The hardest thing about XCOM (other than instinctively typing ‘Xbox’ every time I try to talk about it) is letting your soldiers die. Don’t get me wrong, XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn’t feature a huge array of personalization when it comes to your squaddies, but picking their names, nationalities, appearance and race, all the while watching them progress and level up, causes you to grow attached to them. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn based tactical game, seething with science fiction goodness, about a people trying to survive.
That’s right, I started off a review of a strategy game with a comment about depth of story – that’s not something I expected, either – and it comes much to the credit of Firaxis Games, the developer.
When XCOM: Enemy Unknown was announced early last year, approximately 0 people though the multi-platform reboot of a venerable and loved PC franchise would be good. I’m one of those people. In came the accusations of ‘dumbing down’ and worries about younger members of the development team perhaps, not having played the original, not really understanding what the franchise is about. As more details emerged, and people stopped getting it confused with XCOM, the FPS announced before the strategy game, fans woes were put to one side and a playable demo educated us on what it was really about.
In a nutshell? XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a highly polished, well crafted tactical strategy game that is both approachable and highly addictive.
The Council of Nations: it’s like the UN if Fox Mulder was Ban Ki-moon
Enemy Unknown charts the adventures of a band of international soldiers, XCOM, fronted by The Council of Nations, as they try to react to, and fend off, small influx’s of alien activity. A sort of underground Stargate SG1 affair, the underground facility that houses the research, development, military and communications services that XCOM provides is a sort of sliced-in-half economy simulator in and of itself, as you, the commander, are tasked with issuing orders, research, development and excavation and expansion of the site. In between home-keeping chores, you must control your squad of 4 (expandable to 6) military rookies and veterans on a turn-based tile-centric international war-board. All in a days work.
A single player game at heart, Enemy Unknown features a loose fitting campaign, which you can trawl through at your own pace. Missions are acquired by scanning for alien activity using a number of satellite up-links – which can be increased by building more stations and satellites – and launching your team to the location anywhere in the globe. The story charts the beginning of the invasion as your team of character NPC’s, consisting of a CO, research chief, and engineer, try to understand the motives of the alien invaders, and what you can do to destroy them.
Mission types vary from hostage security, civilian safety, clear and kill, disarm the bomb, and search wreckage of downed alien UFO’s. The latter type is activated through a sort of mini game, where during a scan for alien activity, a UFO is picked up, and you scramble a fighter to attack it. If you don’t have a fighter in the location of the UFO, then it may destroy your satellite up-link Once a fighter is scrambled, you watch on the control room floor via a rudimentary hologram as it attacks, Pokemon style (seriously) until one or the other dies. If downed successfully, you have the opportunity to send your team to the crash site to pick up materials from the dead aliens. This can be tricky, though, since the crafts vary in sizes, and the starting aircraft will not be strong enough to kill some of the bigger UFO’s. The larger the UFO, the larger the downed craft crash site will be, and the tougher the enemies.
Aside from these main mission types, the economy management in between is comprised of balancing your money and power out-put, and commissioning new items and research which can be both used for the base, and for your soldiers – such as new armour and prototype alien inspired weaponry, including scrambler crafts, and other useful objects. In this view, you can also visit a wall of fallen soldiers, which shows stats for each named soldier downed throughout your campaign, and recruit more soldiers (at a cost).
Give everyone Battlestar Galactica or Stargate names
Although I guess that’s what nicknames are for. Enemy Unknown is full of wonderfully superfluous flare. For instance, all soldiers start off the same class. Once they level up, they “show proficiency” in one of 4 classes: support, heavy, sniper and run’and’gun. Once they unlock a class, they earn themselves an automated nickname (which you can change to Starbuck, because you’re awesome). On top of this, there’s a skill tree for each of the classes which offer either directly effective or more all-round support perks, such as the ability to reduce aim affects, or fire off a reaction shot regardless of whether or not over-watch is on. There’s a problem I fear for most people, though, because the class is awarded purely at random (at least, from what I can see) which means that you have no control over what a particular individual will “show proficiency in”. I have a theory, though, that it is possible that however your unit is controlled may contribute to what role they’re awarded. For instance, if you send a rookie on a bit of a run-and-gun first game, getting up close and personal, maybe he’ll be awarded the shotgun class? I can neither confirm nor deny of this is actually true, or if it is random, but the eclectic mix of classes in the squad is balanced enough, and does make tactical approaches varied and interesting.
One of the most painful things in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is watching your squaddies die. You don’t have to, but I spent a lot of time picking names, faces, facial hair and nationalities, trying to create players I cared about. It pays off, because I genuinely did care about my squad. The interesting thing about this is that how effective they are in combat (through no fault of their own) often changed my view. For instance, I created who I decided would be a burly Irish fellow called Paddy McCartney – big red hair and a beard – but the bastard kept missing so much that eventually, when he died of poison, I just left him here and thanked god I didn’t have to watch the fool miss any more. There are other times when other characters who I have been very careful with have died, and I’ve completely ALT+F4 and ragequit the game, opening up an earlier save.
No one kills “tank” – my front-liner with 3 lines of health. I can’t afford to lose him, I said to myself.
It’s like chess, only you can move wherever the hell you want and stuff explodes
Now I’ve convinced you to fall in love with your squad, let’s talk about how you can protect them. Enemy Unkown focuses on turn-based strategy, where your team of (ultimately) six units are capped in their actions by a set number of variables. For instance, moving your character within the proximity of the blue circle means that, aside from the snipers, they can still fire their weapons if they have sight of the enemy. If you move within the yellow circle – called ‘dashing’ – you forfeit any offensive or defensive action for that turn.
Combing the map is a mixture of careful and slow maneuvering. Actually, I’d say it’s a little too slow. Telling a unit to move forward locks the game as it follows them to their action, and it’d be nice to click another target and set their action whilst the other one is moving, but because aliens have a chance to react – if they have the appropriate skill active – the developer felt it necessary to focus on exactly one unit at a time. This makes combing the map a slow and steady activity, but it is that way for good reason. I have to say though, 60 games in and 8 hours later and I really wish they’d have given me some freedom.
Of course, the map isn’t revealed until you have sight on an area – that includes kicking in or opening doors to see inside, or jumping through windows. Once an alien group is spotted, usually in squads, an animation of them noticing you will kick in and they’re spread out, but won’t be able to shoot right away.
Combat, essentially, is a number crunch or a dice roll. Hidden variables make up the likelihood of a shot, annotated with a percentage, which will take off a set number of bars of health off an enemy, plus more for a critical hit. You can see the enemy health, and use skills for other effects such as hitting them out of cover, blowing the cover straight up, or disabling their weapons. Using cover and half-cover is essential, as it reduces their chances of a hit, but don’t be surprised of anything 40% or up seems to hit more than it should – call me paranoid.
The variety of enemies makes XCOM: Enemy Unknown no mere logic based tactical strategy game. Some aliens can jump to the top floor of the multi-tiered map in one leap, whilst others can jet behind your location in one mighty swoop. Whatever structure you have to your squad, it can be crippled by the aliens methods very easily, and your flanks can be left wide open. To be honest, I got a little annoyed every time an alien arbitrarily swooped behind on my squad and shot me in the back of the damned head, after it took me so long to get there and figure out what to do – but adapting to the map is a key element of Enemy Unknown, and if I’m annoyed it’s only because this is such a tense game and you give a damn about the fate of your squad.
The beauty of XCOM: Enemy Unknown
The reason everyone is so in love with this game is because Firaxis Games didn’t just completely nail the franchise, despite an arguably too small a squad size, they took it above and beyond with the visuals. Most of us just wanted the game to look functionally nice, so they didn’t compromise on the mechanics, but aside from the occasional firing through a wall or two, Firaxis Games have produces a solid, deep and polished game when it comes to the coding and execution These guys know what they’re doing.
There’s another layer to XCOM, though. The animations, voice acting, art style, visuals and introductory cut-scenes to basically everything that happens, from intro’s to player actions on the ground, are all fantastic. This improves immersion substantially, like a wink at the fans who doubted their ability to create a successor with a soul. There’s also an added multiplayer, which allows friends to face off one and other, aliens vs humans, or a mix of the two.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an absolutely fantastic, approachable tactics game that offers an all-round package with a perfect amount of depth. It’s true that hard-core tactics and economy veterans might feel as though there’s not enough bite to this monster, but it more than makes up for it with a great science fiction world, story, and charm. It’s a tough game when you get going, and the multiple difficulty settings – such as ‘ironman’ mode that doesn’t let you roll back any changes – will surely test those of you who think XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn’t a “real” XCOM game.