XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

XCOM is the name of the international task force set up to combat the alien invasion of Earth. You command it.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

It’s safe to assume that there are a lot of really great games coming out in the run up to Christmas. The release schedule is packed with blockbuster titles that will wow you with their action-packed sequences and budget-busting visual treats. But I’ve got a bit of advice for you: whatever else you’re playing as this year draws to a close, it’s worth making time for XCOM.

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Mixing it Up

It’s a mix of base management and action strategy, a mash up of genres that might appear a little odd. It works beautifully thanks to the myriad ways that your base management influences your progress through the game and your troops on the ground. Researching alien technology pays off with better armaments for your squad, providing more global satellites keeps panic levels down and offers more opportunities to fight off your extraterrestrial threat and gather more resources and chances to study things back at base.

It’s obviously a widening of the 1994 original’s concepts but it’s also strangely reminiscent of the Mother Base elements in Peace Walker. Your base is a modularly constructed grid of active little rooms that you can zoom in and out of, taking care of tasks with minimal fuss in a kind of branching menu tree that is well hidden behind control-pad-friendly interfaces. There’s an ever-growing set of things to do in this side of the game and you’ll rarely be lost for something to read or respond to as you make continuing choices that have tangible effects on the action strategy side of the game.

That alien threat is an abiding image too. The Sectoids and each ensuing enemy type – from the tricky airborne threats to the onrushing Berserkers – are seemingly lifted directly from a 1950s B-movie, with weapons and behaviours to match. Completing a successful mission against them in one region of the world will lower that region’s panic level but do nothing for the terror sweeping other areas of the globe. You’ll need to choose wisely when you’re presented with more than one mission to engage in: forsake the citizens of a region too often and mass panic sets in, spurring a rejection of the XCOM project by countries in that region.

It’s not a huge problem on the normal difficulty setting because you’ll likely be accomplished enough that you won’t fail too often and will be able to keep a lid on panic levels. Step up to the Classic difficulty, though, and things get much more morally – and financially – tricky to manage. Ironman mode ties you to a single autosave and makes your decisions permanent to your experience. The hardest setting – Impossible – is perhaps just that. It’s brutally unforgiving.

XCOM Sectoid Berserker

The way in which mission crop up is often seemingly random but each one will offer up the opportunity to gather intelligence while partaking in the general aim of every mission – be it VIP escort, bomb diffusion, crash investigation or abduction rebuttal – to kill all the aliens.

The 3D maps are pulled from a varied selection, regardless of the mission type. There’s a lot of layouts but the true variation comes from the random placement of enemies. They can crop up anywhere, on any map and they’re unseen until you move troops nearby. The quick cut to action when you spot the enemy, or when troops are running out of cover offers up a bit of variation from the standard pseudo-isometric viewpoint that the tense turn-based-strategy battles take place upon.

Intelligent Life

The strategy, not incidentally, is excellent. The enemy AI has the fantastic knack of knowing which of your units to outflank and gang up on. Whether it’s the guy you sent too far forward, left slightly too exposed or tooled up with the crucial weaponry to complete your mission – the aliens will identify and hone in on that unit with unnerving accuracy. Rush forward and you’ll come unstuck, quickly. Shoot too early and you’ll risk wasting your opportunity and missing your shot at an enemy unit which will come back to make you suffer for your haste. XCOM requires a slow and steady pace and a well-measured approach to the landscape. You’ll probably want to become well acquainted with the Overwatch ability to make sure you’re not ambushed by clever enemies emerging from the fog-of-war.

Mis-manage your troops and they’re liable to panic. Each unit is bestowed with a Will statistic that determines how quickly their resolve breaks but enough pressure will crack anyone. When panic sets in, the beset unit will miss their turn and instead perform a random action, wild firing on enemies or even shooting a squad-mate to death. At times, this mechanic can quickly spread terror. If panic strikes an individual placed in a strategic point, it can mean the end of your entire squad in just a turn or two as they kill each other, run into the open and trigger a barrage of enemy fire or just can’t handle the pressure and hunker down, a gibbering wreck awaiting enemy attack. It’s incredibly tense at times.

The other key element in increasing that tension is the fact that each death is a real problem for the XCOM initiative that you’re in control of. Your team is constantly levelling up and becoming more useful and powerful, gaining new abilities along branching paths as they’re promoted. Experienced squad members might have seen a number of promotions, stacking their abilities as they gain more experience. Losing a veteran can lead to a lengthy period of hardship, especially before you’ve researched the better equipment and base upgrades that can mitigate the loss of losing an individual you’ve watched grow.

What’s good:

  • It’s reasonably unique, especially on consoles.
  • Fantastically well balanced and fine tuned structure.
  • Strategy is some of the smartest around.

What’s bad:

  • Dialogue can be a bit odd at times.
  • Multiplayer mode might lose its attraction quickly.

It has obviously not been the focus of development (thank goodness!) and there’s little cause for lasting commitment to the mode, aside from the rankings, but the multiplayer game is well worth your time too. The wide range of abilities – together with the baked-in abilities of the various alien unit types – make for a multitude of approaches. Each combatant gets a number of credits to spend in whatever way they see fit on units for the match. Making use of the mind control abilities to turn your opponent’s team on each other is an enduring pleasure but there’s equal joy to be found in packing your side with heavy damage-inflicting units and steamrollering the enemy before they get a chance to set up properly.

This is a great game, packed with finely tuned systems in all areas of the gameplay. The music is really excellent, with a main theme that will linger with you and perfectly fitting sound design for weaponry and incidental noises. Some of the dialogue delivery is a bit dry and stilted but the writing is solid enough. Imagine a kind of mix of Fringe and Stargate and you’ll be in the right ballpark. It’s difficult to find an area of XCOM that’s flawed enough to warrant major complaint and while there are a few very minor niggles, it’s nothing you couldn’t (or shouldn’t) overlook.

Score: 9/10

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49 Comments

  1. Damn. Had no idea this was a console game.

    • It’s nice to see something like this on consoles instead of the same old shitty fps that seem to dominate them(excluding Dishonored). And getting some great reviews.

      Getting this soon.

      • Excluding borderlands 2 as well

    • Controls work really well too.

      • I played it on PC, and, very oddly for a strategy game, I wished I’d got it for PS3. The mouse controls are finicky, and a single miss-click can lead to a wiped squad, failed mission and game over.
        Noticed last night you can switch to joypad though, so I’ll give that a go if I play again – I’m of two minds to replaying it; you really feel connected to your soldiers, the ones who lived, the ones who died… I feel I’d be cheapening their memory if I started over.

      • Yeah, my current ‘save’ is a awful, everything has gone wrong, but I’m struggling through to see if a I can turn it around, looking very doubtful

    • I played the demo last night on ps3 and after 20 mins I put down the controller and ordered from Shopto right then and there.

      NOW that is a demo done right :)

      Memories of the original came back and it looks lovely.

      • Completely agree, Watched some developer videos and thought it looked amazing. I absolutely loved the old Amiga version and was so impressed on what they have done. Love how they have even kept the original names for the `Skyranger` and `Avalanche` missiles. Little nods really helped. Overall fantastic game so far. ;)

  2. This looks good, I’m torn between this & dishonoured (my iPhone spelt it) I just don’t know argh!!

    Erm when is this out by the way

    • Today, so get saving.

    • If your still on the fence give the demo a go.

      • I didn’t even know there was a demo, think I will try that thanks

        @kjkg thanks

  3. FYI “The 3D maps are pulled from a varied selection,” is a repeated paragraph.

    I liked the demo and will look to getting this for Christmas I reckon.

  4. Guys, there is a duplicate paragraph above the trailer.

    • He liked it that much he had to write it twice :)

    • heh, that’s what editing and formatting at 3AM does for you…
      All fixed now :)

  5. Love this so much, it’s easily the best retail game I’ve played this year & for the genre often lacking in titles it’s obviously the best for what seems like an era.

    If you’re a long time fan of the genre, it’s deep as hell, if you’re new to it the action/cinematic orientated approach makes it super accessible.

    What I love is the structure of the game, the dual nature of the ‘ant farm’ base building & the frequency that the missions come at you, means it always has the ‘just one more go’ feel that makes a good game, a great game.

    The ‘ant farm’ approach is phenomenal, once the tutorial winds down and the tactics of what you build & where open up it really is great, along with what you allocate to your research, engineering, workshop teams to do and how you balance it with the manpower & power resources you have available.

    The fact you can spend as little or as much as you want customising your soldiers helps you feel almost attached to them, then that feeling is compounded when you’re on a mission & the camera angle drops to over the shoulder view (rather than maintaining the usual strategy top down view) along with the memorial wall in your base.

    On the missions the tactical battle side of the game is brilliant, as you progress it really does matter which soldiers (well, their skills) you’ve selected to make up your squad, getting the high ground and key flanking positions is key.

    It really is a great game, the approach they’ve took to the genre is amazing. Can’t recommend it highly enough. Buy it!

    ps. Don’t forget to flank!

    • Unfortunately, i refuse to read this for 3 reasons (i started to, i just didn’t finish);

      1. I am not a fan of strategy based games, but can sometimes get caught up in someone else’s hype regardless
      2. I don’t really have any money left after buying Dishonored
      3. After you mentioning Quantum Of Solace the other day, i had to re-buy it (if nothing else, just to hear the iconic tune on a half decent game!).

      Not that i don’t value your opinion of course, i just can’t afford to! :D

      • You will Forrest, you will…

        *laughs maniacally*

      • I read it all. You have evil powers! I’m currently typing and searching through my little games to see what I can trade in. I really can’t afford it but if I get enough games together I might just be able to not pay real money.

      • Monopoly money FTW – I’m sure you’ll find someone in Game that doesn’t know the difference. ;)

      • I’ve looked through my pitiful games collection and the only ones I’m willing to trade are worth £8.50 for three games. Looks like I’ll be waiting until Christmas for it then. I’m so very dissapointed and shall be letting the mrs know this when she gets home. I shall sulk like I’ve never dulled before.

        It’s not even a game that I can convince the little man to trade in his games for.

      • At a quick glance, i thought you were considering trading the little man then!

        I just had visions of you walking into a pawn shop & going ” what’ll ya give me for this?” :D

      • I’ve considered it before but it’s too messy. I’m too pretty for prison. Best I just sell one of his kidneys instead lol

    • Its been a long time since ive seen you actually like a game…maybe even since Warhawk.

      • Loved loads of games, but on the whole just not many console retail ones, in comparison to iOS, Android, Steam – particularly indie titles, whether they’re platformers, shmups, puzzlers whatever the charm and usually the creativity wins out over yet another megabucks FPS or repetitive missions on mapmarker (open world) games.

  6. Nice review, answered most of the questions/reservations I had about it. Guess I am going to be fighting aliens for the next few turns…

  7. I’m in need of a good strategy game, so I better get saving.

  8. Sounds really, really good. No doubt CC will be spamming Twitter with XCOM love for the next few days.

  9. Quick question about the depth in the variety of the maps – compared to the 1994 version, which seemed to be assemble from a patchwork of map tiles – is there a danger of just being able to learn them? I appreciate the alien deployment is random, but the vantage points and the good cover would be the same, wouldn’t they?

    • Think there’s towards 100 areas, then with randomised alien spawns, different objectives and other variations there’s no single path you can steamroller through on multiple playthroughs, then of course that’s multiplied by difficulty levels and the ironman mode… and of course multiplayer where the variations are near limitless.

      • Ah, right, 100. I was worried it was more like 8 or something! No worries then. To the shops!

  10. You just iced my cake,installing now.

    • What a bizarre euphemism!

      Works though.

    • You can have your cake and eat it too.

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