XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

out of 5

We knew it would happen eventually. Not only did we find out that we are not alone in this galaxy, but our neighbors are, in fact, hostile towards us. As the night sky erupts with the opening salvos of intergalactic war, the leaders of earth approve the XCOM project, a military and research division created specifically for any eventual alien invasion. Each of the sixteen member nations devote people and resources to the cause of planetary defense. And then they put YOU in charge of it all.

So begins XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a remake of sorts to a beloved PC classic from 1994. Developer Firaxis and publisher 2K Games have resurrected the old franchise, dusted it off, added new features, and unleashed it on the world much like the invading aliens of the games’ plot. But taking an 18-year old property and revitalizing it doesn’t always work, especially in the video game world. Luckily, I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case here. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an incredible game.

XCOM is, when stripped of its luster, a turn-based strategy game. While that premise is simple, Firaxis adds layers upon layers of content to accentuate the playing experience. Borrowing from other games of the genre, the player, as the “Commander” of the XCOM forces, has to hire and maintain the front line troops, gather engineers and scientists to research new weapons and armor, and build up the XCOM project from on-paper hypothetical to real world defense force. And it must be done on a strict budget.

Each of the 16 member nations contributes resources, whether in the form of troops, scientists, or even just money. In so doing, the Commander must make sure that each member nation is safe at all times from the invading force, or that nation may pull out, taking the aforementioned troops, scientists and/or money. This leads to careful juggling as the game progresses.

And Firaxis doesn’t make it easy. There are simultaneous events that force the Commander to choose which nation to come to aid to, leaving the other(s) undefended. If there is an alien abduction in Russia and Mexico at the same time, I can only help one, in this case Russia, as they contribute much needed money, while Mexico only offers troops. Mexico is mad, sure, but saving Russia was more important to the war effort at the time. Mexico’s fear number rises with the abduction.

Luckily, I have a “six strike” cushion, as a member nation won’t leave until their fear level reaches six. This gives me more time, in theory, to calm their fears and appease them. It is the broad based juggling act that adds a layer of complication to XCOM.

As with most RTS games, there are avenues of personal customization to suit each gamer differently. Your research and development tree will be drastically different than mine, as my priorities may be different than yours. The R&D tree can be executed in any combination of ways. I believe in good defense, so I always research armor and early warning satellites, while others may put those same resources to work on better weapons and offensive upgrades. The player is free to play his or her way.

Another level of customization comes with the actual troops. With each successful mission, the troopers gain XP and rank, which further unlocks better armor and weapons. You can also rename them, decide of how they look and sound, and customize their load outs. This is both good and bad, as if you name all of your troops using friends names, it does make you sad when one falls in battle, because in XCOM, dead is dead. If you lose a trooper, he or she is gone forever. Along with their rank, all of their XP, and every recorded kill and mission number. The fallen trooper’s name is then relegated to the Memorial Room where somber bagpipe music reminds you that they died under your watch.

Death is a brutal shadow that hangs over each mission, and I admit, there have been times when it has affected my judgment. In one mission, my longtime buddy Steve Shackelford was hit hard and was one shot away from death. Because of this, I neglected the mission’s objective of escorting a diplomat out of an alien infested zone just so I could protect Steve. I would not have done this has this character been named Carl McDonald. Luckily, I was able to save both Steve (who spent 13 days in the infirmary back at base) and the diplomat, but it was an unnecessary distraction during a heated war. Consider yourselves warned.

The player can also dictate how the base of operations expands, as certain bonuses are earned in where certain divisions are placed. Building the foundry close to the engineering bay gives a bonus to weapons builds. Again, XCOM allows for an insane amount of customization.

The actual gameplay is very simple and easy to pick up. In fact, most players will be ready to skip the tutorial altogether after two minutes into the first tutorial mission. This is a actually a good thing, as it allows gamers that aren’t accustomed to RTS games to jump in and command forces just as well as seasoned veterans.

Most early missions take anywhere from 10-20 minutes to complete, and as the game goes on, those mission times can be extended as strategy begins to play a bigger role. There are certain missions that occur to move the story along, and there are other, randomly generated missions that pop up, usually abduction missions early on, and then later the missions get more complicated, but there is always something to do.

Each month (in game time), the council, lead by a shadowy man with an obscured face that closely resembles Agent 47 from the Hitman game series, rates your progress and awards you money based on that progress. That monthly review is paramount because war isn’t cheap, and intergalactic war is even costlier.

The graphics in XCOM aren’t the best. Or most realistic. Some of the creature models are okay, but the humans are generic and there is zero texturing. But really, who plays an RTS for the graphics.

The sound, music and voice acting are all well done. The music is ’80s-like synth-heavy, and the laser beams and machine gun fire all seem to be amped up for effect. The voice acting is plentiful and is serviceable.

There are varying difficulty levels, including higher end difficulties that prevent the player from going back and loading previously saved games. XCOM is a rather difficult game, even on the normal difficulty, and death and destruction will be visited upon you. Much like a game of Civilization that can go bad, the aliens can wipe the earth with you, and the member nations will all pull out of the XCOM project and there will be a true game over. In fact, there is a Doomsday meter that if it hits eight, the game will end. The doomsday meter can be filled by defecting nations or loss of certain types of support. Either way, after eight marks, it is doomsday for you, and for Earth. At that point, the player is forced to restart at the very beginning. It’s brutal, yes, but it makes the game feel more consequence driven, and that is fine by me.

Firaxis has included an online multiplayer option in XCOM, but it only concerns battles and not the greater war. Players can choose their squads from all troop classes, including the aliens, and play in ranked matches, quick (random) matches, and customized matches. It’s a nice addition, but with the fate of the world in the balance, why would anyone waste time playing turn based battles with friends around the world? It’s a war out there, son. Pick up your weapon and fight!

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an excellent reimagining of Microprose’s 1994 classic. It is updated, with slight nods to the original game for long-time fans. While on the surface, it looks and feels like a simple RTS war simulation, the deep levels of customization allow the player to make each XCOM experience their own. With both random battles and story-driven missions there is a ton of content, and later levels and missions bring about a class of alien that will tax even the greatest military and scientific minds as together the battle for earth will be fought in every country, in every city until the alien threat is over. This is XCOM. This is war.

Shop for XCOM: Enemy Unknown on Xbox 360, PS3 or PC for a discounted price at Amazon.com (October 9, 2012 release date)

TheHDRoom may be paid a small commission for any services or products ordered through select links on this page.