Review by Edalborez

"A streamlined strategic delight for patient players"

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an updated re-imagining of a strategy game from 1994 known as X-COM: UFO Defense or UFO: Enemy Unknown, depending on where you live. Like its 8 year predecessor, XCOM: EU entrusts the player with defending the Earth from an alien invasion. Interestingly, this is performed on two different but intertwined levels; the player commands squads of foot soldiers in turn-based combat and, between missions, manages activities like research and development on a larger global scale.

Story: A hammy excuse of a plot, but doesn't detract from the experience.

XCOM: EU's strength is not in its storytelling. The basic premise is laid out right from the beginning: there are aliens on Earth and they're not interested in peace. The XCOM project, a secret multi-national extraterrestrial defense force, is mobilized in response to this threat. As the nameless, voiceless, faceless "Commander", you are the head of resources and operations for all activities. Along the way, the story briefly explores the moral implications of XCOM's desperation as they reverse-engineering alien technology to dramatically advance their own. Three NPCs, a control room operator, an engineer, and a scientist, provide most of the exposition between and during milestone objectives. Aside from those individuals, enemies and player-affiliated soldiers are more or less generic.

Gameplay: Brilliantly nerve-wracking decisions will haunt the player at every turn.

As previously said, XCOM: EU has two different but related levels of gameplay: turn-based squad combat, and base management. Neither of these seem overly tacked on to the other; combat yields alien artifacts and resources which can be used for research, research yields better technology, better tech leads to increased combat efficiency, and the cycle repeats.

The "Macro" Level: Base management
Management of research, manufacturing, and anti-air defense is done quickly and efficiently through a streamlined to-the-point interface. However, resources are not the only consideration here; almost everything takes several days to build or research. Time won't pass until the player allows it to, but there's no guarantee that your projects will complete before the next mission. This adds an extra layer of thought to the decision-making process, forcing the player to balance short and long term benefits.

The XCOM project is funded by the Council, who are in turn represented by 16 countries across the globe that can provide resources to your cause at the end of each month. No country has absolute faith in the project and various countries will request your assistance as the aliens attack. Success will offer rewards such as extra funds, scientists, engineers, or soldiers, as well as decreasing a country's overall level of panic. Ignoring or failing a request for help increases panic. Additionally, some countries will request for aid simultaneously, forcing you to choose who to help and who to ignore. Countries that reach a high enough level of panic will withdraw from the project, taking their potential support with them. This serves as the player's main losing condition: if 8 of the 16 countries withdraw, the game ends in failure.

The "Micro" Level: Squad missions
Missions are conducted with a 4-man squad, which can be upgraded to a maximum of 6. Operational goals range from defending a civilian populace to raiding UFOs. The player can issue commands to their soldiers in any order desired, the most basic of which are movement, shooting, or providing covering fire for other squadmates. After all player units have been moved, the aliens take their turn and the process repeats until the mission is won or lost.

There are no complex damage formulas to be found here: most weapons do as much damage as advertised, and accuracy is a simple matter of Aim subtracted by Defense (in other words, accuracy minus evasion). Placing troops in cover affords them extra defense, and every chance to dodge a shot is very welcome when one or two shots is enough to kill a soldier.

Each soldier starts as a rookie who can barely hit the broad side of a barn, much less a hostile alien. Scoring kills will eventually lead to promotions, XCOM's way of saying "levels". Each soldier has a hidden affinity towards one of four character classes: the run-and-gunning Assault, the rocket-toting Heavy, the eagle-eyed Sniper, and the self-explanatory Support. Promoting soldiers gives them increased health, aim, willpower, and special abilities unique to their class. Independently of these, a soldier can also develop psychic powers for an extra edge against alien threats. The team can also be outfitted with improved weapons, armor, accessories, and can even be supported by mobile mini-tanks.

Soldiers that lose health in combat will need to spend time recovering from their wounds after the mission, and those that fall to 0 HP run the risk of dying on the spot. Death is permanent; careful planning and rotating soldiers into your active squad is encouraged so as to avoid starting over with fresh soldiers. However, failing a mission does not incur an immediate game over. Players may lose a battle, but the war isn't over until you lose Council support.

Presentation: Atmospheric audio and aesthetics are adequate.

The game's graphical aesthetics fall somewhere between modern-day military and believably campy. Soldiers have an exaggerated buff build like football players, and alien designs range from the stereotypical little gray men to hulking mechanical monstrosities. It's not the most realistically gritty setting out there, but it's constructed well enough to treat the alien invasion as a legitimate threat.

Graphically, XCOM:EU is neither pushing great technical boundaries nor antagonizing us with horrendous quality. In a word: acceptable. What gives Enemy Unknown its edge in this area is the little attention to detail in animations and general presentation. The base has an aesthetically pleasing "ant farm" layout, adding a visceral sense of progression when you add that lovely new satellite facility or power generator. In battle, discovering a group of enemies plays a short three-second "reaction shot", which adds to the charm and characterization of enemies. Little gray Sectoids blink their eyes sideways and scurry for cover, the thin "men in black" slither about cautiously, and beefy Berserkers howl in rage. Moving around the battlefield can also be done in a variety of different ways, each with their own little touches. Shimmy up a pipe to climb to a roof top, let your grappling hook fly to reach a faraway destination, or just kick doors open and storm rooms SWAT-style. Player and enemy attacks are also, optionally, shown in an over-the-shoulder perspective, adding just a little extra satisfaction to a mission-critical shot.

In the audio department, "acceptable" is also the word of choice. Voices aren't particularly grating or endearing, with sound effects following suit. The soundtrack, composed by Michael McCann and Roland Rizzo, inspires an always-thoughtful mindset whether the situation is calm at the base or tense in the battlefield; McCann's previous experience on the Deus Ex: Human Revolution soundtrack likely lends itself to the fitting nature of XCOM:EU's "futuristic ambiance".

Turn-offs: Brutal difficulty can be uninviting.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is hard, and that's a hell of an understatement. The first few months of gameplay, struggling for control with limited resources and weak soldiers, are the most difficult and stressful by far. The game doesn't end if you lose a squad of decorated veterans, but that doesn't make the loss any less painful. Additionally, enemies won't scale back down later just because you're stuck with a fresh team of rookies. Countries will panic left and right and players will often find themselves in dire straits with no way to save themselves aside from starting over. It can be extremely disheartening to face rapid losses due to inexperience or circumstances beyond your control.

Even with careful planning, the random number generator can also be a harsh mistress. While you can save at virtually any time, the game's chosen random number values don't change mid-mission. Reloading 100 times on a 50% chance to hit will trigger the same outcome every time. Completely different moves need to be made to change results. Additionally, attack accuracy is never guaranteed. Ideal chances to hit will rarely exceed 75% and are often much lower for enemies in cover. You can expect to miss high-accuracy shots and hit low-accuracy shots with all outcomes in between.

This game requires patience, a willingness to adapt, and the ability to accept losses as a learning experience. If you find yourself getting easily frustrated when plans don't go your way, this may not be the game for you. Losing, small or big, is not a matter of "if", but "when".

Replay Value: Different choices, similar content

Replay value is primarily dependent on how much you enjoy the core gameplay. The main objectives and developmental options don't change from one playthrough to the next, so you're essentially playing the same series of events over and over.

However, the randomly generated nature of the gameplay can lend itself well to replays. You won't likely play on the same maps in the same order, or even at all. Your roster of soldiers may end up with different classes. Your panic levels will vary from game to game. Seeing what the random number generator decides to throw at you is the primary attraction here. If that's not interesting to you, then you'll likely consider replayability a low point.

The game offers 4 difficulty levels: Easy, Normal, Classic, and Impossible. An "Ironman" mode can also be turned on, limiting the player to one autosave throughout an entire playthrough. There are plenty of ways to challenge yourself with just these options alone; besting an Impossible Ironman playthrough was once touted by the developers as only possible in theory.

The Bottom Line

I strongly recommend renting this game before you buy, or trying the demo for a taste. This isn't a slight against the game's quality, far from it, but it's not for everyone. It requires a great deal more patience than most games and rarely pulls its punches. But if you can overcome adversity, you'll find a wondrously fresh, brain-teasing milestone in strategic gaming.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 11/05/12

Game Release: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (US, 10/09/12)


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