Without ever playing the original XCOM, I’m surprised by how completely enthralled I have become in my short time with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It scratches an itch that few games can, maintaining an addicting level of tension and reward.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown puts you in control of a worldwide organization whose primary focus is repelling aliens from invading and conquering our world. While it does sound like a cool job there are plenty of areas of contention that can cause a great deal of stress. XCOM is all about sacrifice and compromise.
Enemy Unknown boils down to two distinct elements; strategic management and tactical firefights. On the strategic management front, you control the guiding hand of how the human race deals with the constant threat of an alien invasion. Not only do you determine how limited resources are spent but you have to juggle political relationships with nations around the world as well.
There are several instances throughout the game where multiple countries request XCOM’s assistance but there is only enough time to help one. The country you chose to help will reward you with resources but those you chose to ignore will begin to panic and possibly withdraw their funding and resources from XCOM all together. XCOM requires the player to walk a tight rope between trying to save everyone and choosing who to let suffer.
Determining how you spend the finite amount of resources not only impacts geopolitical relationships but how well your troops do in battle. Choosing between investing money into researching the aliens or developing technology can be a hard choice, especially when both are needed for survival. Throughout the entire game, XCOM constantly puts pressure on the player with the impression that there is never enough time and there are too few resources.
There are tons of different options available for the player to choose where to put their money and resources. The game does an admirable job trying to explain the importance of each in the tutorial missions but most of the learning needs to be done by playing the game. There is a steep learning curve and most players will die a lot. The first game of XCOM should really be approached as a learning experience because it is decisively hard even at lower difficulties.
That tight rope act I mentioned earlier should also include juggling because of all the choices that need to be made. Many of the consequences of these choices cannot be fully appreciated until later in the game. Resources and money can go towards building up your headquarters to make XCOM better equipped to handle the alien threat on a global level. They can also be spent on researching aliens and their technology to develop new facilities as well as advanced armor and weapons. Laser and Plasma weapons become a distinct tool in the arsenal of the soldiers on the ground.
The tactical turn based battles of XCOM are just as nerve wracking as managing the resources and money of the global organization. With a squad of four to six soldiers under your direction, it is your job to direct them in order to accomplish objectives and survive the mission. Their survival is often one of the hardest elements to maintain. Having your troops wiped out and failing a mission is devastating not only because of the lost resources and panic in that area of the world but also because of the loss of your soldiers.
Each solider, based upon their performance will gain XP and get promotions earning them new advantageous abilities based upon their specialization. The character progression system gives the player a skill tree for each soldier, customizing their abilities to one’s own play style. A character that has levelled up a few times becomes an increasingly valuable asset towards battlefield domination. Losing a character can not only be detrimental to offensive capabilities but can also be personally tragic. XCOM gives you the option to rename and change the appearance of each character. I highly recommend doing this as it will increase your investment in each character and make their loss that much more momentous.
Directing your soldiers around the battlefield and behind cover can be a difficult task since the enemy AI is so dangerous. Each alien will try to out flank your troops, will retreat when their position is weaker and will use suppressing fire to stop a soldier from firing upon an ally. The aliens become even more unpredictable when new variations with different abilities are introduced. Having several different types of aliens on the battlefield at once can be very hard to strategically plan for, especially if one of your key soldiers is injured and out of action.
Even with the difficult enemies, XCOM does add a few elements to dial up the drama of battle even further. You will do battle with our soon to be alien overlords in burnt out cities, collapsed highways, deserted fields and even alien crash sites. Within all these environments almost every piece of cover is destructible. No area is safe from alien plasma attacks for too long. The destructible environments can immediately change the tide of any tactical situation you will face in Enemy Unknown.
Firaxis made an interesting design choice by having the camera zoom into a close third person view of characters at certain parts of a battle. Whenever a soldier fires and occasionally when an aliens takes a shot, the camera will be placed slightly behind the character, similar to Gears of War. The tight third person camera angle also increases the tension when a soldier makes a daring sprint towards cover while being shot at by aliens. Bringing the camera down to the ground level makes the combat a little more personal, especially when you have to watch your go-to soldier burning to death from alien plasma weapons.
In addition to the stellar and highly replayable campaign, there is also a multiplayer component to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Two players will face off against one another in turn based tactical combat similar to the single player. Each player will get a fixed amount of points to level up their team which can be a mix of both humans and aliens. The multiplayer mirrors some of the experiences of the single player campaign by offering the same sacrifice and compromise relationship when outfitting your team with upgrades.
Playing against another human player can be a very fun experience but it lacks the tension and personal investment that the campaign brilliantly exercises. The single player is where XCOM really shines, and it alone could sustain hundreds of hours of replayability. The tough tightrope that Enemy Unknown makes players walk is not a common formula in contemporary video games and creates a compelling experience that other games would be hard pressed to match. XCOM never allows you to feel like you are winning, but that you are always playing catch up to these alien invaders. Even when your soldiers are equipped with the cutting edge in alien technology and fully leveled up, XCOM still makes you feel as if you are still two steps behind.
While I do appreciate the level of difficulty and the smart nuances added to keep the player in a sense of desperation I can acknowledge that it may not be for everyone. The challenge alone, not to mention the hard choices, will turn off a proportion of the gaming audience. Those out there who appreciate and can thrive when faced with a challenge or basic knowledge of strategy and tactical games should absolutely love everything that XCOM: Enemy Unknown brings to the table.
This review is based on a retail copy of the 360 version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.