XCOM: Enemy Unknown | Flashback Review
✔ A challenging, thrilling and satisfying experience
✔ Decent graphics, audio and controls (PC)
✔ VS multiplayer that even allows you to control aliens
✘ Not so pretty close up
✘ Challenge might scare away some gamers
The moment I noticed this game didn’t have a review up on the site for the Turn Based Strategy (TBS) game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, developed by Fireaxis Games (Feral Interactive for Macs) and released October 2012 for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, I felt it my duty to write up just how amazing this game is. For good measure, I thought I might as well take a look at the latest expansion pack to go with it, Enemy Within, released in November 2013, covered in a separate article (check it out here: http://www.geekedoutnation.com/videogame-reviews/xcom-enemy-within-review-dlc/) due to the sheer amount of content stacked into this game. Put simply, they are both pretty damn amazing with every move you make counting towards not only the lives of your soldiers, but also the fate of earth against the encroaching alien invasion. This makes the story engaging, so it’s very fortunate that everything else, such as the graphics, sounds and controls (at least on PC) are also well implemented. Before I go into that though, let me summarise what XCOM is actually about.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown puts you in the shoes of the main commander behind the XCOM project, established in the year 2027, responsible for responding to and ultimately dealing with the recent alien incursion on the planet Earth. As commander you have two primary tasks, the first of these involves watching over and providing orders to a squad of soldiers assigned with activities by you ranging from responding to abductions, investigating UFO crash sites and assaulting alien bases. The second of these roles involves the monitoring of the main XCOM base of operations, from assigning research projects, requesting new weapons, monitoring global panic levels and the construction of new facilities, to name a few. Both of these tasks function very differently to each other; however they also complement each other very well, with one usually contributing to the ease of another and providing the player with a mixture of differing aspects of gameplay, more on this below. Let’s start by looking at how the combat works within the game.
When sending your soldiers into battle, the game functions somewhat similar to a game of Chess, with a few key differences. Maps are basically set out on a giant invisible grid that defines how far soldiers can move and what soldiers are able to take cover behind. During your turn, you’re able to individually move your soldiers, fire at any alien targets and use abilities, such as ordering one of your soldiers to shoot on sight any aliens that move during the alien’s turn (this very useful ability is called “overwatch”). When attempting to fire upon an alien, you’re given a chance to hit as well as do critical damage based on your distance from the target, experience of that soldier in battle and current weapon type. Adding to the strategy element of the game there are varying levels of cover, elevation levels, environmental hazards, such as shooting a car which can cause it to blow up next turn, and so on. All of these elements provide the player with many tactical options, with the game having a greater emphasis on slow and careful advancement as opposed to running and gunning. After you have moved all of your soldiers, the alien turn commences, referred to as alien activity, where you have no choice but to watch on and hope you moved your soldiers into safe positions as the aliens attempt to blow their brains out.
Even on normal difficulty XCOM: Enemy Unknown is quite brutal and one soldier out of cover can very easily lead to his or her death during the turn of alien activity. Fortunately for those less accepting of the consequences, it is very easy to save mid-game which can make for easy reloading and, in turn, a less punishing experience, especially for those new to the game. Otherwise you can expect many tense moments as you slowly work towards the successful completion of the mission, ideally with all your crew still alive and well. If your soldiers do manage to survive, they may gain a promotion which allows you to select from a small ability tree as they progress through the ranks. Varying classes have differing abilities and allow soldiers to use different weapons. For example, heavies can use machine guns and have abilities around rocket launchers, while support just uses the default assault rifle, but have abilities including faster movement and more effective first aid equipment.
Between each combat mission you are returned to the main XCOM HQ to manage pretty much everything you could think of from behind the scenes. A few of the primary areas that you’ll utilize include the research lab, engineering, barracks, situation room, hanger and mission control. Quickly summed up, the research lab is used for conducting projects, including alien autopsies, in order to discover new weapons or gear. Engineering is crucial for a wide range of tasks including the physical construction of items, such as weapons or aircraft, and facilities, such as laboratories for research speed, holding cells for captured aliens or satellite uplinks for launching satellites to keep an eye on continents around the globe. The Barracks is used to customize your soldiers from appearance down to load out. The Hanger allows you to manage any aircraft used to respond to UFO’s that appear as you progress throughout the game, with tougher UFO’s requiring you to increase the firepower of your aircraft. The situation room is used for monitoring panic levels across the globe, represented by a total of 16 countries across 5 continents, receive missions from the council members who represent these countries, launch the satellites and manage the finances of the XCOM project. If countries reach extreme panic levels by the end of the month, they will leave the XCOM project, with 8 countries leaving resulting in a rather frightening game over scenario. Finally the mission control is used for actually scanning the planet and launching combat missions. I summarised as best I could, but as you can probably tell from this paragraph alone, managing the XCOM project, while very satisfying, is no easy task.
So, with most of the game functionality explained, what are the key parts of the game like? Well, playing this on PC, I can say the graphics are decent although nothing particularly spectacular, probably about what you’d expect for a TBS. Things don’t look especially detailed up close, but lighting, effects such as explosions and character models (including aliens) are handled well enough. The sound also does a decent job of making you feel immersed in the action, with aliens occasionally making freaky noises off in the distance, explosions making a big boom, music chiming in to match with the action going on screen and soldiers commenting on the orders they have been provided. In terms of controls, a keyboard and mouse set-up defiantly feels like the way this game should be played, allowing for a simple mouse click for moving soldiers about the map and a wide range of buttons to be used when issuing orders including the ability to customise key layouts. I have attempted to play with an Xbox 360 controller and while it works for the most part, it’s defiantly not my preferred play style for this game.
I think the core reason I’m drawn to this game so much is just the brilliant game design. While the game is certainly not original, being designed around a game that came out in 1994 (UFO: Enemy Unknown) everything just stands out. The fusion of expanding your base, blasting at aliens, keeping your soldier’s alive while supplying them with brand new technology and ultimately saving the world from a powerful threat is just extremely thrilling stuff. For those committed enough to play around 15 hours (probably more) to finish a first play through, a second play through then allows you to go through again with your newly acquired knowledge, improving on your previous play style, especially on higher difficulties. Further increasing the playability of the game there are a range of advanced options, from randomised starting stats for troops to enabling Ironmode, a game mode which provides the player with only one save file that saves automatically over the course of the game locking in the player’s decisions made over that play through.
There is even a multiplayer mode that allows players to create a squad from either the standard soldiers or the aliens encountered throughout the game. Each unit or customisation of gear is worth a total amount of points that allows games to limit how powerful squads can be by setting a total point limit for what units can be brought into the game. This mode is just standard 1 v 1 versus, allowing for players to set turn time limits and select from a few maps, however it works well and is just another awesome feature built on top of what is already a brilliant game.
So in conclusion to this rather lengthy review, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a very challenging but enjoyable experience. There are plenty of aliens to kill, new technology to discover, skills to unlock for your soldiers in battle and items to create. The graphics, audio and controls aren’t revolutionary, but they serve their purpose well enough. The randomised events, varying map layouts and advanced options allow for multiple play throughs to still be enjoyable (I can safely say this over 33 hours in). Even the multiplayer, which is normally an afterthought for a game that has as much content packed into a single player as this does, is designed well and for a game that is over a year old at the time of writing this review, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. XCOM: Enemy Unknown comes strongly recommended to anyone who enjoys a good strategy game.
Note: Featured image was taken from google images.