XCOM was just one of many franchise that, primarily due to my age, I missed entirely during the “growing up with videogames” period. The excitement around a new turn-based strategy title – outside for the will it won’t it first-person/third-person shooter edition – was therefore somewhat lost on me as a result. A few screenshots and gameplay videos had my interest perked, but it wasn’t until I finally sat down with Enemy Unknown that its class, suitability to console and scalability were made apparent.
Comparisons between Enemy Unknown and the 1994 release UFO would be redundant given the advances in videogames and the technology we play them on – and it’s nor a topic I could accurately judge. Nevertheless, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is everything that a brilliant turn-based strategy game should be: addictive, clever, tactical, fair and, most importantly, enjoyable. It balances a very fine line between challenging and satisfying with almost effortless beauty; managing to ensure that you have to work for every single victory, but in doing so, makes each and every one of them euphoric.
Set in 2015, the plot seems rather crude and superfluous to begin with: a global alien invasion begins as they attempt to wipe out the human race, forcing the Council of Nations to band together and form XCOM – the most elite military and scientific organisation in the history of mankind. The story ends up acting as a suitable glue to hold all of the elements in place and becomes more and more engaging the further you press on. It also becomes the games much-needed tutorial in the early stages as there is plenty to go through.
It is here where XCOM really excels. There are so many different aspects from battle training, resource management, diplomacy, research, engineering, soldier training. interceptions and much, much more. Thankfully though, Enemy Unknown’s tutorial elements are not only clear and concise, but perfectly paced so at no point do they feel overwhelming and complicated nor unequipped and inadequate. In the earlier stages, key plot points are used to demonstrate particular aspects of the title, which once again highlight the story’s usefulness.
Crudely speaking, the game is split into the isometric turn-based combat elements and the micro-management strategy elements. The former is an utterly fantastic portion but one that is also immensely brutal. The phrase “slow and steady” has never been more apt. Cover is almost always required as standing out in the open will result in near-instant death, whilst picking your locations and next moves is key to victory. “Like a game of chess,” joked Firaxis’ Jake Solomon, yet it’s not too dissimilar in style. Anticipating your opponents next series of moves, taking advantage of each class (Heavy, Sniper, Assault and Support – all of which do what they say on the tin), and being allowed to only move so far are intrinsically similar to the classic board game.
Each member of your squad (which can consist of four to six depending on your progress through the game) can do up to two actions per turn choosing from firing, defending, moving, reloading, using a special ability, or enter Overwatch – which will allow that character to fire upon an enemy during their turn if they move within their line of sight. The combination of these options – mixed with a bit of luck and gamble of percentages – is where you’ll win or lose the game. Using the right classes at the right time, positioning them tactically and utilising those more elite soldiers will also have a bearing on the outcome. You’ll also find a mini-game of preservation will occur when you have higher ranked soldiers, as you may have to sacrifice a lesser experienced comrade to save a more important one. There’s also the usual strategy facets such as ‘fog of war’, experience, destructive cover, cutscenes and dynamic cameras all contribute to this superb element of Enemy Unknown.
As for the out-of-battle strategy elements, you’ll access to the XCOM underground headquarters which is dubbed the “ant farm”, as you can see each aspect of it from a side on view. Here is where you’ll: manage what research you want your scientists to perform; decide what items and constructions you want your engineers to build or upgrade; view how your soldiers are doing, as well as hire more and look at a memorial war of those lost; upgrade and view your UFO intercepting aircraft from the hangar; check on the state of the world and other diplomatic issues in the Strategy Room; and, finally, visit Mission Control to get your latest missions and fast-forward time.
The micro-management aspect within XCOM comes via credits – which are used for purchasing purposes – and time – the most valuable commodity. See, everything in Enemy Unknown takes time. If you have to go into combat and you don’t have enough soldiers, you’ll have to either wait and hope that you can make the mission in time (as some can be accessible for a few in-game days) or sit it out and watch the world implode one step at a time. It’s an easy commodity to overlook and one you’re always hard pressed for.
Strategy titles are few-and-far-between on console, primarily due to their often difficulties with controls, yet this is never once an issue for XCOM. It feels at home on a controller with a smart and responsive system that you’ll have down to a tee in no time. It’s easier, more comfortable and far more flexible to control than any strategy game I’ve ever played – on console or PC. The snapping to cover aspect of XCOM lends perfectly to a controller setup, and the slick navigation menus make expert use of the face and shoulder buttons showcase just what you can do on consoles for strategy titles.
As good as the combat. navigation and micro-management is, what the Maryland-based developers have managed to achieve is a sense that you really are under invasion. Resources are always stretch thin, battles are grueling and challenging – to the point that just completing it is an achievement in its own, you are vastly out gunned and panic engulfs the planet. The appropriately named “Doomsday” meter is like a ticking time-bomb towards potential failure, a constant reminder that you are under immense attack. Yet, when you win a battle, when you manage to relieve a panic-stricken country for even just a few weeks, it’s a feeling of satisfaction unlike any other.
There were a few rather big graphical glitches but most of the time the game holds up nicely, and the game’s overall art style is atheistically pleasing. There are more cinematic aspects of the game that help kick it up a gear at times, although some of the voice acting can start to grate over time. You can customise your soldiers names and appearance for an added bond, making it even more upsetting when they eventually perish, permanently. Meanwhile, enemy types are varied increasing the degree of tactics required: Sectoids are your standard foes that posses small physic abilities; Thin Mans are poisonous and can cause serious damage if you keep your team grouped too closely; Mutons are the heavy-styled grunts; whilst Chryssalid’s will make you curse at the sound of their scurrying claws. There are bio-mechanic enemies, variations of the main set and even some surprises that will really test your mettle.
Outside of the singleplayer campaign there’s an online multiplayer element which is solely about the on-field combat. Two players battle it out having selected their own configuration of squad (human or alien) within an allotted points total. You can customise your troops as within the campaign, however, the aliens must remain as their defaults. It’s a welcome addition that ran smoothly but does feel a little dumbed down compared to the goliath single player portion.
Many will see XCOM: Enemy Unknown as a long overdue reboot and whether it lives up to the expectations of fans is for each individual to decide. What is clear though is that this is an incredible strategy game and perhaps the best one on consoles. With a richness and depth that most games could only dream of, a control system that works effortlessly and a wealth of both quality and quantity, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game deserving of your attention.