Latest in Gaming

Image credit:

XCOM: Enemy Unknown review: Close encounters


My squad touches down in a wooded area, somewhere in the continental United States. The Skyranger's ramp lowers and my soldiers shuffle out. Dead animals litter the ground under the tree cover. I inch my squad members forward, toward the crashed UFO. I'm the one who shot it down, and I expect its occupants are none too happy about it. As my squad slowly creeps forward, wary of ambush, I notice strange pods scattered about the terrain. I have just enough time to wonder what they are before my point man, Cameron "Shield" Robertson, discovers three Muton soldiers – ugly, hulking brutes with equally nasty plasma rifles.

The Mutons scramble into cover, positioning themselves to fire. Before they have a chance, my heavy trooper readies a rocket launcher, sending its payload directly into the aliens, scorching their hides and blasting their cover to smithereens. Now fully exposed, the beasts make easy targets for my sniper, Sheng "Xeno" Lin. Thanks to some special training, he quickly settles into "the zone," taking out all three Mutons with three perfect shots in rapid succession.

The entire exchange is exhilarating, and I pat myself on the back for a job well done. Little do I know that I have just wasted my only rocket, and that I'll really regret it later on. It's choices like these, and their repercussions, that define XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Gallery: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (10/9/12) | 13 Photos

For the uninitiated, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based strategy game. The series itself has a long history stretching all the way back to 1994 with the original X-COM, itself subtitled Enemy Unknown outside of North America. As such, the new Enemy Unknown – and Firaxis, its developer – have a lot to live up to.

Spoiler alert: The enemy is aliens, and it's your job to wipe out the extraterrestrial force that's ransacking planet Earth. Enter: XCOM, a top-secret project to combat the otherworldly threat. Comprised of an elite group of scientists, engineers and soldiers, XCOM seeks to stop the aliens, adapt their technology and turn it against them. As the Commander, you're in charge of the entire project from top to bottom, managing facility construction and research projects, engineering new weapons, and overseeing every single combat mission.

Enemy Unknown immediately makes you aware of this responsibility, putting you in control of a (rather disastrous) mission and confronting players with characters that look you in the eye when it's time to make a decision. And there are so many decisions to make. Say a string of abductions take place in North America, Japan and Germany – you can only aid one. Panic will rise in countries you choose not to aid, possibly threatening their future funding for XCOM. The country you help, meanwhile, will feel safer and offer resources in gratitude, ranging from engineers and scientists to cold, hard cash.

When your Sniper scores a headshot from half a mile away, it feels so personal that you may as well have pulled the trigger yourself.

Of course, that's assuming you can actually quell the alien attack in a given area, which isn't a guarantee. The battlefields in Enemy Unknown are just that: unknown. The fog of war clouds unexplored areas, and aliens can lurk anywhere. Moving troops is a deadly game of hide-and-seek, as each soldier is only allowed two actions per turn. Even from a distant, isometric perspective, marching units into unknown territory is at once thrilling and frightening. Scrabbling in the dark, you never know what lies around the corner or behind the next door.

Combat is where the importance of choice is most apparent in Enemy Unknown, and you're faced with life-and-death decisions every second. Should your Support move behind a nearby wall and take overwatch – granting him a free shot at any enemy he sees – or should he dash at full speed to cover as much ground as possible? Doing so may move him into a tactically advantageous position, but it also robs him of the ability to shoot, leaving him defenseless on the aliens' turn. Should your Assault lob a grenade at the nearest Sectoid – Enemy Unknown's classic "Grey" – or pepper it with her shotgun? The shotgun has a 60 percent chance to hit, but firing it means saving the grenade for when you might really need it.

Regardless of how you approach it, combat feels and looks good. Soldiers move with a real sense of urgency and weight. Enemies are varied and interesting, from the reptilian, pseudo-human Thin Men to the heart-stopping Chryssalid (still terrifying after all these years). The dynamic camera shifts into close-up views when fights get intense, at times making Enemy Unknown feel more like an action game than a tactical role-playing game. When your Assault unloads an Alloy Cannon into an alien's chest, or when your Sniper scores a headshot from half a mile away, it feels so personal that you may as well have pulled the trigger yourself.

That personal responsibility translates to your failures as well. The scenario I described earlier, with my three Muton friends, really happened. I took out three Muton soldiers in a single turn, which is no easy feat, but I expended my only rocket in the process. It made sense tactically, and was just too tempting to pass up. Later on, however, I faced an imposing enemy I'd never seen before (and one I won't reveal here), and my previous moment of tactical brilliance seemed like premature gloating.

XCOM Enemy Unknown review It's aliens
Needless to say, your soldiers will die, and when they do, that's it. A dead soldier can't be brought back, and they take with them all the abilities they've accumulated – like the aforementioned "in the zone" perk, which grants snipers a free shot each time they kill an uncovered enemy. It takes many missions and many kills for your soldiers to advance in rank and gain new abilities, and that effort makes it difficult not to grow attached to them, only to watch them fall. Again, their death is on your hands. You're the one who ordered them into unsafe territory, left them defenseless when it mattered most.

But the choices of Enemy Unknown extend far beyond the battlefield. Away from missions, it's your job to manage XCOM HQ, which means building new facilities, authorizing research projects, keeping world panic to a minimum and pleasing the shadowy "council" that funds the entire project. Do you research and repurpose powerful alien plasma weaponry, or do you invest in heavier armor for your troops? Again, you can only pursue one at a time, and either decision could be the one that saves a life, and either project will take several in-game days to complete.

Meanwhile, other projects are left flapping in the breeze. Alien interrogations, autopsies, officer training, more satellites to detect UFOs, more aircraft to shoot down UFOs, more power plants to build advanced facilities – players must juggle all of this and more to keep XCOM and its members afloat. Time and money are limited resources, and it's up to you to decide how they are spent. You won't necessarily succeed either. Soldiers can die, missions can be lost and, if you let panic spread far enough, you can lose Earth itself. It may not have been a revelation in 1994, but a lengthy, single-player game you can flat-out lose is something of a rarity these days.

That said, I doubt many X-COM veterans will find too much trouble in Enemy Unknown's normal difficulty. I managed to keep two of my original four soldiers for the entire campaign, and never lost funding from a single country (though I did come close more than once). Veterans should find solace, however, in Classic difficulty and Ironman mode. Classic ramps up the challenge with more aggressive aliens, while Ironman limits players to a single save file and disallows reloading the game after making a mistake. If your favorite soldier takes an unnecessary plasma glob to the head, you can't save him with the "load game" menu. The menu isn't even there.

Veterans may also bemoan Enemy Unknown's more streamlined, less granular approach as compared to the original. There's only one base, you don't have to manage XCOM finances right down to individual rifle magazines, and (blasphemy) there are no time units dictating your soldier's movements. I'd wager, however, that fans with open minds will forget their concerns once the difficulty heats up, soldiers start dropping like flies and the tangled alien conspiracy begins to unravel.

While most of my time with Enemy Unknown was spent blissfully blasting (or remorsefully cursing) aliens, I did run into a few technical problems. For the sake of visibility, certain surfaces occasionally become transparent – if a soldier moves inside a building, for example – though sometimes the engine seems to have trouble deciding which surfaces should actually be transparent. This can make it difficult to tell which surfaces you can take cover behind, especially in some of the cramped UFO missions, though a handy cursor icon usually keeps frustration to a minimum.

There were also times that my soldiers had trouble spotting aliens, even those that should have been directly in their line of sight. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I was once able to see and shoot an alien through a solid surface (a ceiling), which should have been impossible. In both cases (which, in fairness, were rare), this seemed to happen in Enemy Unknown's more confined spaces.

The multiplayer mode, while entertaining, could also use some work. The foundation is solid: each player is given a pool of points, which they can spend on (almost) any of the game's aliens, human soldiers or a mix of both. While aliens have set abilities, players can choose from a handful of classes and pre-constructed builds for human soldiers. I'll be the first to admit that being in the driver's seat of a Cyberdisc is immensely enjoyable, but the multiplayer options and presentation are lacking. The ability to rematch or play a rotation of maps (there are only five) is sorely missed, for example. Teams have to be chosen manually in every match – there is no way to save your favorite configurations, meaning you'll have to delve into multiple menus every time, especially if you prefer human units. Post-game statistics are almost nonexistent as well. Personally, I'd love to see a breakdown of my opponent's units, how he spent his points, battle statistics, etc. Hopefully some of this functionality can be added in the future. For now, multiplayer is an unexpectedly fun bonus, though not a fully implemented one.

These complaints are minor at worst, however, and do little to tarnish the overall experience. The fact remains that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an exemplary turn-based strategy game. Firaxis has deftly blended management, tactics and the sort of gut-level, throaty encounters usually reserved for fast-paced action games. The mixture is potent enough that you may occasionally forget that the most critical moments boil down to nothing more than a percentage and a choice. On any other day, betting on a 60 percent chance might seem like a no-brainer. When the fate of the world hangs in the balance, you'd better think twice.

This review is based on a download of the PC version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, provided by 2K Games.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr