XCOM: Enemy Unknown: A Punishing Good Time
It’s dark. The map is shrouded in smoke, leaving me with limited visibility as I order one of my soldiers to take cover behind an old van. I’ve only lost one soldier this round, and the remaining four are closing in on the last two Sectopods on the map. I’ve almost won, meaning I’ll be able to secure Nigeria and help manage the chaos the country is in. My turn ends, leaving me watching, waiting to see what the enemy does.
Without warning, the once two aliens suddenly becomes six as four Mutons flank my position. Raining down heavy fire on me, I find my troops taking serious damage. Another soldier falls. Then the turn ends, leaving me in the difficult position of having to move my troops once more to make sure they’re out of danger. My work, however, is futile; once the enemy’s turn rolls around again, a few lucky shots manage to pick off the rest of my team, reversing all the hard work I spent so much time on in a manner of minutes.
This isn’t a rare occurrence in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a game that takes to heart the idea of being easy to learn, difficult to master. Being a re-visit to the once retro hardcore PC title, how well does this game hold up in today’s market?
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game with a fairly standard plot. Aliens have invaded Earth, and nations have banded together to form XCOM, a military group seeking to eradicate the world of the alien threat. Taking on the role of Commander, you are in charge of overseeing the project, ranging from conducting research to commanding troops on the battlefield.
You’ll find it’s no easy feat trying to keep the world calm in this time of fear. Countries all over the world are coming to you and asking for help on a regular basis, and you’ll have to keep everyone satisfied or risk their withdrawl from the XCOM project. Balance managing world fears with battlefield tactics and strategy, and you’re left with a deep game full of challenges.
From the start, you’ll notice that XCOM is effectively two games rolled into one. On the one hand, you’ll engage in on-ground missions as you command a squad and move through a battlefield completing objectives. The other half of the game, however, sees you in control of XCOM headquarters, where you’ll conduct research, build new machinery, and interact with the council overseeing the XCOM project.
Combat on the ground is turn-based squad combat and puts you in control of anywhere from 4-6 soldiers. Soldiers come in a mix of different types, ranging from all-purpose assault units to powerful heavies. Each class has a unique feel and their own special skill tree used to upgrade soldiers and give them a variety of new moves and abilities to use on the battlefield.
Cover is essential in XCOM, and you’ll find yourself moving soldiers from cover to cover for a majority of the level, always trying to get them to a better position so they have the upper hand on the aliens down below. Beware of moving around, however; cover is destructible, and a well-placed enemy grenade can put your soldier’s well-being in jeopardy very quickly.
Enemies come in a wide variety of classes and types, from the little grey Sectopods to the brutish Mutons. Each enemy has their own strengths and special abilities, ranging from dangerous melee attacks to psychic mind control. It’s something you’ll need to keep in mind as you encounter different enemies in the field, especially if you haven’t encountered any of them before.
Battles can prove to be frustrating for a number of reasons; in many ways, it’s a well-designed game of tactics that sees you using your wits in order to successfully complete the challenges put to you. But there are times when the game seems to be working against your favor.
Enemies will spawn in random locations without any rhyme or reason other than to make your life that much harder, and they certainly seem to have better luck with tricky shots than you do. It tends to get frustrating when you can’t quite figure out the combat pattern and only have pure luck to fall back on. Add to that an abundance of bugs, and there’s more than a few facets of the game that will leave you wanting to rage quit after a while.
But for its issues, the combat is still engaging and challenging, with a great amount of payoff and satisfying reward. There’s no feeling like the one you get when you successfully take out an entire group of enemy aliens using only your strategic skill, and it’s one of the many parts of XCOM that make it a unique experience
The other half of the game sees you building up your home base in an effort to boost your resources and build the perfect fighting team. At your headquarters, you’ll engage in research to build new weapons, commission Engineering to manufacture new combat items and weapons, hire and customize soldiers, and even build additional areas to interrogate enemies or create satellites to monitor events around the world.
The home base part of the game is just as deep and important as engaging in surface combat; it’s here that you’ll build up your soliders in order to better prepare them to face the enemy threat on the battlefield. Autopsies are done on enemy corpses to help better understand them and where they come from, studying enemy weapons gives you access to laser-powered weapons and improved body armor, and constructing new facilities and hiring new soldiers helps you build your base and pleases the rest of the nations invested in the XCOM project.
It’s also in the home base where you keep an eye on the happenings all over the world. You’ll engage enemy ships in fire fights, respond to alien abduction zones, and try to quell nation’s fears in an effort to keep them from withdrawing their support from the project.
The home base part of the game is fun and works well, but it often expects you to have an intuitive knowledge of it and its systems without really giving you an in-depth look at why you need to do certain things, or even how to do them. If you don’t make headway with any of the systems and do your best to appease nations all over the globe, you’ll be quickly pulled into a never-ending game of catch up that proves to be more frustrating than it is rewarding. In many ways, the game relies on a very trial-and-error style of learning that will require you to make a million mistakes and risk some lofty losses before things finally sink in. It’s not a streamlined game for the casual gamer. And in many ways, that’s perfectly alright. But in others, it does serve to be a bit frustrating and opaque.
Firaxis has proven in the past that they’re masters of the strategy genre, and with this game, they’ve proven it once again. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a great strategy game that does a great job of paying homage to the original PC classic while still managing to introduce interesting new elements into the gameplay. Sure, it can be little more than frustrating at times, but overall, it’s a engaging and approachable title that gamers everywhere can enjoy, be they veterans in the strategy genre or not. If you’re looking for a game to challenge you and push you to your very limits as a tactician and a game enthusiast, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the game for you.
(Note: This review was conducted on PC. The game is also available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3)