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. Played the demo on Wednesday night and pre-ordered the next day. It’s not very often a demo pulls me in the way XCOM did. It should be turning up any minute now!!

  2. Heard so many good things about this game but no matter how often I look at screenshots or watch trailers I can’t get myself exceited for it. I guess it’s just not my genre.

  3. When you read the title it could basicly mean that you play a multiplayer game with just one mode Free for all / Dead match.

  4. Been playing this since Wednesday and the AI later on in the game gets brutal. The Phionic aliens are nasty with the mind control making all your men panic from their sheer power, and the Mutons start spawning 6 and 7 at a time. Those weird mini UFOs are also nasty and spawn way too many at a time, the line between victory and utter defeat becomes razor thin every mission. It is amazing.

    • I’m about 10hrs+ in and I’m starting to lose control.

      Australia & China have dropped out of the council, I may have wrongly prioritised things in my home base as I just don’t have the spare money or power to build what I need.

      I’ve got Japan, South africa, France and Argentina on the final mass panic before they too drop out

      The only 2 missions open to me at the moment are marked V. difficult which means my soldiers will probably get wiped out or at least severely diminished.

      In short, it might be curtains for me on my next go, which means I get to rectify some of my mis-prioritising on another play through. Yey!

  5. Never been one for this genre but it’s a great review and something that the consoles are sorely lacking in. Top stuff!

  6. Damn you Peter. I loved Xcom as a kid. Really want this now, just bought Dishonoured and Bordelands 2 today though so this shall have to wait. 3 9/10s. Good times.

    • I know, I’ve had an incredibly lucky run of reviews and one of my next carries high hopes too…

      • My money’s on a video review of Dance Central 3.

      • Hannah Montana 2 – Shhh, it’s a secret! :)

  7. Great review, i would have bought it today but i bought a few psn games this week and i know i’ll forget all about them if i start playing XCOM. Loved the demo, wasn’t too sure about the new version but when i played the demo it fit right in with my memories of playing this on the Amiga – minus the endless disk-swapping of course! :)

  8. I’m looking to get this on Steam, but will probably hold off until the Christmas sales- the ridiculous workload that UCC are throwing at me makes it seem like they want me to drop out of Microbiology (oh no, sir! P) so my only time for gaming is quick bursts on Vita or iPad on the train, and maybe an hour or two at weekends.

    Apparently it’ll calm down after Christmas, when all the awesome games will be cheap! :D

  9. I am genuinely so surprised about this one. Thought it would flop and now it’s the top of my list!

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