XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review
Stand up straight with both arms at your side, hands pointed to the ground and your fingers together. Then raise your right hand, keeping hand straight and fingers together, until the tip of your forefinger touches the outside edge of your right eyebrow. Next tilt the palm of your hand down so that it faces inwards to your face. Hold this position for 15 seconds, then disengage the motion.
This is how you perform a salute, a necessary piece of knowledge for anyone who’s thinking of playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC/PS3/X360). It’s a personal game and an experience that will be different for everyone who plays it with levels of emotion that may rival those childhood memories of tears at the Lion King in theaters. But before we get too emotional, let’s pop some facts.
Being the sort of but sort of not remake of a 1994 PC classic, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game by Firaxis Games. Also known as the people behind the game that proved that videogame addiction was not a myth, Civilization V. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (XCOM from now on) is about a stereotypical alien invasion on earth. They attack at random abducting people left and right. People are screaming through the streets and cowering behind burning cars for protection just before being abducted and experimented on. For them it’s the day their their lives stood still, but for you, simply referred to as ‘The Commander’, it is the day you’ve been waiting for all this time. Turns out you’re the elected leader of the secret (but not too secret) XCOM project; Earth’s first and last line of defense. Because why have multiple armies stationed everywhere when you can have a team of six soldiers, a few scientists and engineers run in circles trying their best not to see the world be engulfed in flames? Apparently the people who started this XCOM Project had great childhood memories of the Power Rangers. So here you are and the time to play Zordon in your own Command Center has arrived.
You’ll have noticed that the word “childhood” has been mentioned more then it should have in what is defined as a objective review. This is because XCOM has a personal layer to its overarching gameplay. Though in a nutshell it may not sound too personal a game. You build and maintain a base where you research and build new ways to kick and dissect some alien rectum and in turn do such rectum kicking in turn based missions with a squad of soldiers of varying classes and specializations. Doesn’t sound too emotional.
But beneath all that there’s a few features that make this game one to hit home. Soldiers are you lifeblood in this game. By completing missions they’ll keep the funding countries of the XCOM project happy and prevent that game over screen; but at the same time they are surprisingly mortal. A few shots will kill even the highest level of soldier and dead is dead. You can lose that one unit you spent over 20 missions training and growing attached to by one or a few bad calls in the field. And with a little bit of extra bad luck you can lose your entire team. Sounds sort of emotional.
But the real kicker is that you can customize your soldiers. You can give them names, looks, callsigns and of course gear. Naming and customizing a soldier after a friend, loved one or something fictional guarantees a emotional bond between you and the soldier and it’s where this game get’s it’s personality. Sending your band of brothers you spent so many missions with into a warzone without knowing if they may ever return it’s a feeling few games can match. You will salute them before they step into the ship towards their next mission and you will feel heartbroken when not all make it back home. This is war. And soldiers aren’t expendable.
This is reflected in the game’s difficulty. The are the standard Easy, Normal, Hard, Impossible settings; albeit with Hard actually being called Classic as it’s supposed to represent the difficulty from the original. Though it would have been smart to add another difficulty level to the mix, as the jump from Normal to Classic as of now is too big. Players who were able to beat the game on Normal will barely be able to make it through the first few missions without heavy casualties on Classic.
Besides these difficulty settings there’s one neat little addition that forces you to become even more personal. Because the aforementioned attachment to your soldiers means little if you can just load your game every time you make a mistake, Xcom features an “Ironman” game mode that can be enabled with any difficulty level. Doing this will remove the save-function in favor of a constantly active autosave. While a bit too much for the average gamer this is how the game should be experienced as it gives it this extra layer of tactics long absent in games of it’s genre and makes every decision feel like an actual decision. Even in Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series, a game of similar tactical nature, one can simply restart the map should he lose his favorite unit. With Ironman there’s no such luxury. Now everything you do and decide is permanent and you must choose wisely or suffer the consequences.
Consequences being a big word in this game. You are constantly faced with numerous choices and decisions that have to be made. Thinking ahead is required. Do you research for better armors or do you decide to go towards the laser technology to get the much needed damage upgrade for your soldiers? Do you try to keep all the countries somewhat happy with a constant risk of losing all their support, or do you keep a few countries extremely happy with a few countries outright discontinuing their support permanently without question. Or do you just ignore the country politics all together and focus on winning this war as fast as possible. There’s only so much materials and so much time to spend with them that you can’t do it all until the endgame. Especially in the first few months of ingame time does this matter the most. This gameplay mechanic forces you to think about the long road ahead and not just this one level you have to beat.
Outside managing the base there’s the combat. Combat is simple but sweet. You deploy a selection of brothers in arms to whatever location the Aliens have decided to go to next. In reality it’s simply a chess game with some added features and a nice coat of paint. Each soldier can take two actions per turn, some of which cost two actions. One can move the first action and shoot the next. Or move with both actions for that extra distance, called a ‘dash’, just reach that advantageous piece of cover.
Cover plays a big role as it’s what keeps your men alive. Instead of just blocking shots it reduces the chance of your soldiers getting hit, stressing the fact that you are never really safe. Some covers are strong and cover you fully where others only cover you partially. To improve your cover you can order your unit to ‘hunker down’ as one of his actions, doubling it’s effectiveness. Or you can place them on ‘overwatch’, which allows them to take a free pot shot at an enemy in their turn if they move; a great tactical tool to control enemies movement. Besides these standard options that are available to everyone, including the extraterrestrial threat, there’s also personal actions available per class and it’s chosen skills.
After having gotten their first kill, a rookie soldier transforms into a class. These being Assault, Heavy, Sniper and Support. Assault has the ability to still be able to attack after a ‘dash’ and can wield both shotguns and rifles. The Heavy is the explosive expert with the ability to fire rockets and suppress enemies with a barrage of bullets. The Sniper needs no explanation and the Support class can be a lot of things. Being able to pop smoke grenades with different kinds of buffs and having talents that make him a better healer then others.
With each level the character gains a few stat-ups and a choice between two talents. You can only pick one and it’s the same deal next level. It’s a poor man’s talent-tree with very few options and a lot of them being poorly balanced. More often then not it’s completely obvious which option to take as out of the two options available there’s always a clear winner on which is the superior skill. Though there are a few hard choices to make, you’ll often have the same squad except with a different name and coat of paint on their armour. The exception being the Support class, which has great talents all around and thus a big number of character builds available to him. Still, it’s a shame this wasn’t worked out more.
Speaking of coats of paint, this game has a nice one. Graphically speaking the game has a distinct style with over the top big guns and classic alien designs paired with some more unique monsters. It’s a mishmash of the old black and white alien movies, cartoons and there’s even a bit of Warhammer in there with men looking like they eat whole planets for breakfast.
The music is equally good with composer Michael McCann doing the score. Known mostly for his work on Splinter Cell: Double Agent and Deus Ex: Human Revolution his work here can be considered some of his finest. With both electric and instrumental tones he really brings this alien invasion to life and accentuates the feeling of dread present in each mission. When the drum roll starts when selecting your squad for the next mission you will feel the tension rising and be sucked into your own personal war.
Speaking of personal war, immersion is a big part of games that try to play with your emotions as XCOM does. Thusly it’s a big shame that this game is literally crawling with bugs and not the extraterrestrial kind. Enemies can sometimes suddenly spawn in your team by accident, killing your team. Models can disappear or some pieces of terrain become unselectable at times completely negating that one battle plan you once thought perfect. Even though the game is turn based, the camera is a big issue. Especially in missions with multiple elevation levels can it get stuck or make a few elevations unselectable. Strangly these camera issues are absent when playing with a controller.
Besides bugs there are a few more things to not like about XCOM: Enemy Unknown. As mentioned before the talent trees for classes are simply not up to par with other games out there and lack any sort of balance. While you can customize your soldiers, options are still to little with only a few faces and a handful of ugly colour patterns to choose from (and those colours are only available via DLC or if you pre-ordered the game). Furthermore there are no unlocks available for beating the game and thus, besides experiencing the (fairly addictive) gameplay once more on perhaps a higher difficulty setting, there’s little incentive to replay the game. Also the difficulty is a slippery slope throughout the game, starting out insanely hard and getting progressively easier by the minute.
Lastly there’s the multiplayer where two players can duke it out with a team of Aliens against each other in turn based combat. Sadly this feature is underdeveloped and barely played, as it could have been an amazing mode. But with only one playable race, low unit count and lack of options it’s a feature one will easily overlook in favor of the stellar singleplayer campaign.
And stellar is what it is. Though the last two paragraphs were the flaws, it would be unfair to judge the game solely on that. While buggy and having a few design oversights the gameplay is generally addicting and has a huge variation in said gameplay. Combat is action packed, strategic and tense whereas the base building is calm, insightful but also foreboding. And when played on Ironman mode, for that nifty autosave, one will have plenty of warstories to share with his friends later on.
This review was written in memorial of PRIEST, MJOLNIR, EXCELLA, GET HYPE, HUMAN and SHIELD. Your death at the gas station will never be forgotten.