XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an engaging turn-based strategy game, though a bit repetitive and not without a few frustrations. In a console-gaming landscape littered with mediocre shooters of various stripes, the title is an intriguing departure, even though its methods are not new. Enemy Unknown is merely the latest in a long series of XCOM games, though the series that hasn’t had an update since 2001, and has never before been available for consoles.
Each mission is a firefight between your squad of soldiers and a group of alien invaders. The trick is to move your squad cautiously into position for an attack, while keeping in mind the fact that new forces could emerge from different directions. A soldier in cover could become flanked when new enemies enter the fray.
Every turn involves a number of decisions. How many soldiers do you move into cover? How many do you leave prepped in defensive positions? More variables emerge as the game progresses. Which of the two severely wounded soldiers in your squad should you heal with the remaining medical kit? Should you fire your lone rocket, or save it in case a worse enemy appears during the next turn?
I found the turn-based play dramatic but also a pleasant change of pace from games that depend upon quick reflexes. Every attack’s success or failure is decided by the cast of a virtual die, weighted by factors like your relative position on the map, whether or not your target is in cover or not, and so on. As a result, gameplay is involving, but always allows for breathing room.
Aliens are attacking key resources! Like gas stations!
Diminishing returns did begin to set in for me as I approached the end of the game. Many of the missions instruct you to investigate a crashed alien ship, but the aliens don’t have very many ship designs, so in effect, many missions take place on the same map. Cautiously creeping around to investigate is time consuming as well, so each level involves some tedious stretches while you try to flush out the enemy.
Even on easy mode, the game is tough, at least for someone who is not a student of the genre. I got good enough at the strategy that I could reliably complete the missions, even if only after some serious losses. The final level, though, is many times more difficult than any of the previous missions. It feels like a throwback to a more “hardcore” (ie, annoying) era of gaming in which players were expected to have to replay a level numerous times in order to reach the end. Concluding yielded more frustration than satisfaction, and as a result, I enjoyed this game most while still in the middle stages.
The aliens are even attacking our fast food franchises!
In between missions, XCOM insists on a fair bit of drudgery. You need better weapons, so you need to tell your scientists to science-up some new guns. You need the new guns built, so you need engineers to engineer them. And everything costs money. The only way to get money is–I won’t pretend to understand this one–to launch new satellites. Satellites give you money.
Perhaps by 2015, when the game is set, we will indeed have moved to an all-satellite economy, but I find this doubtful. It all ends up feeling to me like a lot of twiddling around in menus, and I am always hostile to twiddling around in menus. Perhaps more careful players than I will enjoy the between-mission decision making. I did play on easy mode, so it’s possible that playing on more difficult settings requires that players take these questions of resource allocation more seriously than I care to.
I’ve broken with standard Left Gamer Review practice and highlighted gameplay first in this review, but that’s because XCOM has very little story and a shaky premise. The eponymous international coalition has made a small scientific and military installation Earth’s only defense against a massive alien invasion. It never stops feeling ridiculous to send a mere six soldiers to investigate a crashed UFO. Maybe the designers assumed that the US Army would be bogged down in Iran or somewhere in 2015 and unable to lend a hand?
I understand the practical rationale: this is a game about moving around a little squad of soldiers, not a game about moving around heavy armor, high altitude bombers, and unmanned drones. The designers could have come up with a premise that better fit the gameplay, though. For instance, if XCOM were some kind of secret organization (ala Men In Black) rather than a public entity, the small squads and low profile would make more sense.
Partially because of these logical gaps, I skipped basically every cut-scene. But mostly because they are not very good. Voice acting is bland and seems intended to fill up space rather than to convey any useful information. My head engineer kept trying to tell me how dangerous it was to co-opt alien technology, but he never offered me any other solutions. I’m not sure why this sort of prattle gets a spot in the game at all. Atmosphere? I ignored it.
XCOM‘s graphics are sufficient for its needs, but not impressive. The game often has a difficult time displaying quick reactions during combat. For instance, when I have several soldiers positioned on defense during an alien attack, XCOM frequently stalls when trying to render all the different actions properly. More than once, I’ve seen an onscreen indicator that a defensive shot missed, seconds before the actual animation of the shooter missing the shot. At times, XCOM felt like a marvelous little strategy game dressed up needlessly with “big title” trappings that don’t add much depth or fun.
It also seems, on occasion, that individual soldiers are unable to target enemies that they ought to be able to see from their vantage point. They do, on occasion, also manage to shoot enemies through obstacles, so I guess it all balances out. At one particularly puzzling moment, I conducted an entire battle through what seemed to be a thick rock wall inside a cave. I guess the wall was written into the game as a visual detail, but didn’t “count” as a wall for purposes of rolling the attack dice.
Because XCOM has strong gameplay in a mediocre package, it almost seems like it would be more appropriate as a download, or even a mobile game, rather than a full-fledged console title at full price. I rented my copy since the gaming industry has not yet realized how significantly a positive review from LGR can affect sales. I’m glad I didn’t pay sixty dollars for it in any event. I enjoyed myself for the most part, but it’s repetitive enough that I don’t imagine I’ll yearn for a second play-through. Since the graphics are already a weak point, I can easily imagine a slightly stripped-down version of this game working extremely well on an iPad–and costing eight bucks instead of sixty.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is available for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows PC.