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XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review – Tinfoil Hats Recommended

Date: October 22, 2012
Author(s): Jamie Fletcher

It’s been a long time coming. Developed by the fine folks at Firaxis, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a reimagining of the classic strategy game, but without the genre-bending tactics of other ill-fated titles. Will veterans of the original rejoice? Does it remain fresh for a new audience? Have I really been mind controlled? Read on to find out!

Introduction – The Unknown Enemy

I have been a long-time player of anything and everything X-COM/UFO-based. It all started with an unhealthy obsession with a demo back in 1994, UFO: Enemy Unknown – or X-COM: UFO Defense in the US. Merely a year later in 1995, Terror From the Deep came out, an underwater excursion using the same engine but with a new lick of paint and some shady ‘science’. I still feel that Apocalypse was an underrated game, sure – you were tied to a single city for what was a global event – but the engine used was surprisingly complex (throwing a grenade into the corner of a building could set off a cascade of falling debris and a very unhappy landlord).

I have played the ‘inspired by’ series of ‘After‘ games: UFO Aftermath, Aftershock and Afterlight. The latter was an exceptional game, one where you had to not only fend off the continued invasion of aliens, but also terraform Mars within time of the waking survivors of Earth who are currently in suspension.

I have continued with current game releases and spin-offs from other developers too, such as UFO: Extraterrestrials and the open source UFO: Alien Invasion. Hell, I’ve played and even completed X-COM: Interceptor; being a glutton for punishment, I even played and nearly completed… hold on a minute, this is just as painful as passing a kidney-stone… played… X-COM: Enforcer. Why? No really, why the hell did I play that?!?

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Anyway – I have been playing this series for a very long time. A couple years ago, I had heard about a reboot to the series by 2K Games. My little heart jumped with joy and was Borderlands borderline ecstatic. Straight up ‘XCOM‘ as it would be known, had been in development for a long time, but no details had been released till 2010. As soon as I had calmed down, it was later announced that XCOM would be, of all things, a first-person shooter. Oh how my heart sank like a stone; jubilation quickly became disgruntled psychoses. For some strange reason, I also started to develop gallstones at this point. Must be a coincidence.

However, not all was lost! Super secret Sectoid familiars had been mind-controlling a separate team headed up at Firaxis (also under the 2K banner), and this was to be the re-imagining and reboot to the series that us long-time strategy nuts had been after. XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Sorry, I just had this overwhelming Austin Powers moment to shout, “Yeah, Baby!”.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

So here we are, with the fully-completed product developed by the folks that did Civilization and in the same genre as the original. It’s at this point I can say life is good – even my gallstones have been removed. Yes, this is a long intro, but it’s every bit as deserving. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the real deal, and one that the original developers to the franchise can be proud of. Go forth, buy, play, enjoy.

Oh wait, you want a full review too? Damn…

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

There are so many things right with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It has the split interface and gameplay mechanics of the original; having both the strategic Geoscape where you handle the day to day operations of a globally-funded, alien arse-kicking, political warzone. Then there’s the tactical gameplay where you will arguably be spending much of your time, controlling your troops on the ground so that you they don’t do something silly. It’s like The Sims, but with guns… and a purpose. Yeah, I said it… what of it?

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Where Firaxis has added its flare is with the approachability to it all. The original X-COM games were pretty much games of discovery. You were plopped into a situation with absolutely no hand-holding, no tutorials, no real idea of what’s best or what to do. While some may love this (and forums can be littered with vitriolic disdain for the ‘super easy’ culture), it’s much better to be given at least some idea as to what you should be doing and how. It’s not all sunshine and roses though, as you quickly find yourself in an impossible situation with all but one of your troops dead by the end of it. This will become a very common and ugly lesson that needs to be learnt early – not everyone will make it back alive.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

This is not to say that troops are disposable, far from it. They are both critical to your success and very hard to train – and they most certainly need training. How your soldiers develop is both a little bit of luck and player control. Each soldier has a natural affinity to a particular role – and you don’t find that role out till they’re promoted.

There are four roles in total: Assault are your all-purpose frontline soldier, with a wide range of situational abilities at their disposal. Heavies are as their name suggests, bringing the pain with an array of explosives and heavy weapons. Support are much more than medics in this, and you should not underestimate their capabilities. Finally, we have the Sniper. While their role is somewhat limited, they are extremely dangerous. I’ll let it out now that a single Sniper on my team is personally responsible for a third of my total kill-count so far. Yes, there’s that personal attachment thing kicking in…

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Once a soldier’s role is known, it’s then left up to the player as to how they progress. Your decisions are mostly binary, and more abilities are unlocked as the soldier’s rank increases. People who are familiar with the franchise will also be aware of that dreadful gotchya in the later game, that of latent psionic abilities. Unlike previous generations of the games, not all soldiers are psychic, nor can they be trained; they either have it, or they don’t, and you won’t find out till much later in the game. This leads to another problem – psionics are not only rare in the game, they’re also a lot more powerful. You won’t find alien turns filled with the screen flashing all over the place as an army of Ethereals unleash wave after wave of panic attacks – instead, you’ll find members of your team going rogue in a heartbeat, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Medkits and healing in general is significantly more important too, due to a new willpower-based system and critical injuries. If a soldier becomes injured, you can either wait till the mission is over, whereupon they spend a few days in the med-bay, or try and heal them during the mission to minimize their time out of action.

However, if a soldier is knocked unconscious via a critical wound, then things become rough. You typically have three turns to stabilize them before they die, but the damage has already been done. Critical wounds cause a permanent loss of willpower to that soldier, and it’s not a small loss, either. They will become easier to scare and/or control. Even something like suppressive fire will cause them to become paralyzed with fear. It’s sad to say, but that soldier may as well be dead at this point and you should consider relieving them of duty.

Let’s Talk Tactics…

One thing that has caused a great deal of contention, especially to veterans, was the removal of Time Units. For those new to the series, Time Units were an arbitrary point system that limited the number of actions you could perform per turn, and it was something of a guessing game at the best of times. Even minute actions such as turning, crouching and basic inventory management would consume time units – not to mention the failings of a poor path-finder algorithm sending units in circles.

I was personally not fond of the system. In later X-COM games, real-time was introduced as an alternative method, where actions could be planned out paused, then ‘played’ at various speeds with the AI responding in-kind. This took a bit of time to adjust to, especially coming from years of turn-based, but it worked, sort of.

This time round, we are back to turn-based strategy, but with a twist. No more time units and mental arithmetic getting in the way, a misjudged angle preventing you from firing, or a bad path-finder sending you into a hoard of oncoming aliens (I lied, that still happens). This time, it’s a phase-based system, where each soldier performs up to 2 actions. Run and shoot, an extended run, use an ability to fire twice, or run twice and shoot… it simplifies the whole process and you spend more time thinking about tactics.

What’s more is that switching weapons has no cost, so you can gauge which weapon to use depending on the situation (going for a kill or a stun, what’s your aim like with the two, can you get a critical hit in?). Crouching is completely automated too due to the cover system. Soldiers will make use of whatever is around them, with nice little icons showing either full or partial cover. You don’t even need to set a direction for them to stare at.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Terrain and cover in general is a lot more important too – even with the best armor in the game, you can still take a plasma shot to the face and end up face down in the dirt. There is also a flanking bonus – or penalty, depending which side you’re on, where the target becomes much easier to hit and has a higher critical hit chance – so don’t go standing out in the open and always watch your back, and sides.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Elevation doesn’t play a major role anymore either; multi-level buildings are just the ground floor and roof. Even boarding ships, you rarely need to worry about different floors. However, when you do find yourself switching between levels, it’s an often painful experience, and this is one of the few major gripes I have with the game.

This is mainly an interface issue, but it does complicate an otherwise simple task. Quite often, the auto-hide function does not work, especially when dealing with transitions and half-levels that are frequently found on ships. This makes targeting the correct location to run to very difficult, and general selections non-trivial. It also lends to a rather messy view with some things hidden, and other things that should be out of the way, obscuring critical cover positions. This should be fixed in due time, but we’ll see.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

There are a number of tactical options that all troops have as well; one is the familiar Overwatch, and the other Hunker Down. Overwatch is a state of reaction fire that you can assign to soldiers, where upon they will automatically shoot at a target that enters their line of sight, in either your turn or the aliens.

One slight gripe I have with this compared to the former games is that, all soldiers that can take a shot, will do so at the same time. This can lead to a case of overkill for a single target, but additional targets that pop their head round the corner will go by unharmed. In a way, this makes sense; you can’t coordinate a reaction shot with everyone else, you take it when you have a chance – but hey, I did say it was a slight gripe. Hunker Down is as its name suggests – you make use of your available cover more effectively, making you harder to hit, but with limited sight. Useful for when under suppression fire.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Speaking of useful, no more ammo! Quiet down, I heard that disgruntled groan. In truth, I do believe this was a good thing. While not strictly ‘realistic’, it didn’t serve much purpose other than to waste a turn flicking through your inventory – and who realistically ran out of ammo in the original games? While ammo may be free, reloading is not, as it will consume your action phase. The weapon will also determine how often you need to reload too. So in all honesty, it remains balanced – you still lose your turn, but at least you don’t have to worry about 100s of ammo clips filling up your warehouse.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

One issue that will crop up for many is the lack of free-aim on most weapons. You can no longer deliberately shoot at terrain to uncover targets, or shoot at a target that’s outside of your visual range (at least not without a certain skill). This makes for some troublesome gameplay. If you miss a target and hit a wall instead, you destroy the wall allowing better aim for other soldiers. So why can’t this be done deliberately? Explosives have free aim, so why not gun-fire?

Another issue is that rocket launchers has very limited range, not much further than a grenade, and even the slightest piece of terrain can limit this further. These little inconsistencies are problematic, but not completely detrimental. Something for the modders to work on (hint hint, nudge nudge).

To Kill or Not to Kill…

While there is a great deal of nuance with the tactics, especially with regard to abilities and weapon limitations, one thing will plague you through the entire game. Should you kill or capture? Killing a target is comparatively easy, shoot it till it’s dead. Problem, when it dies, any equipment it was carrying explodes and all you’re left with are Fragments and a corpse. Not much can be done with those.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

It’s still useful to an extent, but it would be much better to keep the equipment intact. This is when capturing aliens alive becomes critical. It’s more than just for interrogation purposes, you need whole pieces of tech to research too. Much of the equipment you find can be reverse-engineered from the fragments and various research paths, but it’s almost prohibitively expensive to manufacture, requiring what precious few resources you’ve scavenged so far.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

There is another challenge to overcome too. Using explosives will destroy everything except the corpse, leaving you with almost nothing. So while explosives are effective and useful for clearing terrain, they will destroy whatever salvageable equipment may be left.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

This leads me onto loadout. There is no inventory management system, all equipment is chosen before combat, and what you bring is limited. So while ammo is unlimited, things such as grenades and medkits are not. These are basically ‘utility’ items, support, and have limited uses.

What will bug a lot of people, myself included, is that each soldier can typically only carry one utility item, and there are quite a few to choose from. Worse still, you have to pick between things like a grenade, extra body armor, an Arc Thrower (stun gun), or a S.C.O.P.E., you can’t have it all! Soldiers that have the support class, may pick two such utility items in later ranks, as well as unlock multiples of the same (use a medkit three times, or carry extra grenades). Doesn’t matter the diversity of your equipment though, you can guarantee that the situation your soldier finds themselves in, you’ll have the wrong utility item – now if only stun guns could heal.

What’s the plan, Commander?

So with tactics sorted, what’s the strategy, what’s the big picture, and where’s my coffee? Behold, the latest in civil engineering and fancy 3D planning, the Geoscape Ant Farm! Hmm, thought it would be bigger…

This is where the magic happens: weapons are manufactured, base utilities administrated, otherworldly research that’s far beyond our understanding, unraveled in a matter of days. The bustling heart of our last line of defense against the invaders. So, uhm, where are all the people? Those two have been running on treadmills for months now.

I admit, visually, this is a step up from anything I’ve seen before, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with a lot of the hype that Firaxis made over this. I was kind of expecting a little variety, maybe more people wondering around as the numbers of staff grew. Once you’ve seen it all, that’s it, it just becomes another overly graphical menu system. And I really wanted to throw a get well soon party for poor Snyder who took a plasma bolt to the… elbow. At the same time, what else could you do?

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

A lot of planning is spent in engineering, deciding what to build, what to upgrade, and which facilities to construct. No matter what you do though, you will always face two reoccurring problems; not enough resources and not enough engineers. This is something that’s boggled my brain for a while. Soldiers are easy to get, you just pop down to your local military depot, point fingers at a bunch of people and congratulations! Your army is twice the size! When it comes to scientists, and especially engineers, you have to wait for them to be given to you, or spend a fortune building workshops and labs, as well as wait for construction to finish, to add 5 at a time. It just seems artificially restricting.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

The Geoscape is hard to miss, the big blue orb we call Earth, bang in the middle of the complex, a reminder of what we’re protecting. It’s just unfortunate that no matter how many times I search for activity, nothing crops up, or at least very little. When something does, it’s often multiple choice, three choices, three rewards, but you can only pick one – the other countries will fall further into decay. This is one thing that really bugged me after a while. I complete every mission that’s thrown my way, yet it’s never enough. Panic continues to escalate and I have no means to do anything about it. Then these countries threaten to pull my precious funding. If only I could do multiple missions simultaneously…

This is when a very ugly truth slaps you in the face. You only have one base. This particular issue has been repeated so many times across many reviews and comments, and it’s not just rhetoric. XCOM is meant to be a globally-funded organization, right smack in the middle of an extinction level event, and the best the world can offer is a single base. Sure, you have hangers in five other continents, but all your personnel and resources are tied up in a single base. What could possibly go wrong?

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

OK, I’m being a little harsh and over-dramatic, but the fact remains, this was a major disappointment. Having multiple bases meant multiple squads, A teams and B teams, even C teams, providing multiple opportunities to train individuals. Maybe you want one base to concentrate on manufacturing, another on research. It provided a means to react in multiple locations simultaneously – kind of what you need in a crisis.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Instead, we’re given a couple satellites with insufficient means to coordinate them, and hangers in countries with no intel. Perfect. Also, for 2015, intel on alien invasions not via one of your satellites is extremely poor for a globally funded, international organization… I guess the aliens took down the entire Internet and communication network, but left the satellites and power alone. OK, I’ll stop there. Something for an expansion (pretty please, Firaxis).

There are multiple types of missions, and a fine addition from Firaxis. Rather than the usual tag, bag and eradicate, there are on occasion ‘special interest’ missions. Save and retrieve a foreign dignitary. Stop a bomb from exploding within a limited number of turns. Escort a civilian to safety. A nice little variety from the usual abduction and crash landings.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

One mission that is both old and new, is the dreaded terror missions. These were the bane of the originals and in all successors, and what really defined the series. Aliens, stirring up all kinds of trouble in big, populated areas. It’s not just about killing aliens, it’s also about protecting civilians. That fear when a Crysalid bursts out into the open, and then charges towards a civilian – yeah, that fear is still there… backed up with Floaters that are actually dangerous for a change, and Mutons that know how to use a grenade. If you screw these missions up, or worse still, ignore, then all kinds of hell will break loose.

A Movie from the Directors Chair – Plus Credits

One thing that Firaxis really deserves major credit for, are the little cut-scenes and animations. Shoulder-cam sprinting, down-the-barrel long-distance shots, slow-motion rag-doll collapses, heavy weapons deploying and letting rip, soldiers breaking down doors, bursting through windows and rolling to cover, ducking for cover when under suppressive fire, using a grappling hook to perch a sniper on the roof. It’s all these little cinematics that bring an element of action to an otherwise static tactical interface.

It’s not just your soldiers that steal the camera either. Whenever a group of aliens are uncovered, they scramble every which-way in surprise, each with their own cinematic. From the Gorilla-like chest-thumping of the Mutons, to the eerie descent of the mobile weapons platforms – Cyberdiscs. The drama really does make an adventure out of the story.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

There are a few things that break the illusion though, and the big one is the voice acting. Everyone is an American in another country’s colors. Sorry, but that pseudo-German accent from the doctor doesn’t fool me either. Firaxis even hired a cinema trailer guy as your CO, being all mysterious with his shadowed face and heavily dramatic and sinister voice. Homage to the 90s maybe?

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

There are a number of things that stick out as unpolished or under-developed though. The interceptor dog-fights for one. It’s one ship vs another and you have almost no control over it bar a couple disposable buttons you can push to temporarily increase aim or dodge. You can’t send multiple interceptors after a single target, just one after another for a tough ship.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

There was an attempt at soldier customizing, for which we should be thankful for. Those that pre-ordered though got something that should have been in the game anyway, armor color customization. If you bought the game and didn’t get a pre-order bonus, then I’m afraid you are stuck with all your soldiers looking the same. This really should have been a standard feature for all versions, since telling different soldiers apart when they are 90% covered in armor, all glowing the same colors of red or green – it’s a little difficult. There is no DLC available yet to unlock this.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Despite my criticism of the Strategic overlay and the base management – the core of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the down on the ground with your troops tactics, is a fabulous piece of work. The different interactions of soldier skills, the balance of kill vs capture, even the AI on normal is challenging enough. If you really want to feel what you did with the old games though, you have to play on Classic difficulty – preferably on Ironman.

What’s Ironman, you ask? A single save version of the game. Something bad happened and you lost your colonel, tough, deal with it. Think of it as a self-imposed anti-cheat mechanism to stop you rolling back when things turn sour. Losing good men and women under your command is part of the game. There is even a memorial wall for you to cry over, cursing the day you lost your best Sniper – if only they were there in your last mission, half the team wouldn’t be in sickbay.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I could write so much more about this game, the idiosyncrasies, the little gripes, the moments of unexpected delight, the shock on my face when I first saw a pack of Mutons burst out of a door and nearly slaughter two of my men. While there is some mild negativity, I still think and feel that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a worthy successor to classic. What the future holds is beyond me. Maybe Apocalypse without being limited to a single city; Terror from the Deep, this time with proper diving gear instead of brass helmets from the 19th century. Who knows?

If you are new to the franchise, or a veteran like me, there’s something for everyone here. This is one for the wishlist, and ready to be delivered by a jolly red fatman. With that in mind, I’m very happy to give this an Editor’s Choice. Thank you, Firaxis, for not pulling a Syndicate.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Editor's Choice
XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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