XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review
Raise a glass for Jeff ‘Mack’ Po: left to slowly bleed to death in the corner of an unfamiliar part of the world, his teammates within whispering distance but utterly unable to stop his inevitable demise.
Bow your heads in remembrance for Gary ‘Smokes’ Busey, whose shuffle from this mortal coil was expedited somewhat by the injection of a vast amount of chryssalid poison straight into his chest cavity.
And lest we forget Monumentous ‘Plinthy’ Thuggery – she didn’t even know her teammate’s mind had been taken over by a sectoid commander until he unloaded half of his heavy laser clip into her from close range.
XCOM hates you. XCOM wants you dead. And XCOM will see you dead, over and over again. XCOM relies so much on the mortality of your team – the fragility of humans – that it provides players the chance to view a memorial to all the troops lost in defence of the world.
And unless you’re superhuman, playing it on easy or cheating, it will be quite a list. And you will remember your best troops with a heavy heart. It’s still so bizarre that a turn-based strategy game can evoke such a reaction from us, but XCOM does just that.
In the era of ultra-budget mega-blast 9000 ManShooters, you would be forgiven for simply expecting a game like this to simply not exist – or at least never make its way beyond the boundaries of PC gaming.
Taking on a very difficult mission in fact means ‘no rookies allowed’.
But here we are with a strategy game that really lives up to the genre title, a full release not relegated to PSN-level obscurity, something not hastily crammed onto the console but made with all the format’s positives and negatives in mind.
But the best part of it all is simply this: XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of the best games on PS3.
It’s so lovingly crafted, so incredibly deep, so absolutely involving that even when your team of veterans – majors, lieutenants, captains and all – are being minced up by the far superior technology of the unrelenting alien threat, it doesn’t damage the experience. It lifts it. You live, you learn – you die, you learn more.
But it all could have fallen so quickly – a genre not totally suited to pad control, thrown at a console and expected to stick, means instant put-off for all but the most committed.
This isn’t the case, with a slick interface easy to navigate and making it so any mistakes you make are mistakes you make.
With regards to how that works out in the game, it’s pretty straightforward: you have two action points per soldier, per turn. The first can be used to move anywhere within a blue region, then the second follow-up turn can be used to shoot, to use an item, to use a special power, to set yourself into overwatch or to move again a bit further.
Cinematic cameras help make the action a little more exciting than man points gun, misses, dies.
Then, of course, you can run beyond the initial blue area, allowing you to travel further but not allowing an action at the end of it.
Sprint too far and forget about cover and, well, you’re lucky if you haven’t got another name to add to the wall of remembrance. Or you can shoot/use an item and so on in your first go, but that takes up your whole turn. We said straightforward; we seem to have gone deeper than we expected – but trust us, it makes sense in the game.
What this system leads to is a fine balancing act of strategy and movement: overlapping units to cover one another, the mad dash to rescue a civilian in peril, the hunkering down of the sniper because he can hit anything your team can see so that guy can afford to be lazy.
Two simple points of action leads to dozens, hundreds of outcomes. And it’s a flexible enough system that you can play to your own style, fielding a team of heavies to eliminate the opposition with weaponry that weighs more than a small family car, throwing a bunch of nimble, grappling hook-sporting assault class troops in there or, like we do, actually going for a spread of classes and abilities. Because, you know, the latter option actually makes sense.
Thinking doesn’t start and end with the battlefield though – you’re always having to plan, manage and strategise, and it’s always up to you how you go about it.
These things will save your life. Promise.
Base management is a case of building new facilities (more research space, for example, or maybe another satellite array), studying new tech or alien corpses (do you want to learn how to build your own plasma rifles, or chop open a floater?) and a number of other elements to keep you on your toes.
All funding for the XCOM project comes through the world’s governments, and if you piss off an individual nation enough they will leave, cease funding and never return.
If you are bad at the game, in other words, you will lose. That’s something that shouldn’t be a surprise, but we can’t think of many games this generation – or even last – that totally embraced the notion of abject failure.
And believe us, we know about such monumental breakdowns. Stupid Yanks, pulling their funding just because the poxy panic level got too high… Just save often, is our advice.
Because if you don’t adopt saving as a part of your strategy, you will lose your best troops. You will end up underfunded and under-equipped, staffed by rookie youngsters who can barely shoot straight, with no ability to intercept invading UFOs and, well, with what can only be referred to as ‘an absolutely bollocksed planet earth’.
Yes laser guns will save your hide, but only for a couple of missions before you’re quickly outmoded. Again.
Difficulty is one thing we adore – the chance to cock up so much we can totally fail? It’s the most powerful incentive there is.
This is, of course, an update/reimagining/remake of the original X-Com: Enemy Unknown, released way back in 1995 on PSone. While other games have appeared (on PC, natch) that have tried to carry on the legacy of what is often cited as one of the best games ever made, none have succeeded.
It seems all it took to carry the baton on – to take it to greater heights still – was to throw the licence to one of the best strategy game developers in the world and have the team headed by a man both obsessed with the original game and taught by one Sid Meier (if you’re not aware: that man knows his strategy games). Simple, really.
Alright, so it’s not simple. But this combination of factors – skill, knowledge, fandom, budget – means we’re left with not only a fantastic, deep game of strategy but a very sympathetic update to the core tenets of the original.
The features that made the first game so brilliant to play – the Geoscape, research, base-building, combat, fear, permadeath – all return, albeit in modified form.
Find solid cover. It won’t guarantee your safety, but it’ll keep you alive a little bit longer than a park bench could.
Though if they presented us with 1995 all over again there would be questions. And any updates and new features, such as the satellite system, fit the setting and actually add (even more) layers of thought to the game.
So it’s brilliant, yeah? Perfect, right? No, of course not. The biggest point has to be that, despite its quality, it won’t appeal to everyone.
That’s not a statement meant to patronise, but there will be people out there who simply cannot get on board with the central principles of taking your time, planning, thinking and coming up with a reaction on the fly as you get rushed by a muton beserker and a cyberdisc suddenly appears in a flanking position.
But nothing appeals to everyone. Maybe we’re starved for this particular genre, which is making us love it more than we otherwise would, but there hasn’t been something this special in the genre since… well, since the original. Or maybe Valkyria Chronicles – from which XCOM takes some cues – at a push.
From a more superficial perspective, it’s fair to point out that the game can look a bit off at times.
It’s very much an Unreal Engine title and it shows – big, chunky soldiers (made to look like action figures, of course) and textures that decide to load in a few seconds after the level has actually loaded might be cause for some to criticise.
Satellites will help lower panic across the different countries. That’s very useful, by the way.
It’s fair – they’re imperfections. Sometimes your soldier will shoot in entirely the wrong direction but still score a hit. If your troop can see an enemy and hit them then you can shoot at them, regardless of the obstacles in your way – things like that pop up and can knock you out of the experience somewhat.
But really, that’s all we can think of. Some superficial whining and the traditional, obvious claim that you might not like it, especially if you hate both thinking and losing. They’re not problems. They’re straws to be grasped at.
They’re balance in a critique that we’re trying to achieve – they’re all we can do to hold back the torrent of sheer, unfettered praise-soaked joy that wants to spring forth from our happy glands.
Because XCOM: Enemy Unknown is special. It’s a labour of love that has paid off massively. Every element comes together, every angle is covered, every little control quirk that could have existed has been ironed out.
A few hours in you’ll be making progress, a few dozen hours later you’ll barely have scratched the surface. You’re not just playing: you’re planning. You’re using strategy. You’re not being patronised. You’re being treated like an adult.
But the best part? The best part is that XCOM hates you.