STAFF REVIEW of XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Xbox 360)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012.
by Adam Dileva

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Box art I'm somewhat new to the strategy genre, not because I've never played the games before, but because I was never all that great at them for whatever reason when I was growing up. Civilization V really warmed me up to the genre, and ironically it is also from the same developer as XCOM Enemy Unknown; Firaxis, best known for their Civilization games.

So let's clear some of the confusion straight away, this XCOM game is not the shooter that is due next year (That game's title is simply XCOM), XCOM Enemy Unknown is a turn based tactical strategy game that is a re-imagination of the original from almost twenty years ago, UFO: Enemy Unknown. Having gone back to the series roots, Firaxis has made a simple barrier of entry, especially for players less experienced in the strategy genre like myself, yet still a very deep layers of a metagame that longtime fans and genre enthusiasts will enjoy. XCOM is now much more approachable for more than the diehard fans and is done in such a fantastic way that even casual fans of the genre like myself should play Enemy Unknown.

You are the fearless commander of XCOM, a global defense team comprised of members from every major nation, tasked with battling against an alien invasion and defending Earth. Not only will you control and dictate your soldiers in battle, you'll also have to build your base headquarters from bare bones to fully capable, research aliens and their technology, and balancing the funding of the operation as a whole.

Set slightly in the future, commanding XCOM will set you down a specific path for the main storyline, but the decisions you make along the way will greatly affect outcomes and strategies going forward. Many times the aliens will attack multiple places at once and you'll be forced with the impossible task of deciding who to help. Do you help the city that needs it the most, or the one that will reward you better, thus making your overall job of saving the world easier. Do you value the immediate rewards more so than the long term rewards? Choose wisely, as your decisions will catch up with you in the end and you will be the one directly responsible.

The bulk of your gameplay of the twenty plus hour story will have you in a classic isometric perspective with a moveable and rotatable camera to help with your strategy. You begin with controlling four soldiers, though later on this can be bolstered up to six, making a big difference later on. While many missions will have you simply finding and destroying any alien contact, others will have you defusing bombs, attempting to capture a live specimen, escort missions, and other types that will test your strategic forming abilities in every way. Like many strategy games, the map will be 'foggy' until you've explored the area and will hide the actions of the enemy aliens until they are in view.

My favorite feature in the whole game is something you learn very quickly, that your team can stay your team throughout if you are careful enough and the longer they survive the more abilities they'll gain and become more powerful. Don't become too overconfident though, you WILL die and lose some of your important teammates along the way and you will most likely become emotionally attached to some of them, especially if you rename them to match actual family and friends. If you're able to keep your soldiers alive long enough to get some combat experience, they'll become randomly assigned to one of four classes; Assault, Heavy, Sniper, or Support. Each class plays completely unique from each other and will mesh very nicely when used in a team setting. Each time you level up you're given the choice of choosing one of two skills, both of which are very useful in its own right; it will just depend on your squad makeup and play style. Some choices I found very difficult to decide, such as deciding between making an individual member much more effective, or making their skills enhance the rest of the team nearby, again, it will come down to preference.

While some classes take much longer to come into their own than others (snipers start out very weak for a long time, but once leveled up they are a necessity) each soldier has the same core abilities such as being able to move, fire, take cover behind walls and objects, and using the Overwatch skill, which allows you to stay behind cover but fire upon any enemy that moves into your field of vision; a very useful skill on the harder difficulties and later missions. Being a successful commander that brings all of this squad home must know when to also be defensive and let the enemy come to them rather than walking into a trap.

Once you have an alien in your line of sight, you're given the option to fire upon them, and doing so will allow you to select your enemy and then show you the probability chance you have at hitting your target (along with other information like their health and the damage you can potentially inflict). Being able to easily cycle between targets and even choosing which team members go in order will play a huge role in your strategy in each fight.

A huge part in the strategy element of Enemy Unknown is what actually happens between your regular missions. At your XCOM underground headquarters, you'll begin with only a few areas developed and unlocked, but you'll spend the resources needed to expand and upgrade your base as well. You decide what continent you want your base in at the beginning of the game and choosing your base location determines which bonuses you'll receive throughout your play through. You'll manage construction, research of new weapons and armor, manage your soldiers (and hire new ones when the experienced ones perish in battle), and determine what your scientists and engineers should focus on project-wise. You'll be able to scan Earth to keep tabs on the growing alien invasions around the world and respond accordingly. There will be times where you'll have to even send interceptor planes at incoming UFO's and then dispatching soldiers on the ground to recover any remains once it's been shot down. It's a very deep metagame that takes a lot of patience and understanding to do everything you want to that integrates nicely with the on-ground missions you do with your soldiers.

There is even a multiplayer offering for those that like to play online against their friends (or others). The offering is a light one at that though, with 1 vs. 1 going head to head with teams of six in a single mode (killing the other team). While it may seem light, there is some depth, as you get to choose your soldiers (even aliens) and depending on what classes you choose, you could have a complete advantage or disadvantage, as you're unable to see what the opposing player has chosen until you find each other on the map. While the multiplayer portion is a bit bland, there's nothing quite like playing against another human and trying to adapt your strategy to their gameplay rather than the AI's. While it's not the deepest and most engaging multiplayer I've played, it gets a pass and I'm actually hoping for some new vs. or co-op maps and missions via DLC.

I never really expected to care about my soldiers as much as I ended up doing simply because I named them my friend's names and tried to make them look the part, but I did. The first time I lost a solider when he was quite experienced, it dawned on me the importantance of not only keeping them alive but how finely balanced the risk vs. reward system is in XCOM Enemy Unknown. While you may feel safe attempting those 80% chances to hit your enemy, there is a chance that things can take a turn for the worse and these random elements keeps the game exciting and very challenging at the same time. You never feel like you have enough time, money, or resources to do all the things you want, and that's a good thing because it forces you to determine what is more important. Do you go for the short term gain or invest more into a bigger payoff much later? Each decision feels tense and engages you from start to finish.

Even on the lower difficulty settings, the game can become very difficult quite quickly, especially if you lose some of your experienced soldiers or have nations drop support of XCOM. The game is by no means perfect; many times you'll have line of sight issues (sometimes in your favor where you'll shoot through a wall, but usually the opposite where your vision is apparently blocked) and very little is explained clearly and you'll learn more from trial and error (the error usually resulting in a dead comrade). Some may get turned off by the massive spikes in difficulty out of nowhere but even with its faults, stick with it and you'll have a fantastic time deciding what's the right thing to do at the time.

When things work out in your favor though, it's exhilarating to experience your pinned down and outnumbered soldiers come back from near death. The highs are high, and the lows are very low; if you're like me, you'll curse when you lose a max rank soldier due to your own stupidity but cheer when you make that last ditch effort with a 20% chance to hit with your fingers crossed. Enemy Unknown took me by complete surprise, as I wasn't expecting much from a console strategy game. Firaxis has found the magic formula of making the game much simpler, but not easy. XCOM is addictive, and much like Civilization, you'll probably be like me and keep saying "just one more mission before bed". If you can appreciate a fantastic balance of risk vs. reward, XCOM Enemy Unknown simply cannot be passed up, even for the casual strategy fans like I was.

Overall: 9.0 / 10
Gameplay: 9.5 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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