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PlayBack: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

The one that almost got away.

Being a gamer, there are but a few things that can top that feeling of booting up a new game on launch day. There is one I can think of, however; it’s the sensation of being blown away by a game you either missed completely or disregarded for some reason or other. For me, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of those games.

2K’s reboot of the strategy classic originally launched last October. At the time I was just starting university and, despite saving a pile of cash from budgeting, rarely threw it at video games whether I’d been anticipating them or not. Amid titles like Black Ops 2, Need For Speed, and the impending barrage of 2013 releases, XCOM simply drifted to the back of my mind. After all, strategy games suck on consoles, right?

Even with that stupid preconception ingrained in my thoughts, I was still compelled to download XCOM when it became part of the PlayStation Plus instant game collection. It took a little while to grow on me but, now that it has, I would easily rate it top ten games of the current generation.

Best Bit

There’s no one particular stand-out feature that makes XCOM so unmissable. Instead, it’s the amalgamation of narrative, strategic mechanics and perma-death that all intertwine to give each and every player their own unique experience: their own anthology of war stories.

In truth, Enemy Unknown’s plot is fairly superficial. Aliens attack planet Earth and you are the first (and last) line of defence; it’s as simple as that. Even as you progress, story beats are only used to paved the gaps in between high-priority missions. However, after making first contact and gradually building your ranks, you begin to craft your own narrative out of thin air. Characters whose names and appearances are random soon become battle-hardened war heroes, each with their own story to tell.

Take the fairly inconspicuous Roman Flores. In that very first, pre-scripted XCOM mission, he was the only one to survive and since then became the core member of my squad. Soon enough the Argentinian heavy weapons expert was joined by Israeli sniper, Adam Eliad, and a slew of others. These include Arjun Pawar who, over the course of almost a hundred missions, has patched up dozens of XCOM operatives, even saving a few from imminent death.

Then there’s “Loco” whose real name is Yumi Miyamoto. She had always been a stalwart gunner and then, around half way through my journey, she underwent a change, discovering her previously-untapped Psionic capabilities. I also have memories of those who fallen in battle, be they squaddies or fully-fledged XCOM corporals.

This is what makes XCOM so special: taking gameplay and turning it into a story without the need for over-the-top set pieces, cut scenes, or dialogue trees.

Of course, there will be those who think I am talking absolute nonsense. For them, Enemy Unknown is probably about the strategy and thrill of outsmarting brigades of aliens. Still, that only adds to my testament that, through gameplay alone, XCOM can mean different things to different people.

Worst Bit

The weakest link in 2K’s reboot has to be the game’s presentation. Sure, the menus and UI are incredibly tight, as is the art direction, though occasional hiccups here and there bring the game down a notch.

The Unreal Engine 3 has helped to brings hundreds of stories to life over recent years but fails to give XCOM that extra added boost: character models are basic and offer only a limited amount of customisation, while environments can also get repetitive and animations aren’t always as fluid as they should be. Of course, however minor these issues are in the grand scale of things, Firaxis has to shoulder the blame. The developer had the tools to create a great looking, high-performance title, though didn’t dedicate enough time to polishing the finished product.

Considering it hasn’t even been out for a year, XCOM: Enemy Unknown definitely stands up to what’s currently on the market, especially where turn-based strategy games are concerned. It may not look stunning but that’s not why people will end up looking out this great reboot. For those still sitting on the fence, now is the perfect time to enlist. With the game currently free on PlayStation Plus and an all-new expansion on the way, XCOM might be one of the best game’s you’ve never played.

  1. three_leg_jake
    Since: Aug 2011

    You become even more attached to your soldiers if you give them names of your choosing. Sad but it is true.

    Comment posted on 23/08/2013 at 09:16.
    • mugsybalone
      Since: Aug 2008

      I found naming them after people I work with made it easier to cope with the loss.

      Comment posted on 23/08/2013 at 13:20.
      • RocketSOL
        Since: Oct 2008

        Brilliant! I’m going to try that myself. Although, I may become reckless with some of them.

        Comment posted on 23/08/2013 at 13:44.
  2. damoxuk
    Since: May 2011

    I still stand by assertion that this is the best game of this gen.

    The feeling of intense rage and then downright euphoria in playing it on Impossible is unmatched.

    The expo can’t come soon enough.

    Comment posted on 23/08/2013 at 09:37.
  3. pdannysan13
    Since: Mar 2013

    So this game is available for the entire year on PS+ ? I do not understand.

    Comment posted on 23/08/2013 at 09:46.
  4. Starman
    Since: Jul 2011

    Definitely in my top 5 of this generation. Great game. Hopefully it sold well enough and more like it are made.

    Comment posted on 23/08/2013 at 09:53.
  5. RocketSOL
    Since: Oct 2008

    Bought it on day one and loved it from the very start. It’s one of the most frustrating games I have ever played but still keeps me going back for ‘one more go’. I agree with the downsides you mention. I also get the occasional framerate drop and loss of sound on the PS3 version.

    Comment posted on 23/08/2013 at 10:27.
  6. 3shirts
    Since: Aug 2008

    I just added this to my downloads yesterday. I keep hearing people say it’s great but I just had a lot of games and no time to play so didn’t want to spend money on something I might not get round to.

    Now it’s free on Plus I have downloaded it and resolved to play this and a few other titles that need my time over the next few weeks (before GTAV takes over my life)

    Comment posted on 23/08/2013 at 10:42.
  7. Moshbag
    Since: Nov 2011

    Naming your soldiers takes iron man to another level of entertainment. RIP Major Partridge Tallywackle…

    Comment posted on 23/08/2013 at 14:39.
  8. The Von Braun
    Since: Oct 2012

    On my 2nd playthrough, been huge Xcom fan since i picked up the (still superior) original on PS1.

    Game is sadly bugged, along with the sound drop out’s i found that if i had research going on a thin man corpse before i went to a mission, on returning i’d get the brief that research was finished, but as soon as i went to sell a few bodies, got a bollocking as apparently they were’nt researched.

    The focus on getting sat.coverage is bit flawed for my liking, in orig.i could load up 2X Skyrangers and send them off to seperate missions, here i’m at the games mercy and even when i’ve 2 or more places screaming blue murder, red bars etc, i get asked to supply items or do a mission in an area with a sat.in orbit and low panic rating.

    Still eagerly awaiting the new DLC..Mechs? Ohh hell yeah!.

    Comment posted on 23/08/2013 at 21:39.