The Original XCOM: Enemy Unknown (or UFO Defense, depending on where you bought it) was released in 1994 to no small amount of critical acclaim. The game spawned several sequels and no end of “spiritual successors” in what was, effectively, the genre it had helped to create. The turn-based strategy game put the player in charge of an elite, multinational team of operatives charged with defending the earth from an alien menace, while managing bases, researching alien tech, and recruiting and training new men.
When a new XCOM game was announced in 2010 by 2K Marin, fans of the original engrossing series were ecstatic—at least until they found out that the new game would have literally nothing in common with the originals save for the vague concept of aliens, which were no longer going to be based on the traditional “greys,” but instead would be an amorphous sentient black goop. For many fans, XCOM was dead in the water. Even if the new game was good, it wouldn’t be the XCOM they knew and loved, but rather a game in a completely different genre with a totally different story that embraced nothing of the mechanics that made the original such a grand game.
Just as hope began to fade, however, in stepped Firaxis, the renowned developers of the Civilization series, headed by Sid Meier, the very man who had founded Microprose all those years ago and made the original XCOM. Firaxis promised to offer a “re-imagination” of the original Enemy Unknown.
What we got was nothing short of a masterpiece.
Set in the year 2015, the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown places you in charge of the XCOM (Extraterrestrial Combat) project, tasked with defending the entire globe from the alien menace by using unconventional means: Capturing alien technology and specimens, researching new equipment, and engaging aliens in battle that make even our usual special forces soldiers look like rice pudding (in both a figurative and literal sense). The game features extremely robust customization options for your troops, allowing you to adjust hair, skin tone, facial features, and armor color on the fly (though armor dyes are a pre-order bonus). Then, of course, there’s equipment and abilities. As soldiers gain experience battling the aliens, they gain new abilities. Snipers can train so that it takes less time to fire a shot, allowing them to pop off shots at running foes, or assault troopers may learn how to fire their shotgun so rapidly that they can shoot several times at once to deal with tougher aliens.
As the game advances, your squad size increases from four men to six, and the missions become increasingly involved. You may be tasked with rescuing a diplomat, or protecting civilians from rampaging monsters. Meanwhile, between missions, you oversee the management of XCOM’s underground fortress. You’ll build satellites to monitor UFO activity, research new weapons like laser rifles or plasma cannons, interrogate captured aliens, and build and maintain aircraft so you can shoot down those pesky flying saucers. The barracks allows you to recruit new soldiers from around the world and outfit the ones you have.
The barracks is worth talking about specifically, because this is where the game truly shines. Though the soldiers are effectively faceless weapons platforms to get guns from point A to B, the combination of customization options and skill advancements manage to do a surprisingly good job of making you care about each of your soldiers. One of the most effective methods of tricking the player into developing “head-canon” for the squad members is the application of nicknames. When a soldier reaches a certain rank, he gets a nickname. This nickname can be changed, but the original one isn’t chosen by the player. The implication is that the other soldiers gave it. As an example, one of my soldiers was an assault trooper. Known for taking risks, assault soldiers charge into the enemy lines and blast things at close range with a shotgun. The nickname he was given was “Cash.” Immediately, without even thinking about it, I’d formed a connection with that character, and could imagine how he’d gotten the name gambling with his life on the battlefield, and having it pay off.
Then, there’s the memorial. XCOM is by no means an easy game. Since the turn based play style heavily leans on tactical thinking and planning ahead, things can go bad for your squad very, very quickly. Those soldiers who don’t come home end up in the memorial: A small table in the barracks draped with an XCOM banner. The wall above it features a small photo of each deceased, and a new empty shot glass appears for each soldier lost in battle. A list of their names, rank, missions, and kills scrolls down the screen, listing the last operation they took part in, all while mournful bagpipes and taps play in the background. It’s a small, almost entirely inconsequential addition to the game, but it serves masterfully to humanize the soldiers and add gravitas to each death, especially in iron man mode. This special option makes it so you cannot load previous saves: Once a soldier dies, they’re gone forever.
The base itself is fun to work on. Functioning a bit like an ant farm, it allows you to look in on how things are going without bogging you down with complicated building interfaces or menu juggling. Clicking the research button whisks you to the labs; engineering zips you off to the workshop. The situation room allows you have a look at the world map, to see how panicked all the nations are and to deal with requests from them. If a nation hits full panic and stays that way, they’ll abandon the project when the Council report comes in at the end of each month (taking their funding with them). If eight nations abandon the project, you lose. Plain and simple. Frankly, it’s nice to see a game that doesn’t pull any punches and is actually willing to let you fail. XCOM won’t hold your hand.
The sound design is fantastic (not surprisingly, coming from the guys who got Leonard Nimoy to narrate the Civilization games). The aliens all have their own creepy sounds that you come to recognize at a distance, and the guns pop and zap with enough audio punch to make you almost sorry for whatever is in the way of that shot. Almost.
The music is well produced, if generic. The swelling orchestral combat music could fit in any modern action game, and though it works, doesn’t stand out in any particular way. Interestingly, the more subtle, creepier music when searching for the enemy is far more effective at inspiring dread than the music that plays while fighting them.
In my opinion, the only thing missing from XCOM is a free camera. During battle, placement of soldiers is everything, and though you can rotate the camera to any one of four isometric views at any time, the rigid system isn’t particularly good at conveying spatial awareness, especially indoors. At times it could be downright broken. Trying to select a tile in a two story building for a trooper to run to is a bit like pulling teeth, at points, and there have been more than a few times that I lobbed a grenade right into a wall because I accidentally managed to click the third floor instead of the second. This can be especially frustrating in ironman mode, where saves can’t be reloaded. If a soldier runs to the wrong spot because of a camera glitch, they’re a sitting duck, and you could lose your best man to an interface flub. Controlling the location of grenades and rockets can be iffy as the camera swings about. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve blown up my share of civilians by accident.
Another issue I had was game slowdown. Not quite freezing, but definite pauses while the engine caught its breath. This was particularly noticeable when a shot missed its target and destroyed something in the surrounding environment. I suspect the game would take a moment to recalculate lines of sight and cover bonuses, given that said wall was no longer standing. The issue, is, of course, that a full two minutes would sometimes pass while the game was figuring out who could now see who.
Still, even with those problems, frustrating though they may be, XCOM: Enemy Unknown does a surprising job of living up to the expectations set by not only the original, but by the inevitably rose tinted glasses that 25 years will place on anything. Earning nearly perfect scored from big reviewers like Gamespy, Gamespot, IGN, and G4, Enemy Unknown is one of the best strategy experiences of the last decade, easily. The combat is fresh, fast paced (even despite being turn based), and relentlessly intense. The game is unforgiving and unapologetic, throwing everything its got at the player, creating a deeply satisfying and addictive game play experience. This is a perfect game for anyone who’s even kind of interested in a strategy game, and doubly so if they’re tired of games taking it easy on them. Another feather in this game’s cap is that it’s also a console release. Strategy games rarely appear on consoles, and when they do, they’re often poorly designed ports of computer games. In this case, Enemy Unknown is one of those rare games that brings a real, substantial, and most importantly GOOD strategy experience to console players’ hands.
In my opinion, this game is worth every red cent, and that’s saying a lot, because I’m rarely impressed by anything. XCOM: Enemy Unknown has not only successfully rebooted the XCOM series, but the entire turn based strategy genre.