Review by rubicon14

"One of the best games ever made."

X-COM Enemy Unknown Review
One of the best games ever made.
Overall Score: 10/10 (Near-Perfect)

As the title suggests, X-COM Enemy Unknown is an amazing game that belongs on any "best games" list. It's fun, engaging, suspenseful, and makes you think and plan carefully. Unlike some TBS (turn-based strategy) games, it has a fantastic tutorial that eases you into the action, and welcomes both TBS veterans and newcomers alike. Whether you are familiar with the X-COM series, just like strategy games, or are just looking for an alternative to FPS games like Halo, X-COM Enemy Unknown is a game you should pick up, right now. This game is nearly perfect.

As an aside, in case you are not familiar with the series, X-COM games were a big hit on the PC about 10 years ago. The first X-COM game, UFO Defense, was also ported to the original Playstation. Though it was never a huge commercial success, like Final Fantasy or Halo, it is considered by many critics to be one of the best video games of all time. Enemy Unknown is a remake (or reboot) of UFO Defense. For that reason, parts of this review compare Enemy Unknown to its predecessor.

The graphics are the best I've seen in a strategy game. The graphic design aims for a more animated, living comic book feel, rather than a more realistic approach, that looks polished and keeps the game true to its roots. Animations are very smooth, and don't get in the way of the action. I encountered very few glitches, bugs, or freezing, which is a big step up from the original UFO Defense (played on the original Playstation, it had many bugs and often froze). The interface at both the global and combat levels is intuitive, attractive, and easy to use. Cimematics are short, well-animated, and help make the game and its plot come alive. I really have no criticism of Enemy Unknown's graphic design – simply put, the game looks great.

A nice upgrade from the original is the design of the various alien races. In UFO Defense, some of the races were downright terrifying (Etherials and Chrssalid for example) while others were downright silly (the Mutons, who were purple men with skin tight green suits, looked like rejected designs for comic book villians). In Enemy Unknown, there was clearly much more time put into how to make each race distinct, in both gameplay (discussed below) and design. The first time you see a new alien race, you are almost certain to exclaim “oh $#!%” out loud.

The music is pretty good, but I prefer the creepy sci-fi tracks and tones from UFO Defense, which make a couple of cameo appearances in this game. It's a small step in the wrong direction, but I often caught myself thinking how much more suspenseful combat would be if only set to the music of UFO Defense.

No spoilers here. Aliens invade Earth, the world's most powerful nations come together to form a joint strike force to fight them, and you are the commander of that force. You have to manage your limited resources and prioritize the various alien threats appropriately, and take command of soldiers in the field to defeat the aliens. It's the same general idea as the original XCOM UFO Defense, but this game, as a reboot, does include a little more plotline for why the aliens are invading, which makes for a more compelling experience at time than the original. The aliens are much more sinister this time around, which makes killing them even more enjoyable.

A nice upgrade is the addition of "characters." You are the commander of XCOM, and in the original game, that was it, but in Enemy Unknown, the lead scientist, lead engineer, and "control" (basically your second in command or chief support officer) are all individual characters with personalities and voice acting, which makes the game feel a little livelier.

There is a multiplayer mode but I am only reviewing the single player mode.

This is the heart of any strategy game, and Enemy Unknown delivers exceptionally well. The game has defined objectives, both in combat operations and the global operation, so you always know what to focus your resources on to advance the game. You have flexibility in how and when you accomplish most of those objectives, which makes for a nice mix of linear progression and freestyle gaming. The tutorial is fantastic, and makes a seamless transition into the regular game. The game is divided into two halves, which I'll call "global planning" and "turn based combat," and discuss each separately.

The global planning half of the game allows you to build up your base, your Air Force, manage your scientific and engineering resources, and monitor your success rate with the countries that fund the XCOM program. You have to address various alien threats not just to Earth, but to your individual funding nations, who will withdraw from the program and cut your funding if you don't properly manage the alien threat and the level of panic in each nation. It's easy to use, but difficult to master - the hallmark of a great strategy game. Trust me when I say that managing resources isn't as boring as it sounds - you get to pick which weapons and armor to give your troops, how to arm your Air Force, and what alien technology to research.

Global planning is fairly simple to manage on normal and easy difficulty. Careful planning can get you through the entire game without losing any funding nations. But on classic difficulty, it's very challenging (I haven't played the highest difficult setting yet, which is probably near-impossible). What makes global planning so difficult is a new design that sometimes creates multiple threats in multiple countries and only allows you to respond to one. So you can have a successful mission in one nation but panic will rise in the areas you did not respond to. Unlike UFO Defense you cannot have more than one base or respond to more than one threat at a time. As a result, you are almost certain to lose some funding nations along the way, which really tests your ability to prioritize not just alien threats, but whether it's better to abandon one nation to save multiple others. It can be genuinely stressful, but successfully managing a crisis still manages to be fun.

The turn based combat half is where you will spend more time, and it is also easy to play but difficult to master. The pace of combat and the pace of the game in general is much faster than in UFO Defense, so you will have more battles and encounter more alien races in less time. This makes Enemy Unknown a game that is constantly challenging and constantly fresh – no two battles are the same.
Generally, you will arm and deploy a squad of soldiers to engage aliens in a turn-based combat system on a defined map. There is a strong emphasis on finding cover and balancing offense and defense in this game -- which is a major improvement over the original UFO Defense. You also need to balance the different types of soldiers you can use, as different ranks and specialists have different skills and attributes. In UFO Defense, stats were randomized but otherwise soldiers were all pretty much the same; but in Enemy Defense you have classes of soldiers: heavy, sniper, assault, and support. There are also options to build and customize a heavy weapons platform (like a tank). It's not as complicated as it sounds, thanks to a fantastic game interface. The addition of new mission types, like rescuing VIPs or diffusing a bomb, add new variety to the gameplay.

Like the original, each alien race has a unique combat feature, and part of the fun and suspense of the game is encountering new races and adapting to their abilities. Even veterans of X-COM will enjoy seeing how this part of the game develops, and finding a new race unexpectedly in battle for the first time continues to be an engaging part of the game. It's a constantly fun gaming experience.

However, the game is not perfect, and is a step back from the original in a few ways. First, the game is more streamlined, and less complex. This is probably better for newcomers, but veterans of the original will find some updates lacking. Not all weapons, missions, or alien races made it from the original to the reboot, so nostalgia may cause veterans to wish they were playing the original UFO Defense at times.

My biggest concern is the turn based combat system, where encountering aliens is more like a "trap" system. If you get too close to an alien, it triggers a group of them to take action against your team. But the aliens generally aren't doing much until you spring that trap – they typically aren't hunting you down or going about their business abducting humans; they're just waiting for the trap to spring. Somehow, this is less suspenseful than in the original. It's hard to describe why, but the whole game feels more linear, more streamlined, and a little less scary. Many things are done better than the original, but those who have played the original will miss some of the features that have been cut or changed. There are fewer UFO encounters, only one base for both aliens and XCOM, fewer weapons, fewer aircraft types, and thus variety suffers. The aerial combat portion of the game has been substantially cut down, which is a bad change, but there is no longer a need to carry ammunition, since it comes automatically with each weapon, which is a very good change. Reasonable minds can differ over which changes are upgrades and which are downgrades, however.

The game, despite having a linear feel, is not short. I would estimate that the average gamer will complete the single player mode in about 30 hours, and the replay value is very good. I beat the game on normal and then tried classic, and was pleased to discover that on subsequent plays you can modify the game a bit to make it tougher or longer.

If you are an X-COM veteran or a fan of strategy games then just go buy this game now - the length of the game and the replay value is more than worth the price. I would really recommend anyone buy this game, but if you are still on the fence after this review, it is at least worth renting. Just don't pass this game up - it is an instant classic and hopefully will generate at least one sequel.

Enemy Unknown is a more attractive, streamlined version of UFO Defense, and the game overall is a near-perfect success, the only drawback being that not all of the streamlined features are better than the original. X-COM Enemy Unknown is an instant classic, and should be the game against which other strategy games are judged.

Overall Score 10/10 (Near-perfect, not "flawless")

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 01/14/13

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

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