Eighteen years after its inception, the X-COM series is finally back. Courtesy of 2K Games and Firaxis, turn based strategy against alien invaders returns to PC and consoles. Sporting modern 3D graphics and a more streamlined style of play than the first few games in the series, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a rare bird. Big budget, turn based games are all but nonexistent these days outside of Japanese RPGs, and elements like resource management and permanent character deaths are even rarer. Looking over monthly expense reports for your base or assigning research projects to teams of scientists might not sound especially enticing to modern console gamers, but XCOM wants to prove that deliberately paced decision making can be very exciting and fun, even with a gamepad.
Aliens have attacked Earth and it’s up to you, as the commander of XCOM, to save civilians, rescue high value personnel, and generally fight a bunch of extraterrestrials. This story isn’t especially engrossing or original, but it is very earnest. There aren’t many notes of sarcasm or humor in this tale, but it works. XCOM has a very specific personality and gives just enough exposition to let you know what you’ll be doing and why. After a brief tutorial mission that introduces basic game mechanics and establishes the telepathic abilities of your foes, you will need to establish a base of operations and begin deciding how to allocate time and resources. I’ll admit that the idea of juggling research projects, sending supplies to various countries, and building additions to my base all seemed pretty daunting at first, but XCOM walked me through each of these processes and made me understand them before taking off the training wheels. Having scientists perform alien autopsies, interrogations, or research technology your troops recover in the field each take different amounts of time and you’ll need to decide the order in which to have your people work on these projects. Likewise, building satellites, expanding your base, and developing weapon upgrades operate on their own timetables, making thoughtful management of time, money, and other resources paramount. After delegating various tasks to your engineers and scientists you’ll need to scan Earth for abductions sites and alien craft. More satellites monitoring more countries means more missions and less panic. When missions pop up you will have the option to send in a team or ignore them. Ground teams can be built from soldiers with specializations ranging from assault and sniping to heavy weapons and support. With the right research and assets you will later gain access to unmanned vehicles and troops with psychic abilities. Soldiers will level up based on their kill counts and number of missions you take them on, but, if they die in the field, they’re gone forever. Now, if you save frequently you can reload missions and try to keep all of your troops alive, but some will fall along the way. This lends a great deal of importance to every choice you make in this game and keeps battles tense and electric. If it’s not already obvious, there’s a lot going on in XCOM, but the beauty of this game is how well all of its systems work together. In a lot of ways it’s like two games mixed together. Time is split between managing a base and tense, tactical ground battles. This setup is incredibly engrossing, very addictive, and unlike anything I’ve ever played.
Sound effects from the pulses of alien weaponry to death rattles of aliens themselves are punchy and unique, making XCOM sound every bit the scifi thriller. Since you won’t be able to see your enemies for certain portions of each mission, the sounds they make help build a lot of tension. After each player turn the words “Alien Activity” will appear on screen accompanied by creepy, guttural utterances that solidify each skirmish as a frightening, deadly affair. Voice acting is generally serviceable, and fits the game’s mood, but, outside of the ominous and faceless council, isn’t really memorable. The music in XCOM is definitely good, but you likely won’t find yourself humming any of the soundtrack once you stop playing. Everything you’ll hear while managing your base and taking the fight to the aliens has been produced with consistent quality and focus that helps sell this experience.
The original XCOM featured turn based fights that were viewed from an isometric perspective. It was a way of using two dimensional graphics to convey three dimensional areas and troop layouts in an easy to understand way that early 90s computers could handle. XCOM: Enemy Unknown may have flashy new 3D graphics, but the spirit and functionality of its isometric heritage remains, and that’s simply fantastic. Even on consoles, it’s a breeze to understand where you can move troops, whether or not they’ll be in cover, and what enemies they have line of sight on. The amount of information this game conveys visually is quite impressive. Character models all sport distinctive silhouettes and can be customized to make them more easily identifiable from a distance. Alien designs are very striking and some, like the thin man, look particularly menacing. While at your base you’ll be able to zoom in on different areas or see every room from afar in a view reminiscent of looking at an open dollhouse. Seeing all your soldiers, scientists, and captured aliens from this perspective gives XCOM a palpable sense of scale and legitimizes the effectiveness of your custom base layout. Action during combat is highlighted with cinematic camera angles and close-ups that keep the visual presentation from getting stale and show off cool weapon effects and gruesome deaths alike. Visual flourishes like rain and fire help spice up how this game looks, and everything generally looks polished. There are moments where characters will shoot through solid walls or fire bullets sideways out of their guns, but these instances don’t happen often enough to be a problem. XCOM is not the best looking game I’ve ever seen by a long stretch, but it can be very pretty and gets extra points for its deft handling of so much strategic information through clean and functional visuals.
As I said before, it’s not often that we see high profile turn based strategy games anymore. That’s a shame, because, when done right, gameplay like this can be more thrilling than most action games. Moving troops to different cover points, worrying about being flanked, and often not knowing which direction a threat will come from make each move you make extremely important. During each turn you’ll be able to move each soldier a set distance, have them fire on enemies, use specific abilities, or go into overwatch mode: where they will fire on any foe that moves within their line of sight during the next turn. You can move a soldier twice as far in a turn by having them dash, but they won’t be able to do anything else until your next turn. Each character class can earn different abilities as they level up that might allow them to shoot twice in one turn, dash and shoot in the same turn, or carry more med kits. Creating and properly utilizing a team of specialized troops takes a lot of thought, and completing a mission with everyone alive is immensely satisfying. The chance of hitting an enemy depends on character stats like aim and will as well as elevation, cover, and whether or not you have them flanked. Moments will arise in battle where you might need to risk a shot with a low percentage chance to hit, because otherwise you’ll be exposed. I’ve shot enemies when I only had a 25% chance to hit and I’ve missed when I had a 90% chance. That level of uncertainty adds a great deal of tension to skirmishes and it does so without ever feeling cheap. Certain situations will lure you into feeling overly confident and I found myself getting cocky a few times and losing troops because of it. Thoughtfully allocating your time and resources between battles will pay dividends, while making rash decisions could mean losing more soldiers and losing the support of various countries around the globe. Anyone looking for a polished and nuanced strategy experience (especially on a console) would be hard-pressed to find better than XCOM.
All of the different decisions to make along with the inherent unpredictability of combat makes XCOM: Enemy Unknown endlessly replayable. Just getting through the story on Normal difficulty took me around 20 hours, and I’ve already started going through again on the harder, “classic” setting. Add to that the aptly titled “impossible” mode and you’ve got a lot of single player content to enjoy. Then there are leaderboards and a very fun multiplayer mode as well. Some missions and enemy placements are randomized, satellite and base placement affect what missions you have access to, and how you level up and train your team can drastically alter each playthrough. Honestly, the hardest part of making this review was just putting down XCOM long enough to write about it. This is probably my favorite game of the year so far and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for something different who isn’t afraid of a challenge.
Design – 9.5
Audio – 8.5
Graphics – 8.5
Gameplay – 10
Replay Value – 9.5
Overall – 9.2