While many modern video games have created lovable aliens to help us save the galaxy, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a throwback to the days when everybody thought all aliens would want to do is wipe out the human race. And it’s a blast.
You play the XCOM commander, in charge of a global organization of researchers and soldiers who aim to keep the world safe from the invading aliens. So just how much of a challenge does saving the planet pose?
I played the first XCOM game, XCOM: UFO Defense, released in 1994. It’s a classic among turn-based strategy adventures, but like many of the old TBS games, it’s really hard. And by that I mean it’s incredibly difficult to catch on to it; there’s no hand-holding. My first several hours playing UFO Defense consisted of me allocating funds to projects on a whim and maneuvering soldiers to their deaths.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is not like this. In fact, it’s refreshingly intuitive to play. Much of this comes down to the tutorials, which are worked pretty seamlessly into the game so you learn as you go and stay in the action. Central Officer Bradford walks you through your first field mission from or mission control and gives you all the info on navigating around the XCOM base, promoting your soldiers, building facilities, and more.
At the XCOM base, which you can set up on any continent, your time is spent choosing new research goals, building facilities, customizing and promoting soldiers, and basically making sure the major countries in the world are on board with what you’re doing. Occasionally, you’ll send out an interceptor to take down an extraterrestrial ship, too; succeeding earns lots of applause among the hard-working folks in the mission control center.
One of the first big decisions in the game is choosing to help just one of two countries experiencing alien abductions; there’s not enough resources to help both. The country you ignore starts to panic unless you help them soon after, perhaps by launching satellites to monitor their airspace. This serves as a great introductory example of the kind of management decisions and sacrifices you’ll have to make throughout the game.
What happens at base is key to success in the game. Ignore a country and it goes into panic mode; lose that country’s funding, and you’re on the track towards doom. If eight countries withdraw from supporting you, you lose the game. Tactical strategy games can be brutally realistic in this respect, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown is no exception.
Scanning the globe dishes up opportunities to investigate alien abduction sites and more. Sometimes you’ll be tasked with saving someone or planting a bomb, too. Tackling these field missions helps you gather resources — including live aliens — for research, which in turn makes it possible to build stronger weapons, armor, and more.
The gameplay on the ground is simple at first glance, and the first few missions are a breeze. You merely click a member of your squad to the new location you want her to be at, with up to two moves possible per turn for that character. You can make her dash a long distance in a single move or move her to nearby cover and fire at an alien in the same move. Each soldier has the basic attacks, like Fire and Frag Grenade, but as they’re promoted for outstanding work in the field, they gain access to new, unique attacks or powers. One soldier may become a sniper, while another can become a medic-type support character when equipped with a Medkit.
Besides the clear instructions and easily navigable interface, another modern improvement over UFO Defense is the cover indicator. Full blue means you’ll have full cover, while half blue means you’ll have partial cover.
One thing I personally loved about this game was the ability to customize the soldiers. It added to the immersion, as I changed each character’s look — and sometimes even his name — to feel more connected to him. When I lost my first soldier during my fourth field mission, I was genuinely disappointed, because he was more than a random, lookalike avatar; he was someone I had gotten to know through customization. And as these soldiers are promoted, losing them becomes even more heartbreaking as their hard-earned skills go with them.
I quickly got used to the fact that I would lose soldiers — lots of them. The missions in this game become increasingly challenging. If a squad member is killed in action, you’ve got to improvise with who you have left, which is tricky if your fallen comrade was the only one who could use a close-range shotgun or the Medkit-carrier.
I loved the AI intelligence among my own squad members. In an early mission, when one of my soldiers died, a new soldier in the field panicked and started firing out of turn. Clearly he wasn’t used to this kind of thing. But in another mission, when my beloved medic died, the other soldiers on the mission were totally cool throughout — because all of them had been on several field missions and had been promoted several times.
Another feature that helps with immersion is the brief cinematic sequence. Every once in a while, when you maneuver a soldier to a new tile, the camera gets down to his level and follows him as he busts down a door or runs for cover, before quickly returning to the aerial view. Also, in the XCOM base you speak with other characters from a first-person perspective, even though you never have control over the movement of your character or speak yourself. I appreciate these features because they make me feel more connected to the game, yet they mercifully never tread on FPS territory.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a nail-biter of a game. I was on the edge of my seat much of the time, second-guessing my plans of attack and viewing the field from a new angle to keep my unit alive. More than once, I had to abort a mission that was going to hell, sometimes forced to leave a squad member behind. And as I progressed in the game, I realized just how critical my early decisions had been; every move carries weight.
The missions are also randomized in a way that makes each playthrough fresh, so I can’t wait to start a second round. Overall, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of my top five best game purchases of the year, and I consider it a personal favorite.
Whether you dug the other XCOM games or not, this is a smart, suspenseful game that’s a must-play for tactical TBS fans, sci-fi alien invasion geeks (like me), or anyone wanting to try a strategy game.
GO Rating: 4/5
[All photos via XCOM]