Although I was never a diehard X-COM fan (yes, there was a hyphen at some point!), I heartily enjoyed most of the games in the franchise, particularly the few in the early-mid 90s. What made the games so special was the fact that they combined both action strategy and resource management into one beautiful, tough-as-nails marriage. Well, now the time has finally come for the franchise to grace the console generation — and I have to say, I like what I see.
There’s really no other way to put this – XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of the best games I’ve played all year.
What’s the best way to describe this new version of XCOM? Well, think “Gears of War meets Final Fantasy Tactics. With aliens.”
You have may heard that this updated version of the PC classic series is “dumbed down,” but that is absolutely not the case. Gameplay is just implemented differently than the old school classic, and contains a number of improvements along the way with a ton of complexities of its own. Let’s be honest — you’re never going to satisfy both newcomers and hardcore old school fans all at once. But you can attempt to strike a happy medium — which XCOM: EU does beautifully.
Similar to how Mass Effect 2 pared down the hundreds of guns and attachments from the original (much to the chagrin of many fans), gone are the days of having to juggle a billion in-game items and ammo — now you have to juggle something else entirely.
The game’s opening tutorial serves as not only an opener for how to actually play the game, but a taste of things to come, as it sets up the story of a fairly brutal, unexpected alien invasion. Essentially, aliens have come, and you are not prepared for it. Through the XCOM Initiative, which you are a part of, you have to assemble a swarthy crew, build a solid base, find out what things these are capable of, and stop them.
Action takes place on a individual maps, and enemies are randomly generated onto them. In a step back from the old games, you have six troop choices are your disposal per mission, ranging from a support class that can throw smoke grenades down for cover, to snipers, to assault troops who can utilize more movement-based and close combat abilities.
Outside of combat, you’re going to be tackling with what might be the hardest part of the game: base management. Using your best micromanagement skills, you’ll not only build a custom base, but you’ll also handle the day to day operations of just about every facet of an imaginary super secret underground hidden anti-alien base. This basically translates to keeping both the scientists/R&D and workshop/factory people happy, as you juggle your squad, and, well, the rest of the entire world.
That’s right, you are XCOM, which is fully funded by all the major world powers. That means you have to keep those world powers happy if you want to keep your monthly funding up: which basically translates to more buildings, troops, upgrades, weapons, armor, and…everything.
You can pretty much turn down every mission in the game: but it comes at a price. Every country has a worldwide “panic meter” that you can keep track of in the war room. If any of these countries gets to the maximum level, they pull out of the XCOM initiative, and are basically lost to the alien invasion.
Your job is to make sure everyone is happy, which is easier said than done, because every time you take a mission solely for an individual country, the other countries will raise their panic meter. It even takes time to travel from your home base to the actual mission — every single time you take action, the game is literally showing you the consequences it may have — even if the mission looks wholly good on the surface.
As you progress, this meta-game becomes increasingly complex. You’ll be asking yourself all sorts of questions, like “do I research things that would help my troops first, so they don’t die a perma-death on the battlefield, or do I attempt to build satellites and ships that will help out other countries?”
All the while you’re fighting to keep a budget, deciding whether or not to take missions for money or other less selfish reasons, and keeping your crew in line. This game is intense and it reminds you at every corner it means business.
As for the actual action gameplay, it’s among some of the best strategic combat you can find on a console. There’s all sorts of advanced strategies you’ll pick up along the way that not only make you more effective as a commander, but it also makes the game more fun. You can kit out snipers with specialized suits of grappling hook enabled armor (skeleton suits), which allows them to reach a higher vantage point.
You can choose different skill-trees for different troops, specializing them in a certain aspect of combat, like the party buffing combat drugs. Options are literally limitless, and you can customize your unit’s names and appearance – and boy, is this simple option one of the most effective mechanics in the game.
Naming troops can have a profound effect on your gameplay experience. For the purposes of my first playthrough, I decided to put my wife into the game first, then all of my friends from college. One by one over the course of the game, I found myself letting my friends die on occasion, but I was super-protective of my wife, hardly letting her into danger unless she really needed to. She survived the entire game where many others fell.
Situations like this haven’t been common, and others were not so lucky. I’ve heard of some of my other colleagues mourning the loss of one of their best colonels — characters they had traveled with for over thirty hours — boom, gone forever. Of course, you will remember the fallen. Not only does the game forever glorify their names in a memorial wall, but you’ll also find that sometimes you need to let someone die, and that you can’t fight the nature of war.
For instance, during some rescue missions, I had at least one or two instances where one person stayed back and valiantly held the line while the others got away with the VIP. It was like something out of a dramatic war movie — that I made. It’s not often that you feel an impact like this in a video game, and XCOM should be commended for it.
To add to the experience is the injury system, which takes troops out of action for a certain amount of in-game days even if they don’t die! Because of this, you have to make quick decisions on the fly, and start building a more balanced team that can not only take over if called to duty, but can take less damage to avoid injury, or death.
You’ll also find solace outside of the game itself, as it will most likely take up some of your free time, while you recall certain missions, and plot out your next course of action. Due to the nuanced gameplay and unpredictably of combat, Enemy Unknown lends itself very well to creating your own personal “battle reports” on blogs, detailing everything that happened to the people you know. Of course, not every squadmate will get to tell his war stories to his posterity — but that’s part of the fun.
There are times when you literally can’t avoid the death of someone, or the rise of a particular country’s panic level. You have to deal with loss, yet you can still win by finishing the game’s story mode. This is exactly the sort of spiritual conundrum Mass Effect 3 should have epitomized, but didn’t truly accomplish.
New games inspire limitless possibilities, right down to the choice of where in the world you want your home base to be, to the randomized countries, missions, encounters, and enemies. I’ve spoken to a few other XCOM players myself, and we’ve all had completely different experiences in just about every facet of the game.
Extra difficulty modes and the Iron Man setting (which disables manual saving and only allows auto-saving) will also keep you playing for months to come. At the time of this writing, I’m working on a Classic Mode (read: Hard Mode) Iron Man run, and it’s a ton of fun. Yes, you can outright fail and get a permanent “Game Over” (especially on Iron Man without a prior save to go through), but that’s part of the charm: and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Visually, the game isn’t incredibly striking, but the style is consistent and fits. While the soundtrack is a bit too familiar (Mass Effect), it gets the job done, and some decent voicework from your mission instructor helps remind you that you are not alone, whether it’s during campaigns or at your base.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is challenging, satisfying, and heartbreaking. It’s also one of the best strategy games this generation, and potentially of all time. If you’re itching for a game that will either last you a long while, or challenge both your mind and your fortitude, this is it.
This review is based on a physical copy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown for the Xbox 360.