Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Low on cash, low on resources and the whole world’s gone to hell. An errant plasma shot leaves you without your best sniper and your squad panics without their leader. In-fighting occurs just before a new contingent of enemy commandos makes their presence known. Unable to interrupt the action, you can only watch as your soldiers are pecked at from a distance by an alien race with far more superior firepower. Then comes the realization that you still have to capture one of them alive.
This is XCOM: Enemy Unknown and this is the controlled chaos within every single encounter. XCOM has a lofty pedigree behind it. For many strategy game enthusiasts, the game is a hallmark. For the rest of us, it’s a new challenge that’s had a very positive buzz leading up to its release.
XCOM begins with your initiation. The introductory level hits home with the fact that you are not alone and you are severely underpowered. The aliens come to herald your doom with both superior weaponry and a dominating air of mystery.
You will have to continually replace your squad, a fact that becomes known immediately.
In XCOM, you are referred to as Commander, the first and last line of defense against the aliens that have made Earth their stomping grounds. The XCOM project is backed by several nations who share an interest in protecting themselves from the threat. You’ll have to split your resources between all the countries, keeping in mind that your elite squad can’t be everywhere at once. All of this happens as an invisible ticking clock counts every day before all XCOM-supported regions degenerate into panic and pull out from the project. As that happens (and it will happen), your chances of success dwindle.
XCOM’s graphics leave a good amount to be desired. Animations are a little stiff, but that’s to be expected from a turn-based square grid game. In my preview before, I mentioned that the human characters you encounter look like they came from The Sims. That’s not something flattering.
The game does provide some enjoyable effects by allowing destructible environments to change the layout of the map. Blow away cover with a grenade and your team will have an easier time connecting with their weapons. Once you’ve upgraded to laser weaponry, you’ll also notice that missed shots have a tendency to burn walls and start fires.
Combat units have two actions they can take each turn. The first is usually movement, which is important when considering strategic positioning and combat effectiveness. The second is usually an attack command or even a second movement command. Using items and special abilities counts as an action that ends the unit’s turn immediately. This system is flexible enough to allow strategic comebacks for either side of the fight. What this means is that it’s not an easy decision to move one way over another. It’s hard to shake the nagging feeling that your turn wasn’t as planned out as it could have been. That all comes to a head when you get flanked because of carelessness.
XCOM is a game for both strategists and daredevils. That’s because each encounter is decided through percentages.
A programmatic dice roll is all that stands between a dead alien and a live one, a dead soldier and a live one. Almost every attack will have a chance to miss. A lot of the times, you’ll find yourself missing much more often than you like. After learning that point, I found myself working to circumvent failure more than working to secure victory.
Soldiers who survive encounters and gain ranks of veterancy are a precious tool. They don’t eliminate risk as you’d wish but they do reduce it. Coupled with some great armor and weaponry, a high-ranking soldier is very effective in the field. At the same time, the soldier is also just as fleshy and laser-permeable as the next guy.
In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, cover is a necessity but it is not going to save you. It’s a scary thought when that’s all you have between you and two Floaters who end up flying high above it anyway. It’s a neat translation of a mechanic that’s usually relegated to real-time action games. Turn-based cover modernizes XCOM and makes it palatable to those of us who find it natural to hide behind waist-high walls while anticipating alien aggression.
The game attempts to hammer you with the importance of preparation. In order to keep up with your enemies, you’ll have to research and engineer upgrades and new forms of attack. I’m of firm belief that XCOM is most fun your first go around. The sense of discovery diminishes when you already know how some upgrades pan out.
No matter how much you research, it seems like you are always at the wrong end of a pointy stick. If your enemies can’t overwhelm you with firepower, they will do so with numbers.
The Chrysalids are especially hard to get rid off. If you don’t quickly cut through their armor, you’ll have to contend with a beast that can one-shot you in the early levels as well as close the gap rather quickly to do so. Not only that, every kill that the Chrysalid scores will spawn a zombie that, if left alone, will fully gestate into another Chrysalid. Most horrifyingly, Chrysalids are most populous during civilian rescue missions. That means that every civilian target is a possible enemy once the Chrysalid grabs a hold of them.
Aliens are resilient in more ways than one. You’ll have to contend with them in the air almost as much as you do on the Earth’s surface. UFOs will flutter around the world, avoiding your satellites and sometimes targeting them outright.
In order to combat these, you’ll have to work in new interceptor purchases and upgrades into your research and financial budget. Sometimes it’s worth holding off on a new armor upgrade so that you can maintain air superiority. Besides, you can’t exactly fight aliens on the ground until you’ve shot the UFOs down to put them there.
XCOM succeeds in weaving a captivating tale of Earth’s struggles in an impersonal way. The game’s turn-based nature makes every decision tense. Though time is still for as long as you like, your decisions will rush forward to haunt you once you open the gates. I found myself mashing what would be the pause button whenever my squad would lose another member.
I can’t know for certain if this is the same game that graced series fans years ago. It’s another age now with a lot of people fresh to the XCOM party.
I can tell you however that this game is not one to pass up if you have ever felt the need to save the world. XCOM: Enemy Unknown will give you that chance. It will also make it a hard-fought challenge. Don’t forget to rename your squad after your friends and relatives. It adds a tinge of emotion to every turn.