XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review (PC)

excellent
key review info
  • Game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
  • Platform: PC
  • Gamepad support: Yes  
  • Reviewed on:
  • Written by:
  • Show system requirements

I reach the final room on the crashed UFO, two entries on opposite walls, enemies clearly hurdled inside for a last stand.

My team includes Zulu – a sniper, Magic Man – a member of the assault class, Cargo – a support character, and Prototype – the heavy fire support, along with two other soldiers that aren’t high level enough to merit nicknames.

I breach from both sides and promptly get one of my unnamed guys put into a coma by an Elite Mutton guard, just as the other soaks up damage in order to protect his leader, the Ethereal.

This unit is impressive when it comes to psionics and it promptly mind controls my heavy support guy, which causes two other team members to panic and hunker down, a pretty smart idea considering the firepower Prototype is carrying.

Two turns later, after a rocket fired at my own team by the mind-controlled heavy and a critical attack from the Ethereal, I have one squad member left, the intrepid Zulu, and I fire the last shot that takes out the final Mutton Elite, ending the battle.

I don’t really know whether to chalk this one up as a defeat or as a victory.


Story

The narrative of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is very simple: aliens are assaulting the Earth, we don’t know why and we don’t know exactly how to stop it, but there’s an international force of soldiers, scientists and operatives that can and will fight back.

You are its commander, the man who makes all the tough strategic decisions linked to research, production and recruitment while also directing troops directly in the field.
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World situation
Opportunity shot
As time passes in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, certain objectives are labeled as priorities and they often lead to cutscenes and conversations that push the narrative forward, towards a conclusion that will be supremely satisfying for fans of the series.

But Firaxis has created a game that is very open when it comes to the day-to-day objectives, and it has included a lot of mechanics that allow any player to create his own stories within the bigger picture of the alien invasion.

The writing itself is not great, but it manages to nicely capture the feeling of terror that an actual alien attack would generate and to convey that the various soldiers, scientists and engineers are a hardy bunch that’s just trying to do the best under the worst of circumstances.


Gameplay

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game that combines two layers: a strategic one, which deals with base building and general housekeeping, and a tactical one, which allows the player to control a squad of human operatives who are fighting the alien invasion.

In order for the enemies to be repelled, research needs to be conducted, to understand their motives and develop new equipment, and then a manufacturing effort is required to supply the troops.
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Alien assault
Taking a chance
Countries that are part of the XCOM project need to be protected, via interceptors and satellites, and choices need to be made about where to react and with what team.

There are two types of battles: the quick interceptor versus UFO air fights, where the player has little control other than to use three gadgets and order his forces to abort when they take too much damage, and the actual ground-based engagements.

Once they start, the game moves to a turn-based structure and asks the player to take a team that can have from four to six operatives, usually, against superior alien forces and take them all out via any means necessary.

The crash landing missions include salvaging and enemy capture as a concern, and there are also the dreaded terror missions, which arrive later and task the player with actually protecting civilians.



In order to succeed, players need to have a good understanding of their own soldiers and their abilities and then deploy them wisely while also making sure they understand what the various aliens, from Sectoids to Chrysalids and Muttons, can do and how they are easily defeated.

Never forget that enemies actually get a free move when you first spot them, which means that it’s incredibly unwise to go forward without having at least one (make it two to be certain) operatives on Overwatch, ready to use their weapons to take down any alien that bursts into view.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is, in many ways, a game that’s all about trade-offs, of dilemmas that have no clear winning choice and consequences that come to haunt the player at the worst possible moment.

There’s a lot of pleasure to be found in taking stock of a situation, exploring the possible options and then choosing what to do, taking into account both the short-term consequences and long-term effects.

A typical predicament is whether to get close and try and take an enemy alive in order to interrogate him or to just kill him from range in order to make sure that no operatives are lost to injury or even death.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown throws these kinds of situations at the player with every new mission and every new turn, and it also escalates the challenge and the variety of options to create a deeply compelling experience.

Another great thing is that XCOM is incredibly varied and I needed to play more than 40 hours before I actually saw a level that I could swear I got through before.

The game has a limited number of actual maps to choose from for any mission, but the objectives and, more importantly, the place and the composition of the alien force are randomized, making the combat feel fresh with every new deployment.


Graphics and audio

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is created using a heavily modified version of Unreal Engine 3, which virtually guarantees that the game looks very good on home consoles and the PC alike.

The strategy layer is full of bright colors and characters that have enough detail to make them believable while never allowing them to approach the uncanny valley.
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Close quarters
Interception tactics
It’s also easy to navigate and use both with a mouse and a keyboard setup and with a controller, a plus for a game requiring the player to perform quite a few repetitive moves during each period of downtime between engagements.

The tactical layer of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is seen from isometric view, with no option to move the camera around freely but plenty of angles to get a good view on all situations.

My only critique is that the game drops to the action camera, which moves just over the soldier of the character, a little too often but that can easily be fixed by eliminating the feature entirely from the Option menu.

I tend to replace the music to most strategy games I play with my own soundtrack, but Firaxis has done a great job with the audio in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, with a selection of battle music that perfectly captures the excitement and the terror and with sounds that bring back the atmosphere of the old B series movies.


Multiplayer

The multiplayer mode in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is deceivably simple: each player gets a number of credits that can be used to assemble his/her own unique fighting force, drawn from both human and alien unit templates.

They can be customized and are then pitched one against the other, with much of the joy and the tensions linked to how the various abilities are mixed and matched in the two competing groups.

The actual gameplay is very fun and it offers quite a few surprises given the fact that a human combatant always performs very different from how the Artificial Intelligence does.

The problem is that, despite the existence of leaderboards, there’s little sense of progression in the multiplayer mode of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and there’s little incentive for the players to try out the mode rather than simply start another single-player campaign.

It’s also hard to understand while the developers have not offered clear templates or hints about how the various units mesh together, which would have made sense in order to educate players who see some alien units for the first time.

It’s also frustrating that there’s no option to save different setups for forces and then you have to simply recall them from scratch for each.


The Good

  • Strategic depth
  • Tactical complexity
  • Character development

The Bad

  • Some plot points could be better explained
  • Barebones multiplayer

Conclusion

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is bound to be contested when compared to the original from the ‘90’s, but Firaxis has managed to create a thoroughly modern game based on the core ideas of the classic.

The tactics-based action is enhancing, well balanced, pleasing and frustrating at the same time and manages to make hours pass by incredibly quickly.

The tone of the game is just right, a mix of actual fear for the life of every soldier, elation when a good plan succeeds and anxiety linked to the next attack the aliens will launch.

The only slight disappointment is the rather bareboned multiplayer mode, which could use some enhancement via downloadable content.

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story 8
gameplay 9
concept 10
graphics 9
audio 8
multiplayer 7
final rating 9
Editor's review
excellent
 
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