Released in 1994, the original XCOM: Enemy Unknown (also known as UFO defense) is considered one of the best strategy games ever created, so when a 2012 reboot was announced by popular developer Fireaxis Games, many were sceptical. Fans of the series can rest easy as this new incarnation of a classic game more than lives up to the original’s legacy.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is set in 2015 where the Earth comes under attack from an alien attack; traditional military warfare proves ineffective, so an elusive council of nations begins the XCOM project, a conglomerate of high-tech troopers, scientists and engineers to combat the alien threat. As commander of this team, your goal is to uncover the true meaning of the invasions and hopefully defeat the aliens. It’s a very simplistic plot but where the game sets itself apart is through something which is rarely present in strategy games; constant reminders and the attachment it builds between the player and their troops. Because there are always alien abductions and other missions sprinkled in-between major plot points, you always feel as if the aliens are lingering and could take over the planet at any moment; this drives you to grin and bear through the pressure for the motivation of beating the game.
XCOM’s lone single player mode puts you in command of the titular project and from the get-go you’ll feel the pressures of that role. You’ll be playing through two primary mechanics; isometric combat and base management with both feeding into the other; at your base, you’ll be building upgrades and buildings, researching technology and conducting overall management of the alien threat. The ant farm system is both intuitive and easy to get into, with different rooms and facilities allowing you to scan the globe to pass the time needed for upgrades, view and customise soldiers, check panic levels within nations, research technologies and construct new items and buildings in engineering. It’s in this section of the game where strategy expands far beyond simple combat scenarios; you’ll need to choose where you put your funding, research and building efforts carefully. Do you want to upgrade your troops or build better equipment for them? Which research project will be most valuable in the future? How long and how much of your resources will it take to build this new facility? It’s these kinds of choices that really get you into your role as a commander and choosing poorly or ignoring missions to spend time building upgrades can often result in grave consequences including under-prepared resources and the potential to lose missions. You’ll have to be especially mindful of countries leaving the XCOM project as if that happens too many times, the game is over and you’ll have to either revert to an earlier save game or in the case of iron and classic difficulties, start over from the beginning. Scanning the globe causes missions to pop up, which can range from simple alien abductions where your squad must clear the area of all hostiles, bomb disposal, aerial combat against UFOs and civilian rescues. As you go through the campaign, story missions will appear on the map and the aliens will introduce deadlier foes for your troops to deal with. The only real issue with the design is that it lacks a couple of features which would have made the campaign just that little bit more engaging, such as base defence and controllable interceptors in UFO combat. This matters little though; with its drastically upscaling difficulty and demanding strategic choices, you’ll always be on edge in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, something which very few strategy games can accomplish.
For a more demanding challenge, XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s online multiplayer offers a highly tactical battleground to test your skills. Squads are fully customisable with both human and alien units with a point system. To play in the ranked servers, you’ll need to ensure you meet the point limit which will often mean choosing more basic units to start off with. There’s a good mix of maps from outdoor forests to metallic interiors, though the mode itself seems a little bare bones, only offering basic combat matches. Of course the main reason to try out multiplayer is the aliens; it’s a real treat to see how the opposite side plays, with their increased focus on machinery and psychic powers.
XCOM’s isometric combat system is much more intimate than most strategy games on the market; you’ll take turns moving a squad of up to six soldiers across the grid, taking shots at enemies and potentially using each class’s unique abilities. The heavy packs a heavy machine gun and rocket launcher, support is best at healing, assault rushes in with shotguns and stun guns and snipers take aim from afar. Each squad member is useful in their own way and as they gain kills and complete missions, they will level up to acquire even more abilities, which pays dividends in defeating the more dangerous alien types. Taking shots is based on percentages so if you’re faced with an unlikely hit, you’ll want to go with the reactionary overwatch, cover-boosting “hunker down” or reload the trooper’s weapon to ensure they won’t be caught off guard next turn. Even with multiple upgrades to your squad and their loadouts, you’ll quickly learn that there is no such thing as a perfect playthrough in XCOM; just like in real conflict, you will inevitably lose battles, suffer casualties and see countries withdraw from the project and this only adds to the intense nature of the combat itself. As your soldiers become more and more important with the ranks they gain, you will dread the enemy’s tactics and often ruthless efficiency in the way they constantly throw more deadly units at you. In combat, you must move with caution so as not to find yourself overwhelmed, choose a well-rounded squad to fit whatever enemies you may encounter, and most importantly, choose your cover and tactics very wisely. If your squad suffers heavy damage or casualties in a mission, you’ll be forced to use a less desirable team which will in turn, hurt your future efforts down the road. On the whole, the combat in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is very unpredictable which heightens the tension even more across the entire game.
This modern rendition of XCOM uses an animated style which falls somewhere in-between cartoon and cell-shaded. A heavy use of blue reflects the futuristic setting and the XCOM project itself. There’s a wide range of imaginative creature designs on display, who all have their own often grotesque movements and attack animations. Whilst some of the mission environments do repeat a bit, there is a good variety, including forests, towns and more mechanical areas throughout the campaign which all benefit from some detailed destruction effects. The music is suitably tense during missions and the game runs very well with only a few dips in frame rate during combat. The game also makes use of many cinematic camera angles to add great impact to every kill, making victory every bit as gratifying as it should be. Overall, the technical presentation of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is just as detailed and well-crafted as the rest of the game.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of the most engaging and intense tactical experiences that modern gaming has to offer; it does the original justice whilst also doing a great job of updating it for modern audiences. If you can stomach the challenging difficulty then there’s no reason to miss out on this excellent game.