one of the weakest areas of the game. Most of the casting seems unsure of how to bring energy and enthusiasm to an event and stick to one tone throughout their script. The units in battle, however, do a great job of conveying varying voice pitches or displaying aggression. When in the heat of battle, this does more than you might think  to immerse you into a state of emergency.

The music is presented well, but blends into the background, never distracting from what’s happening on screen, but always influencing important plot elements as and when required.

Multiple alien-lifeforms
Admittedly, my time with the online portion of XCOM was limited. The servers were simply not full enough to get a proper hands-on and frankly, the single player sucked up a lot of my time.

What I can say is that this refreshing and new and it will definitely keep me coming back for more. The multiplayer mode is simple at this point, but there’s definitely room to expand as the developers and the community become more familiar with the content.

You can either choose to be aliens or XCOM units and play a time-sensitive, turn-based war between each other. No weapons or perks have been scaled down; they’ve been transferred expertly from the main campaign, and so the online mode does feel balanced and works very well. The time-sensitive nature of combat presents a unique dynamic. You’ll want to think about tactical position, but at the same time, you’re under pressure to perform. This brilliantly brings a game of this type into a real-time, evolving realm and makes for a very solid fit.

Squads can be customised before entering battle, enabling you to change their loadouts and check their perks, and so an element of strategy is even implemented before the game gets started.

As I said before, the online mode is still a bit basic at this point; it had to be to make sure it was embedded properly and to give the community time to get to grips with it and provide the integral feedback needed to develop it. However, with future DLC and additional patches and modes, this could become insanely popular and totally deserves to be.

Another area I’d like to see considered for the future is campaign co-op. XCOM is rife for that. Sure, you could pass the pad between friends when controlling one unit, but I’d like to see Firaxis acknowledge that element, encourage it, and perhaps do more to support it.

You’re Earth’s last hope
As a fan of the 1994 XCOM, I feel wholly satisfied by this remake. Yes, it’s different, and yes, some might say it has been simplified, but all of these changes feel natural and healthy.

2K have taken a massive chance bringing this back out into the wild, but thanks to Firaxis’s never-say-die attitude and high production values, they may also be pioneering a new trend within the industry.

Enemy Unknown is bold, daring, fresh and exciting. It’s massive in scale, it’s deep in substance and it manages to be massively entertaining throughout. I know there are some incredible games out already and there’s even more to come. However, XCOM is just as good, if not better than some of the supposed heavy-hitters we’ve already seen.

If you’re a gamer that’s bored of current trends, one that needs something a bit different in their lives, or even if you just want some good, compelling gameplay, there are few games I would recommend over XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Want more details on XCOM? Why not check out our information thread right here


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