Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I must admit to not having played the original XCOM and whilst my mates have raved about the original and its re-release on twitter, I wasn’t too fussed by what I’d seen from the trailers – that changed the moment I stepped into the boots of an XCOM commander. XCOM is a turn-based Sci-fi strategy game, the map and enemy positions are only revealed when your squad have a line of sight – similar to how the board was explored in Space Crusade and Tyranid Attack. Newcomers to XCOM may be overwhelmed by the amount of multitasking that is needed; it’s actually quite simple though, just take one step at a time, keep your objective in sight and try not to get too bogged down. Above all else don’t be disheartened when your first attempt at XCOM’s campaign ends in defeat!
Strategy games have had a bit of a rough ride on consoles often dividing their audience; one thing that most agree on though is how superior the controls are on the PC when compared to their console counterparts. The same level of ease and control doesn’t translate well, until now. XCOM nails the control, it isn’t clumsy or over complicated, it flows well and you will feel in control at all times.
The XCOM initiative is a collection of scientists, researchers and soldiers – the best of the best. Their sole purpose is to protect Earth from an alien invasion. Supervised by a council, XCOM is supported by every country on Earth, each having their own delegate. The council will constantly access your progress, complimenting and reprimanding you when appropriate. If you let a country’s panic level reach maximum (and it will) the delegate will leave the council having lost faith in you and XCOM, taking with them any support and funds that their country may have been supplying you with. It’s striking a level of balance that can make this game an extremely tough nut to crack because you can’t make them all happy, every decision you make will mean others will suffer and panic levels will rise. Even after several hours into the game you can still end up defeated – make too many wrong moves and let too many countries become panicked and the aliens will win no matter how good you are on the battlefield. It’s this level of difficulty that keeps the action tense, immersive and so addictive.
The tactical opportunities to the combat are as limited as your squad’s abilities and how tactical your mind is. Within the constraints of your equipment you can pretty much do anything – blow open doors, set up ambushes or rush the enemy. Be warned though, make sure you invest time in all of your soldiers, focusing too heavily on one favourite squad may mean you will have to rely on rookies when your A-Team are injured. Funny how there are rookies when you’re meant to be assembled from the best of the best! Rookies die easily and when you’re dead in XCOM you are dead! Another thing to be aware of is to assemble your team with a variety of role types – it’s essential to have a decent sniper as they can really prove the upper hand for you in each mission especially if they are camped out in a good vantage point.
After you have taken a rookie into the field and they have gained enough combat experience, they will begin on their path to being a badass veteran. The first thing that happens is they will be assigned to either an Assault, Heavy, Sniper or Support class. Each promotion will award them with a notch on the skill tree (a new ability), which usually offers two choices – it may be a basic skill tree but it makes it far easier to put together a team that compliments one another and on lower difficulty levels losing a veteran late in the game may not prove to be game ending.
The movement of your squad is smooth and their paths are well displayed, each squad member may move twice per turn which you can use to either move, shoot, use an ability or a combination of. You can also opt to ‘dash’ as your move – your movement will cover a greater distance than a standard move but this will use up both of your turns for that squad member but it will also offer a defensive bonus against any enemy who fires at you from an ‘overwatch’ stance while you are moving.
Overwatch is a key tactic that you will use constantly. It provides support for your team as they move about the map. Taking up one of your moves for a squad member, overwatch will mean that if an enemy is revealed, or on their turn moves into the line of sight of someone in an overwatch stance a shot will be fired which can often result in a kill.
Moving in and out of cover is imperative if your squad is to survive and each piece of cover will display a shield symbol representing how well protected your currently selected player will be should they move to it. Be warned though, most cover is destructible so a piece of wall that offers full cover can easily become rubble and have no protection at all!
At its heart XCOM is a numbers game, each attack carries a percentage chance to hit but even with a near perfect chance to score a hit you can still miss. Although this can certainly lead to frustration when a veteran misses only to get pounded on by an alien, it also keeps the action extremely tense – nothing is a certainty. When making these moves the game will sometimes treat you to an in-game cutscene either with your currently selected character running into cover or attempting to shoot at an enemy. Although it looks good, at times these scenes are rather flawed – your squad will shoot through floors or each other and still manage to get a perfect hit on the enemy they were firing at.
While the core game takes place on the battlefield in turn based combat, you also have to juggle an evolving base of operations by micro managing a growing team and deciding what to research and which items/facilities to build. Only through experimenting with the different areas that you manage will you learn how XCOM’s micro management works to your advantage – jumping in haphazardly will undoubtedly see you fail but in XCOM’s case failure is good – you learn and you will want to start again, more determined and focused than before. XCOM is more akin to a chess game, every move has a consequence and you learn from every move you make.
Each mission is given by scanning the globe for alien activity, the more satellites you have the more frequent the missions which will lead to you being able to offer the countries of Earth greater protection from panic. Each mission is drawn from a pool of around 80 different maps; the enemy spawn locations are then randomised, in theory making no two missions the same. Completing a mission with surgical precision or with a tactic that goes perfectly to plan gives a tremendous sense of satisfaction and achievement, something that strategy games of this console generation have failed to instil in me.
While I can’t base an opinion as to whether the Xbox 360 version of XCOM stays true to its roots, my mates who are avid XCOM fans tell me that this game retains and improves upon the charm, tension and depth that made the original game such a hit back in 1994. It builds upon and irons out several creases in the game that made the original feel a bit unintuitive and clumsy. There are also several nods to the original game in the way of Easter eggs for fans to uncover. One such Easter egg is revealed once you unlock the Laser or Plasma weapons, there is a cutscene in which an engineer fires at a target that just so happens to be art from the original XCOM! Everything from the geoscape to the underground base is an evolution of the core designs from yesteryear. Every alien, ship and tech-tree have been lovingly restored in HD, XCOM isn’t just a remake its an evolution!
Multiplayer is a rather disappointing affair. With a limited set of maps to play on, multiplayer has been resigned to competitive deathmatch. Each team may create a squad consisting of any character types, weapons and accessories but each selection costs points and the total cost of this squad must come in or under the total points set by the game session. Unlike the single player game, multiplayer has a time limit to each move and there are only 5 environments to play in. It’s not a mode I really care much for but gamers wanting an online edge to their strategic experience will find some enjoyment in this deathmatch mode, even if it is rather limiting.
The beauty (and frustration) of XCOM is that nothing is certain, you can invest hours into a particular squad member only to have him or her ripped apart by an enemy, who in the later stages of the game are particularly viscous and hard to beat especially if you haven’t invested enough into your R&D programs. It isn’t just the more dangerous enemies you need to be mindful of either, panic can set in to your squad and undo the most grizzled veterans especially when they see a comrade obliterated before their eyes. While I didn’t particularly enjoy being shat on by the enemy, it certainly made for some intense battles especially when you’re surrounded with half of your remaining squad crying into their boots because they have become panicked. Fearful of losing my remaining troops, the intensity and suspense of these missions is exponentially increased by this ‘fear’ and makes for some thrilling ‘edge of your seat’ gaming.
Strategists and those of an age to remember playing Space Crusade and Warhammer 40k will certainly find great appeal in the turn based combat of XCOM, fans of the original Syndicate will also find a certain appeal in the gameplay styles and micro management. Even if you aren’t of this persuasion I highly recommend giving the demo a whirl – the strategic combat is a great change of pace from the current release of games and its missions will challenge you to the limit. Without a doubt XCOM is certainly the best strategic game out there for the console market.
Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown Results
What we liked:
Great strategic gameplay excellently executed for consoles
It’s tough but extremely addictive
Micro management adds a great depth to the gameplay
What we disliked:
Dodgy action cutscenes
Can be a bit daunting when things start going wrong