For me, XCOM Enemy Unknown was a double-edged sword going in. On one hand, I am a huge fanatic when it comes to anything involving aliens and their mythology. On the other, I am not the world’s biggest fan of turn-based strategy and base management games. It is hard to believe but the XCOM series has been around for nearly two decades, and it has been over a decade since its last installment, making this one of the most sought after returns in recent memory. Fans have been waiting a long time for XCOM to return, and with the guys at Firaxis at the helm, the expectations were through the roof.
The story is pretty cut and dry. It is the year 2015, aliens are invading Earth, abducting humans and causing general panic and terror. The Council of Nations decides to reactivate the long defunct Extraterrestrial Combat Unit (XCOM) to save the world. This secret military organization works with all of the nations around the globe to fend off the alien visitors with the aid of each country. You will train soldiers, interrogate enemies and research new weapons and technology to fight off the xeno invasion. Classic sci-fi narratives completely intact.
While the story serves as more of a backdrop to everything else, it is presented fairly well. It all fits together nicely and the voice acting is superb. Sure, none of it is going to drive you forward, but it serves its purpose in giving you reason to be out there fending off these alien creatures, and working to learn more about them.
If you are familiar with the name Firaxis, you probably know it comes associated with Sid Meier and the Civilization games a lot. The company knows its turn-based strategy, and has been honing its skill set since their first game, Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, back in 1997. Enemy Unknown never shies away from what it is. This is a turn-based strategy game with base-building and economy management. You will spend ample time in menus researching items, training soldiers and just making routine decisions. What draws you in is how those decisions and actions affect your overall experience. Like Dead Rising, you will likely start this game over multiple times until you get the strategies down right.
This is actually one of the game’s strongest features. There is rarely enough time and resources to do all of what you need to do. The game constantly forces you to make a sacrifice on one end or the other. Sending a soldier for advanced training means you lose them on the field, while researching one technology may result in expending time and resources that prevent you from going down another path. These are the types of things you are constantly tasked with, and a big part of what keeps you coming back for subsequent playthroughs. There is also just so much to see and do, and none of it is “the right way”.
What draws you deeper into the game is the personalization of your squad. You can rename them as your friends and slowly upgrade their style to suit your needs. Characters progress with experience and kills, and eventually get promoted and unlock new skills to help on the battlefield. They can also die. When this happens it becomes more personal as they land in the memorial, complete with bagpipe music and stats on their career. It can be heartbreaking to lose a long-standing soldier on the battlefield, but again this is another area where Firaxis has crafted a gameplay element. Learning to overcome adversity and moving on is a big part of a winning strategy.
One thing you might not suspect about a game like Enemy Unknown is how much terror it actually induces. The game makes your mistakes count, and your deaths meaningful. Everything you do in each mission will haunt you down the line. It is impossible to talk about this game without mentioning the effects your actions have. The smallest choice or mistake can really come back to haunt you. Now don’t get me wrong, the game is hard as nails, but it isn’t without choice. There are a plethora of difficulty options including easy, which truly lets you get accustomed to the systems in place. Normal is a challenge, Classic brings a reminder of how crushing the series can be and you can get always toggle on the Ironman setting (a single save that is auto-updated), which is considered the real way to play the game.
Firaxis has done an amazing job of crafting the game to work for nearly everyone, and also making you actually want to play on the harder difficulties. The sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when you pull off a tough mission, or make it further into the campaign, is unmatched by most other titles. Then if you just want to snooze your way through and mow down enemies, easy is the perfect option for that. Customizing your experience is simple, and you can even change difficulties in the midst of your game so you are never locked in to one specific route.
One of the larger concerns for a game like this is how it might play on a console. Translating the type of movement and control you need for a strategy game onto a controller can provide a challenge. Firaxis isn’t new at this, in fact Civilization Revolution quickly comes to mind, as that worked fairly well on console. Enemy Unknown continues this tradition. You select your movement with the left stick, while moving the battlefield cam with the right. You can rotate the camera with the d-pad left and right, and change levels by using up and down. Starting attacks is as easy as pulling the right trigger and then selecting an action. There are also several hot keys such as tapping the Y/Triangle button to go into Overwatch mode, which allows you to fire on enemies who move into your line of sight.
In addition to the offline affair, you can also hop online for a 1v1 match against your friends (or enemies). The online portion strips away the base-building aspect of the game and offers up a point budget both players must abide by. Each unit (and upgrade for the humans) has a cost that adds to your army “price.” Different strategies are employed online, and you will likely see people using bolder tactics than they would in single player. Let’s be fair, the risk is not as high in a quick match. While limited in appeal, the online is still a fun diversion. The biggest gripe will come in a lack of maps. There simply isn’t enough to keep environments fresh. You can also setup a go-to squad to use online, but sadly you can only have one.
Visually, the game has a unique art style that really lends itself to the source material. Colors are dominantly green and brown, but a bit brighter than your normal boring shooter look. The destructible environments are the highlight, as you watch gas stations explode, cars erupt and pieces of cover crumble. The camera can be fickle at times, giving you a hard view of the battlefield. You can turn it manually, but only in set increments. Frame rate is decent on consoles with some noticeable slowdown in specific areas. Nothing ever makes it unplayable, but it is noticeable. Sound is great with the aforementioned fantastic voice acting. Also the score is memorable, featuring some really great tunes and sound effects.
When you consider this is technically a remake of the original XCOM title, there are bound to be comparisons. From what I have discovered what is truly missing is the sheer amount of depth and tactical concepts the original game delivered. That isn’t to say this game doesn’t deliver on those fronts, but it is still a testament to the original that not since then has a game matched the bar it set. Enemy Unknown is more than a worthy successor, and will definitely appease fans of the genre while roping in a few newcomers for sure. If you enjoy this type of game, I cannot recommend it enough. It takes the series, and genre to new levels, and sets an entirely new bar for quality.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.