Review | XCOM: Enemy Unknown will abduct your free time and probe your interests
I feel like I have to say this at the very start of the review, I’ve never played a previous game from the XCOM franchise – there, I said it. With that said though, XCOM: Enemy Unknown has been occupying nearly every second of my free time lately. This turn based / tactical shooter / strategy / role-playing game by 2K Games may fill that very specific void in your life that you either know or didn’t know you’ve been missing.
The game will start you with a spoon fed tutorial. By the second mission your hand is still being held a bit but from there on out, you are on your own. For the most part, I have mixed feeling whether the game explains everything well enough or not. While that may sound like a negative point, it adds a level of ‘exploration’ into the game with a steep learning curve which I actually really dig. Your first run through in the game will most likely be highly disastrous or completely unwinnable.
While the game tells you what buildings, tech, ships, and abilities do for the most part, it does NOT explain the importance of certain aspects over others. Again, while this may sound extremely frustrating, I’m the sort of player that likes feeling my way around in total darkness to find out both what works and doesn't work for my play style. The first time a country goes completely panicked, one of your favorite soldiers die, or you just don’t have enough firepower to knock a UFO out of the air – you will be filled with tension and dismay.
You play as the commander of XCOM, a United Nations secret organization that is the last line of defense against the invading aliens. You make ALL the decisions in the game. Characters can make certain suggestions but you can choose to ignore nearly everything and play your way. Due to this fact, the game can get stressful. You will be pitted with life or death situations for your own men, potentially entire nations, and potentially even the world (if you are performing poorly). If you lose enough support you lose XCOM. Do you play exactly how you want to play or do you try to save everyone? Is the safety of people high on your list or does new alien killing tech research take priority?
You don’t play as any ‘main character.’ Most your troops will be rookies that you build completely from the ground up. They all have names but you can change them as well as their appearance; you can’t choose what country they came from though - a purely aesthetic feature. After a single mission, your rookies get a ‘class’ that they will have forever. The classes include the in-your-face assault, snipers, heavies, and supports. You will really want to have one of everything in your party at all times. For this reason, you’ll want to level two in case one gets hurt or dies.
Death is permanent in XCOM. During a battle, if your squad mates get shot, most likely they’ll become injured after and have to be on bed rest for up to 15 game days. This can be like your all-star quarterback missing three games due to injury – it’s rough. If your squad member takes too much damage, they can outright die. Not only does this leave you underpowered for that mission, that character you built from the ground up is gone forever. On top of that, there is a memorial wall in your base where that character’s name gets added to. Be wary when naming characters after friends and family – it can get REALLY dark.
Tactics are king; finding the perfect option for the difficult situations you may find yourself in is so potentially catastrophic or intensely rewarding . You care for these troops and the mission, you don’t want them being killed by the aliens. The different classes offer a variety of abilities to the battlefield. Did you pick the right weapons, armor, and load out for your troops? With abilities like ‘overwatch’ and ‘suppression’ you can buckle the enemies down and force them to make risks by leaving the area they are bunkered down in. Explosives are an option but they destroy the corpses you can use for research and income. It's all about choice and consequence. My only complaint here is that you have to discover the enemies for them to aggro you. This can lead to safe downtimes and means that undiscovered enemies will never ambush you.
The video below shows the GameZone team early in the game playing very aggressively and the second half of the clip shows a mission about midway in the game where I’m forced to play much more defensively with lots of overwatch. You can also see the evolution of weapons, armors, and additional squad mates.
Perhaps my favorite feature of XCOM: Enemy Unknown game is how gameplay evolves throughout the story. Your troops start as a Special Forces team in the modern day. As you gather more alien tech, research, and even dissect various alien types – you learn and advance. Suddenly you’re able to build laser pistols, plasma rifles, armor that can camouflage, fighter jets that have UFO energy cores, and a bunch of other stuff I don’t want to spoil for you. To beat the aliens that have far advanced technology, you must adapt and use what you salvaged against them. The process of learning psionic powers was a huge highlight in my XCOM experience.
Outside of combat, you have some micromanaging to do in an ‘ant-farm’ style base. Many questions and situations will arise. Should you expand your base, what structures should you build, do you have enough power, are there enough satellites up, do you have enough jet fighter power in Asia, what should you research, can you afford to equip the best gear on my troops, what should you sell / buy on the black market, should you recruit more, can you afford to send your best assault to get checked for psionic powers… these are all very challenging questions, and many which you will undoubtedly come across during your time with XCOM. You control how fast time moves in your base, but ultimately the decisions you make in your base are just as important, if not MORE important, then choices on the battlefield – this is where the stress is the highest; most the time you don’t realize just how much you’re screwing yourself over, until the world goes to hell.
It’s the intensity of this game that really makes it for me. When you realize that your "safe" headquarters determines life or death choices, you'll be on edge most of the time. If you ever wondered how you would perform as the commander of the last line of alien defense, this is finally your chance. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a shining example of a turn based, strategy, tactics game. The game may very well lead to my inevitable heart attack but it will be totally worth it.
[Reviewed on PC]