Right off the bat I can confirm to you that XCOM: Enemy Unknown possesses great potential to frustrate. Frustration need not be a bad thing if it drives your compulsion to forge onward – a fact that Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls exploit in style – but if bugs, glitches or questionable design is the root cause then criticism in this direction is entirely justified, and there are enough moments of this kind in XCOM that sours a rewarding and heart-wrenching experience by just a little. The above is certainly no deal-breaker in my book though, and the sense of accomplishment obtainable when overcoming the odds ensures that the heartache is worth it.
In XCOM: Enemy Unknown aliens have invaded earth to wreak havoc on the human populace and it’s your job as commander of the XCOM project to drive away and contain the threat. Old fashioned fear and the will to survive forms the heart of the narrative and is compelling enough that one may overlook the fact this is a well-worn concept given its proliferation in modern media. It’s worth noting at this point that this game is a remake of the 1994 title XCOM: UFO Defense and so the basic premise remains the same. I have not played that game so my assessment of this update is based entirely on my own thoughts and not whether this modern revival holds up by comparison.
It takes a lot of balls to design a game that starts you from the very beginning if you screw up. Super Mario Bros and its ilk on the NES were emblematic of such a design philosophy but these are fairly brisk experiences such that the patient and dedicated can work their way back to their last offing point in relatively short time. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown starting from the very beginning is an absolute possibility and is all the more agonising given the 20 hours or so length of its campaign. On both a macro and micro level critical thinking and decision-making are of the utmost importance and as with the Souls games before it there is no recompense for your foibles. For this the game earned my immediate respect.
Specifically, the game is divided into two segments: base management and combat. In the former, you are responsible for managing a global array of countries that provide funding towards the XCOM project. Funding is key in developing the resources needed to keep the aliens at bay: improving your squad and researching new weapons and armour and building facilities. Facilities are especially important as they allow you to perform already available tasks more efficiently and perform entirely new ones – for instance building a laboratory adds more scientists to the project each month, increasing research speed, and building a satellite uplink increases the size of your satellite coverage.
Satellites help you manage the state of the globe, as well as detecting UFOs. When this occurs you engage the UFO using any interceptors you own in that region in a mini-game. Taking down UFOs is simple enough early on, but later encounters will benefit greatly from equipping more advanced weapons or improving your chances of hitting and dodging fire – again costing money. It’s safe to say that obtaining money through protecting countries is pivotal. Lose too many countries however and that’s it. The game ends and you’ll need to start a new file. It soon becomes obvious that this is no easy feat, as in one mission format the aliens attack three countries at once but you can only attend to the needs of one: panic will rise in the continents you don’t help but the country you do help will provide you with a reward and panic will fall. A panicking country may withdraw from the XCOM project, which deprives you of essential funding. Funding can also be obtained through selling weapon fragments, corpses, and alien ship parts left from the ravages of battle but these can be used in researching new weapons and armour too. I found myself drastically short of a material necessary to advance the game late in my first playthrough, so let it be known that the decisions you make can have far-reaching consequences.
Combat takes place on preset isometric maps in a manner similar to Fire Emblem, ranging from train yards to fire scorched woodlands where you direct four units across them to combat the alien threat, though this number can be increased later. Missions involve both engaging and finding the enemy, with the latter often triggering a quick bout of discordant music to ratchet up the tension and a cinematic close-up of the alerted aliens. Here the aliens are given a chance to arrange their defensive positions and the battle stage is set. It’s an effective system in terms of immersing the player, and each encounter feels emotionally charged by consequence. Equally as tense is the risk of discovering more aliens in the dark when you are left exposed and unprepared or are already engaged in combat. Each movement you make must be carefully considered and the game encourages you to make use of your surroundings for defensive purposes, and is a pivotal system to take advantage of on classic and impossible difficulties.
You may wonder where my talk of frustration factors into my assessment. Failing a playthrough by losing too many countries can be agonising, but it’s entirely your own fault if you do as the game requires you to handle your resources meticulously and that’s fine. Where some of the game’s shortcomings lie is in the combat and depending on the context of the situation these issues can be mildly disparaging or the catalyst for breaking a playthrough.
Combat is frequently conducted at gunpoint so maintaining a line of sight is key, though sometimes the system works against your expectations. On more crowded maps it is possible to fire at enemies with two walls separating you and still score a kill, whereas in situations with small ledges only partially restricting your vision and separating the units there is no chance to fire at all. This is all the more annoying when you send in a unit up close to up the odds of landing the finishing blow and despite the fact the point you have just moved from provides a line of sight the new position, which is sometimes merely at the opposite side of a box-like structure, denies you of a shot. Next thing you know the aliens retaliate and your unit is left reeling, and on higher difficulties he or she is probably a goner.
An RNG system is used to determine whether a shot connects, so there is always uncertainty to exactly how each encounter plays out. Where the numbers don’t favour aggressive tactics it pays to put your units into overwatch, allowing them to take pot shots at any enemy who moves into your range of vision, though as with normal combat the system operates inconsistently. Providing the most defense is hunkering down, which boost the defensive bonus your current cover gives you making you tricky to hit but neuters your offensive capability. Cover is classed as either full or half, and on higher difficulties it serves you well to overwatch or hunker down in the best possible cover as even the lowliest of aliens represent a deadly threat. Very occasionally though, the game bugs out and denies you of your action after moving your character, and that can be fatal.
Alternatively you may choose to blast your enemies and the cover protecting them into smithereens through the use of grenades and, if you have a Heavy class unit, rockets. You simply use the mouse to determine the point of impact and click away. It’s a pity that a seemingly simple task becomes all the more irritating when the camera attempts to scroll away from the action and across the map when you’ve maxed out the shot range and need to line up a precise shot. Having the camera position follow your mouse movement would have been more appropriate, and the system that is in place currently is a poor, poor substitute. The mouse can also be ineffective in picking and directing your units, occasionally flicking back and forth between the unit you want to pick and a tile that the currently selected unit can move to, or alternating between two different levels of terrain. There’s great misclick potential on the PC version of XCOM and I would advise either a joypad or keyboard primary & mouse secondary setup.
The camera also exposes some of the rough production values of the game. Firaxis have opted for a cinematic feel to the combat and the camera goes a long way to dramatise your successes and failures but at the same time it gives you close-ups of weapons clipping through scenery, soldiers bugging out by firing with no weapon in the wrong direction with an unholstered weapon firing elsewhere, and lovely close-ups of bushes in all their leafy pixellated glory. These problems stand out a lot in a game that gets up-close and personal with the combat which is a shame. Otherwise the visuals and presentation of the game are fine, if a little basic, and should not tax a half-decent gaming rig. The game ran with nary a hitch on my Sapphire HD 7870 2GHZ GPU and 3.4GHZ AMD A4-5300 CPU, with the odd crash relating solely to a mandatory alien base assault.
Success in combat can represent all manner of things in this game, ranging from relief after a mission that took a turn for the worse or a sense of accomplishment though knowing each victory is consolidating your playthrough’s chances of success. Witnessing your units level up through your victories is also an undeniable pleasure. After their first level up units are randomly assigned to one of four roles: assault, heavy, support and sniper and further progress allows you to customise their specialties in battle alongside automated improvements to health, aim and willpower. You can also change their name, nickname, and hairstyle amongst other things and it becomes painful to your see your strongest or favourite unit kick the bucket. The game does an admirable job of making you care for those units that make it past the early teething stages of the game where death is a likely prospect, especially on higher difficulties.
Having referred to difficulty options multiple times now it’s important to note the varying options available to you at the start of the game: easy, normal, classic and impossible (adjustable in the options menu at your base), along with the option to activate ‘ironman’ mode where all your decisions and battle events become permanent (besides quickly hard resetting, which I am ashamed to admit I took advantage of in my classic ironman playthrough and I subsequently wish I had ironman mode turned off that time). The gulf between normal and classic is huge, with the aliens receiving various buffs and your XCOM base starting considerably more deprived of resources and as such the majority of players would do well to stick to easy or normal on their first time, especially if turn-based strategy is not your usual forté. Ironman mode alone may be enough to rile you up when a mission or battle choice doesn’t work out – especially if it glitches out – and the less patient should steer clear of this.
XCOM also includes a multiplayer mode, allowing you to mix and match humans and aliens to participate in ranked or casual deathmatches online. You have an allotted amount of points (which can be changed) to spend on equipment and abilities for humans and on varying quality of aliens. It’s not an essential or particularly deep mode, though the novelty of using aliens and watching them blast away at their kin is an interesting prospect.
2K Games and Firaxis have delivered a great little package in XCOM: Enemy Unknown that oozes value and begs replayability, though a few production issues and glitches can try one’s patience and hold the game back from classic status. In spite of all the minor niggles I still hanker for another playthrough even as I write this and I felt the same way after first watching the credits roll. The game is endearing, generally accessible and easy to control and packs lots of tension into its combat so as such I would recommend anyone to at least give it a shot via the Steam demo. In this quest to save humanity, a unique test of mettle awaits you.