Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Pick up your Plasma Rifle and get ready to defend Earth and her most precious assets in this incredibly engrossing strategy revival.
- Worth The Time?Yes, XCOM keeps you entertained constantly, making every second feel worth it.
- Things LovedEngrossing strategy, fantastic level design and enemy placement, simple yet deep mechanics, easy to use interface, always something to do, flexible missions, a lot of elements to manage and control, easy to get into, hard to master, fantastic art direction and stylization, lengthy campaign, makes you think further than your current mission.
- Things HatedRecycled levels, odd difficulty spikes, limited multiplayer, sometimes a bit unforgiving on a large scale.
- RecommendationXCOM; Enemy Unknown is a fantastic revival of a beloved series, and an even better way for younger gamers to get in touch with the world of XCOM. It will keep you entertained for hours on end, with a constant supply of different things to do and fantastic pacing. XCOM really makes you feel as though you've spent your money wisely, especially so if you've been itching for a challenging strategy title.
- Name: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
- Genre: Strategy
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: Online
- Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
- Developer: Firaxis Games
- Publisher: 2K Games
- Price: R399.95 (PC), R599.95 (Xbox 360 and PS3)
- Reviewed On: PC
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game that has been somewhat overshadowed by an FPS with the same name, which is odd considering this game is out and that “other” XCOM is sitting somewhere in limbo, curled up in a fetal position and hoping that it finally gets a spot on a shelf somewhere. No such worries exist for this XCOM though, as this extremely addictive strategy game is ready and waiting for you to dive in. Combining fantastic level design with some superb pacing and objective focus, XCOM really does make you feel like a Commander in charge of the defense of Earth. You’ll become attached to your squad, grieve when they die, marvel as you expand your base operations and cringe at costly decisions. XCOM does everything it sets out to do brilliantly, and deserves every bit of your attention.
Picture this; you’re walking along the street, not a care in the world, carrying on with your daily routine and then boom! Aliens finally make their presence known to humans in the most hostile way possible, invading various nations at once and shooting before asking questions. XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn’t feature much of a backstory, but if you’ve watched any alien invasion film you’ll know exactly what’s at stake here. Extraterrestrial creatures are invading your home, and it’s up to you and the XCOM team to stop them. As soon as the aliens invade, you’re thrust into the shoes of an unnamed Commander in charge of defending Earth and her most precious assets: human lives. The XCOM Imitative has chosen you to command a squad of expertly trained soldiers in the field of battle, as they encounter all sort of weird and terrifying beings from other planets.
So if you’re thinking this all sounds rather cliché, you’d be right. XCOM rarely tries to engross you in an entertaining narrative, but it never really seemed to be an issue. The solid voice acting and somewhat believable characters mange to keep you from writing the story off completely, but just don’t come expecting anything rather innovative or unique. It’s a classic invasion story that rarely changes any formulas, but once you sample the great mechanics at work it won’t really matter. The only real letdown is the really lackluster conclusion to the entire story, which doesn’t do a good job of making all your former “dire” efforts seem that important.
However it’s XCOM’s mechanics and design that make it a standout title. Controlling a squad of up to six members, your small skirmishes unfold in turn-based action, allowing you to change between teammates, execute movement and fire at enemies. Each squad member only has two moves per turn, with some actions end turns immediately, so careful planning is often required. Think of it as a game of chess really, with staying one step ahead of your enemies being a crucial part of victory. As you rack up kills with individual squad mates, you’ll unlock various different abilities to upgrade them with, shuffling them into familiar roles such as support, medic, sniper and more. Knowing the distinct differences between these classes and exploiting their unique abilities on the battlefield will prevent you from seeing “KIA” at the end of each mission, which is a rather important when you realize just how crucial it is to keep your squad members alive.
Unlike other strategy titles where you willingly send legions of troops to an untimely death, XCOM ensures that you care for each of your squad members equally. Keeping your troops alive helps you progress through the game, and you’ll find yourself rather stuck if you find your entire squad killed in the space of one mission. Getting kills with squad members allows you to promote them to higher ranks, unlocking unique abilities and skills that will give you the edge in the battlefield. Skills such as having two chances to fire per turn, or an ability that flushes enemies out of cover can be priceless in certain situations, and picking these skills is just as crucial as keeping your troops alive. You’ll find yourself cringing at the death of a squad member, making you analyze exactly what went wrong and how you could have prevented it. You’ll find yourself forcing your squad to retreat when some of your highest ranked soldiers are in danger of dying, and even then injured squad members take time to heal and return to the battlefield. It’s an excellently implemented system that really does make you feel in command of precious human lives rather than digital sprites that are willing to get blown away in a heartbeat.
XCOM is all about utilizing what you have at the right time. Squad members that have been in the line of duty for a while will soon obtain a host of different skills and passives. Using them a key points in missions can often change the outcome of an encounter entirely, but it’s sometimes your actions off the battlefield that have a greater impact. When you’re not strategically gunning down aliens you’ll be managing an expanding XCOM base, which actually feels like a whole other part of the game. Instead of being filler while you globe trot and kill aliens, managing your base of operations is sometimes even more crucial than combat itself. Here you can start research that will analyze enemy specimens, unlock new weapons for manufacture and study various ways that can make your fighter jets more potent against enemy UFO’s. Engineering allows you to build a lot of the items you have researched, but all of this consumes resources, money and most importantly, time. Everything is time based in XCOM, whether it is your new research into plasma weapons of the simple excavation and building of a new power supply. Commissioning these upgrades at the right time is crucial, and you’ll find yourself hard pressed later in the game if you’ve slacked on some research projects or decided to focus on the wrong ones. Fast Forwarding time might get things done faster, but that feeling of having an alien encounter a day before your new weapons are ready is sometimes heart-breaking.
This mechanic further grounds the game in realism and makes it more challenging, but it’s sometimes a bit too unforgiving. Unless you make a few saves that you can go back to if things go south, you might find yourself having to restart you campaign because you simply cannot progress with the choices you’ve made. It’s as simple as not having powerful enough weapons for a mission. This in turn leads to your entire squad being wiped out, meaning you now have a squad of soldiers with no additional skills. How on earth are you supposed to progress further? The game allows you to and you probably could manage some desperate comeback, but this is not always the case. It is because of this, and because of some extremely odd difficulty spikes, that XCOM is sometimes a bit unfair. One mission you could wipeout a massive force of aliens without even getting one squad member injured, and the next you’re three men down within your first three moves. The spikes are jarring but far and few between, so taking care in each and every mission is an advised strategy, especially if you’re playing on “Ironman” mode, which allows only one save at a time.
Thankfully XCOM’s extremely well thought out interface helps you play each encounter with ease. The user-interface is sleek and easy to use, letting you know exactly which squad member you are using and what abilities they currently have. It effectively keeps track of cooldowns and available weapons while not becoming an intruding bar on the screen. You are also able to quickly check what passives your squad members currently have, with a short description reminding you exactly what each does. When it comes to combat, the interface also easily communicates the information you’ll need to know. Stats such as damage, poison, buffs and more are visually represented simply and effectively, so you always know when a soldier is in trouble or in a good spot to do some damage. Most of the time you can even play XCOM without having to use your mouse to end turns of shift between squad members. A well thought out keyboard design lets you move quickly through the field, and swap between soldiers and targets quickly and easily. The interface is incredibly well designed on PC, with the transition onto a gamepad for console play being an easy task.
XCOM also delivers on the visual front, with the stylized art-style suiting the game perfectly. Instead of going the realistic direction, XCOM paints Earth with an extremely colorful pallet, making your soldiers and their weapons stand out. Although the art for the environments is sometimes lackluster, character models and weapons always look superb, especially when you obtain ones that don’t shoot regular bullets, Seeing green streaks of goo from a plasma rifle fly across a battlefield is stunning and pleasant, although XCOM is not without a few graphical hiccups. On rare occasions textures would frequently pop in and out during cutscenes, and it’s not rare for some objects to clip into others when changing the view on the battlefield. These oddity’s are rare, and hardly affect the gameplay, but it’s still noticeable enough to annoy you. Sound design is also expertly done, with all the weapons and gadgets sounding like they’ve been ripped straight out of your favourite Sci-Fi film. Voice acting for the most part is solid, although this isn’t particularly hard when there is so little dialogue that requires emotional engagement on the actor’s part.
XCOM also features a rather bare-bones multiplayer component that pits you against another player in a straight out deathmatch. Players are able to choose from humans or aliens, so if you’ve ever wanted to know what controlling a Sectoid feels like, this is the perfect way to do it. The multiplayer serves as a small distraction from the single-player and will probably be fun for a few rounds with a friend, but without any persistent leveling system or additional game modes you’ll soon find yourself playing multiplayer less and less. It’s a great feeling to defeat an opponent that isn’t controlled by he AI for once, especially with the balanced mechanics, just don’t expect it to keep you coming back in the months to follow.
But that’s perfectly fine when you have a single-player component that is so technically proficient. Sure the story might not be the best around, but when you have a lengthy campaign with mechanics that constantly challenge and engage you, you have a game that is sure to keep you entertained throughout your stay. The main campaign could take you anywhere between 15-30 hours, depending on how fast you choose to progress and upgrade your troops, and you’ll find yourself slowing down sometimes just so that you can carry on playing. XCOM: Enemy Unknown deserves your attention. It’s a fantastic revival for fans that have been waiting for something like this to happen, but it’s expertly designed interface and tutorial allow anyone to jump in and enjoy it. Even if you’re not the most strategic gamer out there, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game you need to play.