XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review
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Are turn-based games antiquated holdovers from a time before computers? Relics of the tabletop board game era, rendered obsolete by AI that can track innumerable real-time systems?
Not if XCOM: Enemy Unknown has anything to say about it. This re-imagining of the 1994 classic UFO: Enemy Unknown is a breath of fresh air at a time when games like this are a rarity.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Released: October 9, 2012
XCOM kicks off with a chilling quote from Arthur C. Clarke:
“Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
Evidently, XCOM assumes the latter possibility. Set in modern-day Earth, the plot revolves around an invasion by mysterious and technologically superior extraterrestrials. The player assumes the role of the commander of the top secret XCOM Project, an international organization that consists of Earth’s best and brightest, and is humanity’s only hope to fight off the aliens.
As the game progresses, XCOM scientists perform autopsies and interrogations on alien specimens you bring back to base, slowly gaining an understanding of who these extraterrestrials are and what they want from us. Alien technology is reverse engineered along the way, and by the end of the story, your troops are fully outfitted in hybrid gear.
There’s an escalating sense of scale, danger, and tension, which culminates in a satisfying climax that answers the last big question. While the plot isn’t a masterpiece of storytelling, it serves as a well-executed backdrop and driving force behind the core experience.
Gameplay is broken up into two components, the first being “Geoscape,” the strategic component in which you monitor the global situation, manage personnel, respond to requests from allied nations, dispatch aircraft to intercept alien UFOs, conduct research, spend resources on upgrades, and deploy troops to hot zones.
Choices generally don’t revolve around picking one option instead of another, but rather prioritizing the options at your disposal — should you spend your resources on upgrading your soldiers, aircraft, or technology? All will eventually require upgrading, but depending on what challenge lies around the corner, some choices are suboptimal.
The tensest aspect of Geoscape is managing worldwide “panic levels.” As it is attacked by alien threats, a major nation’s panic level rises, and should it rise too high, you’re at risk of permanently losing its monthly funding of the XCOM Project. To lower a nation’s panic level, you can deploy a satellite to monitor UFO activity or successfully complete missions located in that nation, but random elements require you to carefully plan ahead and even rely on a pinch of luck in order to keep every nation onboard.
Managing Geoscape is initially exciting, as you are forced to learn, plan, and prioritize, and it’s only toward the end of the game that the choices you have to make become limited and, consequently, less interesting. You’ve researched every technology, built every type of facility, purchased the best gear for your soldiers, and are left with little else to do outside of actual combat, which is the second component of XCOM’s gameplay.
This component consists of controlling the squad of XCOM soldiers you deploy in turn-based, isometric tactical combat. An RPG element has your soldiers level up, acquire a “class,” and gain new abilities as they successfully complete missions and rack up kills. The four classes available are the Sniper, Assault, Heavy, and Support, each fulfilling a separate combat roll and possessing corresponding abilities, such as the killer Head Shot, the blitzkrieg Run & Gun, the devastating Rocket Launcher, and the defensive Smoke Grenade.